Blame global warming or the Murakami effect or just the primal deliciousness of Wagyu Beef, but Japan’s sun has never shone brighter. The island-nation’s cuisine, which has had a huge impact on the world’s culinary landscape, seems to have grown even larger in stature. Must be all that Vitamin D. Today, there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in the country than on both sides of the Atlantic, a rather clear indicator of the shift in global flavour palates. Closer home, Japanese has never been bigger with the recent opening of Japanese restaurants such as En and Akira (which opened at Marriot Aerocity) as well as Benihana’s first India outlet in Nehru Place. Ai, the Olive Group’s ode to the cuisine, got a new lease of life and was re-launched as Guppy by Ai late last year in Lodhi Colony, while Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this week.
It started, of course, with sushi. Chef Nilesh Dey, Executive Sous Chef at Wasabi, says, “When Japanese food was introduced to India, it was only about sushi and people accordingly thought the Japanese diet consisted solely of rice and raw fish. People were wary of the freshness of the seafood and so weren’t particularly enthusiastic about it. Now, of course, with more knowledge of the cuisine and the freshness of ingredients thanks to improved sourcing and supply chains, Japanese food has become very popular.” Rahul Hajarnavis, Executive Brand Chef at Shiro agrees, “When Japanese cuisine was first introduced to India a few years ago, eating Japanese food was more a power statement than anything else, with anybody who was anybody wanting to be seen at Wasabi or other super-premium restaurants. Gradually, awareness about the cuisine spread, with clients becoming keen to try the food. So, today it has become easier for restaurateurs to introduce Japanese food in smaller-scale, stand-alone formats.” The proliferation of Japan’s ingredients and its cooking and presentation techniques in other cuisines have also led to a wider acceptability of Japanese food.
But while chefs and restaurateurs believe the eaterati is more comfortable with the cuisine, they feel the need to further expose their clientele to the minutiae of Japanese dining. The owner of En, which opened at Kalkadas Marg near Qutub Minar, Raji Sandhar says, “We believed the time was ripe to open an authentic restaurant in the city with Japanese chefs and a Japanese manager so that guests are exposed to a pure Japanese dining experience”. He owns a chain of fine-dine Indian restaurants in Tokyo, and his efforts to bring a slice of Japan to Delhi has resulted in six Japanese chefs manning the kitchen.
Japanese dining formats such as teppanyaki and tempura are also gaining favour with the city, a fact attested by Benihana’s recent opening, given that the international chain concentrates on the live-grill concept of teppanyaki. According to Hajarnavis who has been aggressively pushing the format at Shiro, “The concept of a true teppanyaki is nascent in India, as it requires a very specific skill set: that of being able to cook live while simultaneously engaging and entertaining guests. Benihana opening up shop here is very encouraging to further that concept.”
Indeed, the only prohibitive facet to Japanese dining seems to be the cost. Japanese restaurants have to perforce import almost all their ingredients from Japan which majorly impacts their costs, driving up prices. Wasabi, which replenishes its stock every two days to ensure freshness, has ingredients flying in from Japan two to three times a week including fish from Tsujiki (the largest seafood wholesale market in the world) leading to an astronomical cost to company. Other restaurants face a similar pinch. Vikram Khatri, Executive Chef at Guppy by Ai, ruefully admits, “Controlling costs is an absolute nightmare. All our ingredients, from the rice to condiments on the table are imported from Japan, barring some vegetables and a few species of fish due to import restrictions imposed after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. Trying to keep our prices as reasonable as possible is our biggest challenge.”
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Other restaurants have started importing some of their ingredients from vendors in Singapore and Malaysia, as a cheaper alternative to Japanese products. But as Sandhar conspiratorily observes, almost all of these vendors are run by Japanese corporations, a fitting testament to Japanese Zaibatsu.