Sa Shi Su Soy So are the five “vowels” of a Japanese meal. They refer respectively to sato (sugar), shio (salt), su (vinegar), shoyu (soya) and miso, the five most common flavours of Japanese food.
The components of a kaiseki meal include
Kobachi or appetizer, usually cold
Sashimi or raw fish
Mishimono or steamed custard-like dish
Yakimono or grilled dish, usually fish, pork, chicken or beef
Sunomono or vinegared dish like seaweed doused with vinegar
Agemono or fried dish like tempura (which can be fried in the traditional flour-egg batter in addition to almond flakes, potato strips wrapped around the fried ingredient or puffed rice)
Nimono or simmered dish flavoured with soya and dashi
Oshokuji or main course that has to consist of rice or noodles (udon or soba). Sushi is a part of this course in a traditional Japanese set up, though outside Japan it is eaten as an appetizer.
A Glossary of Japanese cooking terms
Edamame: fresh soya beans that are served cold as bar snacks
Fermented foods: before modern refrigeration methods, the Japanese used to ferment ingredients like soy beans and squid to make it last long. These are an acquired taste, but have great health-giving properties and are dearly loved in Japan
Fugu: the blowfish or puffer fish carries a deadly poison in a sac in its body. Only qualified, licenced chefs are allowed to cut, cook and serve fugu which is considered a delicacy
Kobe steak: called wagyu in Japanese, it is the most expensive beef in the world, in which cows are strictly fed and massaged by hand, ensuring an even marbling of fat.
Nabe: meats cooked in a stock at the table, as in hotpot
Ramen: “wavy” noodles eaten in a soup; the ultimate Japanese fast-food
Seaweed: It can be described as vegetarian seafood, in that it comes from the sea, but it is plant, not animal; presently farmed so much that it is like any other vegetable; nori is a black sheet-like seaweed that is used for sushi
Sichimi: Seven spice powder containing chili powder, mandarin orange rind, hemp, sesame seed, poppy seed, sansho (a pepper) and nori or seaweed
Soba: Thin buckwheat noodles either eaten cold or in a hot soup.
Sushi: there are dozens of types of sushi, which, at its simplest, is a morsel of rice and (usually) raw fish. It can be made with marinated mackerel, steamed shrimp or even grilled foie gras or vegetables.
Teppan Yaki: grilled on an iron plate with any source of heat, i.e. coal, gas, electricity
Udon: thick wheat-based noodle, commonly used in hot soups or eaten cold.
Umami: the sixth taste, after sweet, sour, salty, bitter and astringent. The Japanese describe it as delicious. It occurs naturally in tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and henaidori chickens.
Wasabi: the intensely spicy pale green gratings of the horseradish that accompanies sushi and sashimi. Available in its cheaper version in powdered form and in tubes
Yaki Tori: grilled morsel served on a skewer. Often on charcoal or wood.
“Japanese food is avowedly not popular in India ,” say Chef N Nakamura and Chef Hiroyuki Hashimoto, two Japanese chefs working in New Delhi . Both chefs agree that it is largely because of the common perception that Japanese food equals raw fish that Japanese food is the sole preserve of the cognoscenti.
However, if Harry Cheng of Maido India has his way, Japan and India <I>will<I> come closer and one of the chief ways to achieve that objective is through food. The Mumbai-based company not only provides the nuts and bolts of Japanese ingredients in India, they hold classes on the cuisine, offer training and menu planning for the trade. Cheng agrees that the perception is that Japanese food more or less equals raw fish, but he hastens to qualify that he is happy that Japanese food is being thought about at all. “It is only a good sign for us. It means that we have something to build on,” is his comment.
Pankaj Ambardar, Japanese chef who has spent 12 years running two kaiseki restaurants in Hokkaido has an explanation for the Indian perception of Japanese cuisine. According to him, it has arrived in India via California. Had it come to India directly from Japan, the cuisine would have been delivered as a composite whole. Ambardar has a point: most Japanese restaurants in India serve sushi and sashimi as well as teppanyaki. That is all. However, Japanese cuisine has enormous depth and merely serving two components is not doing justice at all.
There is another point. The only full-service Japanese restaurants that exist in all the metros cater largely to the Japanese community. Thus, in Chennai, while the tiny Japanese-family owned Aka Saka serves Japanese meals, it is patronized by members of the Japanese community: indeed, it has been set up for that express purpose. Similarly, Harima in Bangalore, while increasingly popular with non-Japanese guests, serves as a home away from home for the Japanese population of that city, while Sakura in Delhi serves the same purpose. Harry Cheng is not surprised that Mumbai has no home-away-from-home Japanese restaurant because of the miniscule population of Japanese nationals – less than 300 according to him.
The converse is also true. Those South East Asian restaurants that also serve sushi exist for an Indian market, and are only visited by the occasional Japanese guest. There are far more of these than restaurants serving Japanese food for purists, and there is no doubt that this sort of eatery has started in the last few years. The credit goes solely to threesixty° at The Oberoi New Delhi. Before it started in October 2004, only Sakura at the Metropolitan Hotel and Enoki at The Grand had Japanese restaurants. While the latter was modeled on an informal Japanese yakitori grill restaurant serving skewered grilled meats, Sakura has always been a kaiseki restaurant, possibly the only one in the country. Both restaurants have a distinctly Japanese feel.
threesixty° is as far away as you can get from a traditional Japanese restaurant. For that matter, it isn’t a Japanese restaurant at all. As an all-day dining restaurant, it is composed of many elements: an a la carte menu that changes through the day, a yakitori grill, a tandoor, a pizza oven and, in a barely visible corner, a sushi counter. The management probably underestimated the power of sushi; in a chicken-driven city like Delhi, it is not hard to see why.
From the day it opened, threesixty° was full throughout the day and into the night. The lobby was crowded with impatient diners waiting for a table; the F & B Manager’s telephone number became hot property as everyone and his uncle called him up to cajole or threaten him to give them priority booking. Chef Augusto Cabrera, the lone sushi chef began to suffer from health problems: the result of rolling too many sushis for eighteen hours at a stretch! A platter of maki sushi would be placed on the lunch buffet and would be wiped clean in three seconds.
How did the capital of Butter Chicken Land take to raw seafood overnight? That one is an all-time mystery, but then General Manager Devendra Bharma has a few pointers: the surroundings were international as opposed to ethnic Japanese. It helped that guests did not feel compelled to follow up a platter of sushi and sashimi with more Japanese food, but could have a pizza or a fish and chips after that.
Having sushi as a single element in a restaurant meant that diners could treat it as a snack, an appetizer or a main course, depending on the mood of the moment. Contrast that with a traditional course meal in a Japanese restaurant: sushi would be served somewhere near the end of the meal. Tiffin at The Oberoi Mumbai opened its doors around the same time; expectedly its sushi became as popular as that of its sister hotel in Delhi. Both hotels stayed away from hiring Japanese sushi chefs – in hindsight, it probably added to the frenzied popularity. The Oberoi’s sushi chefs are from the Philippines and have trained with Japanese masters as well as with Californian sushi chefs. Their style is flexible rather than purist and innovative rather than tradition-bound. Perhaps, says Devendra Bharma, the “not quite Japanese” factor worked in their favour.
Once The Oberoi established that it was possible for sushi to be trendy, popular and a money spinner, competitors got into the act. Over three years later, restaurants selling sushi have mushroomed in every nook and cranny of our metros. Because genuine koshihikari rice from Japan is expensive, restaurateurs anxious not to price themselves too high have tried to obtain cheaper substitutes. The only problem is that these substitutes do not have the same technical specifications of the real McCoy: the starch on the surface of each grain breaks down, though this doesn’t happen in original koshihikari. It may not sound like very much, but the nutty texture of the rice, counterpointed against the smoothness of the seafood is lost completely. A sushi chef who takes pride in his work would never agree to work with a cheap substitute, because great sushi has grains of rice that are barely held together. And that can never happen with any other quality but the original.
On the other hand, the bar for Japanese food is beginning to be raised. Konomi, the tiny restaurant in Gurgaon’s Trident Hilton serves freshly grated wasabi – an expensive luxury. Their menu is far more than just sushi and sashimi: their donburi meals are popular with the Japanese population of Gurgaon. Panasia New Delhi and Mumbai share a sushi chef – possibly the finest sushi chef currently in India . Chef Hiroyuki Hashimoto in Shangri La’s 19 Oriental Avenue allows himself the indulgence of creating a menu of starters that changes every fortnight.
Wasabi at the Taj Mahal, Mumbai and Delhi, is an abode of gastronomy Japanese style, without being a Japanese restaurant in the traditional mould.