Updated: September 24, 2020 11:40:47 am
In the 19th century, during the period known as the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the world after centuries of self-imposed isolation, one of the cultural imports it embraced most enthusiastically was curry. It didn’t arrive on Japan’s shores with Indians, but with the British who had, by then, drawn on their most important colony’s various culinary traditions to create food with a distinct identity. The curry that the Japanese grew to love, therefore, is a British, rather than an Indian gift to the nation. Yet, for the Japanese curry restaurant chain, Coco Ichibanya, it is their presence in India that feels like an arrival at the “final destination”, says Tamotsu Nomura, director, Ichibanya India Pvt Ltd. “That is why the company has been studying the Indian market for the last 10 years,” he says.
The chain’s first Indian outpost opened in Gurugram in August this year, over four months later than the planned opening in March. “We had begun the construction in December last year, and would have opened in time in March, but then the lockdown happened. We know that even now people are being very cautious about eating out and even shopping out and that the footfall will be nowhere close to what we had originally expected, but given the circumstances, I think we’ve still doing well,” he says. The 30-seater restaurant (planned with 60 seats in pre-COVID times) is exactly like the chain’s outlets in Japan, “with the same system of ordering and taste”, says Nomura, and the bulk of its customers initially were the Japanese workers in Gurugram. “They were very happy and on the first day, formed about 90 per cent of the customers. But, of course, our core target is young Indian office workers who we see as the ‘influencers’ and who can spread the word about our restaurant on their social networks.” Happily, he says, the ratio of Indian to Japanese customers is growing each day.
Japanese curry is based on the curries served on board the British ships that docked into Japan’s ports in the 19th century and soon became a household staple. It differs from any Indian curry in many significant ways. It is much milder and sweeter, with many recipes calling for the use of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce and, frequently, grated apple. More importantly, the curry base begins with a roux – the smooth paste that develops when flour (in this case, wheat flour) and fat (butter or oil) are cooked together. Stock or water is added to turn the roux into a gravy. The spice comes from curry powder or cubes, which typically include turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, pepper and cardamom. Besides meat, most Japanese curries will use root vegetables like potatoes and carrots, all cut in the ran-giri style of irregular shapes favoured for stews and soups and they’re always cooked separately from the meat, mushrooms (if using) and the curry base. Unlike in Indian curries, all the different elements come together only at the end, so that each retains its integrity of taste and texture, even as the spices flavour everything. Lastly, says Nomura, Japanese curry is always eaten with sticky rice, “never any kind of bread”.
At Coco Ichibanya India, the menu offers over 36 combinations, all hinged on sticky rice and Ichibanya’s proprietary “perfect” original Japanese curry sauce. Beef and pork curries are popular outside India, but they’ve been left off the menu here, and have been replaced by many “Indian originals” such as the Paneer Spinach Omelette Curry, Mutton Keema Curry and Chicken Keema and Shrimp Cutlet Curry. There’s also a children’s menu, featuring child-size portions of curry and rice, with sides of chicken nuggets, potato smileys and chicken sausages. “There is something for everyone, and you can have a different combination every day. If you’re eating chicken cutlet with keema today, tomorrow, you can choose a keema curry with some fish topping. You create your own curry: select a portion of rice, then curry and then any toppings you like,” explains Prasenjit Adhikari, CEO, Ichibanya India. The biggest hit at the Gurugram restaurant, so far, has been the Chicken Cutlet Curry; Nomura’s personal favourite is the Paneer Spinach Omelette Curry with Chicken Cutlet, while Adhikari recommends the Omelette Curry with shrimp toppings.
Over the next few months, Ichibanya India will chalk out plans for expansion. “The first two-three outlets will be in Delhi-NCR with, hopefully, our next one opening in Delhi,” says Nomura.
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