While this colorful, fresh and zesty cuisine is well crafted and disciplined in many ways than we know, chef Varun Inamdar introduces Japanese cuisine to us and makes us understand how this can never be the next ‘Chinese’ and yet be humble towards this new development in the Indian culinary world.
The newest kid-on-the-block to have smacked our land of diverse cuisines! Can it be the next Italian, Chinese or Mexican? It is certainly beyond miso, tempura, sushi and sashimi, but is it going to be a trendsetter or a game changer on the Indian food-scene? Let’s wait and decipher.
Japanese cuisine and the nitty-gritties
Japanese cuisine is based on combining the gohan with one or several okazu, miso and tsukemono. Now, that flew straight over the head. Hasn’t it? Do not worry. By the end of reading it all, one will have to really delve into this technically vast cuisine and its foreign language to get a deeper insight? The tongue twisting terminologies flashing in every menu will drive its patrons to Japanese learning courses. For a busy Mumbaikar, this seems a challenge! Unlike Chinese food, crannies cannot be seen stocked up with Japanese outlets unless the ingredient-sourcing gets easier and cheaper. Today, 90% of the ingredients are imported straight from ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’. This could be one of the primary reasons for holding the popularity of the cuisine in India and attaining the same tabloid spaces as its Chinese or Italian counterparts. This would definitely keep it out of the lesser affluent’s reach. Being a melting pot with an alien language, it is best advised to read the English description following the names, or get educated by the server about what one would be ordering to be assured by some percentile, atleast, of what to expect.
Popularity of Japanese food in India
While Japan is still trying to make their cuisine popular in India, the presence of Indian restaurants in Japan is much bigger. This is particularly due to a larger presence of our nationals in their country. Takeshi Yagi, Japanese Brand Ambassador to India wishes to see Indianised Japanese food, a route adopted by its other counterparts to popularize their cuisines. Well, at the cost of a compromise, does he wish to popularize this cuisine, was a thought that played onto my mind, all through my encounter with him at Phoenix mills
Food connoisseurs will have a gala time, this year, comparing Japanese to Chinese and hitting headlines for their statements. But it’s our youth that would be leading a change – some out of curiosity, some out of flaunting company whereas some out of being fashionable. Is being found stepping out of a Japanese restaurant, a fashion statement? Surely, a big yes!
Basics of the cuisine
But, till we know the cuisine well and its expectations from us, we are treading a tight rope. In general, what does a cuisine expect from its patrons? Basic knowledge of what to expect from a restaurant, what to look for in the menu, and most importantly, savouring a cuisine, the way it is meant to be, rather than being irate and requesting some extra fried and extra spicy amendments. For now, let’s keep the terminologies, on the back burner, simmering to glory and give the cuisine a worthy try. Japanese food emphasizes a lot on starch, seasonal vegetables and its cooking methods. Its basic characteristics are its sparing use of meats, oils, fats, and dairy products. Basic cuisine combines rice (gohan) with choice of several accompanying dishes (okazu) along with a fish-like dashi soup (miso) and a variety of pickles and cured vegetables (tsukemono). Flavourwise, pungency is noted from roots of ginger, soy, miso, umeboshi, wasabi, daikon in combination with dashi, sake and mirin whereas cooking techniques are usually boiling, grilling, frying, steaming, dressing or serving raw. Most ingredients are healthy, eaten and cooked using healthy cooking techniques.
Rice is usually served in a bowl called ‘chawan’ and none of the courses are mixed or topped over another, like the Chinese do. Each accompanying dish is served in small plates and bowls called the ‘sara’ and ‘hachi’ respectively. The Korean or American culture of the hot pot or tureen is not followed here giving each food course a lot of respect and individuality. Wastage is something, intolerable and eaten to the last grain on the plate. The chef choices are given a lot of importance and hence, requests for substitutions and changes are not looked upon with regard. All bowls, plates, chopsticks, post meal service, are expected to be placed back the way they were set on the cover and showing the diners respect towards the hosts, whether in a restaurant or family dinner. Japanese love to be thanked for the hospitality extended by them. Beverages are to be topped for the one seated next to you than for self and sipping must not begin without a customary toast.
Too many norms, too much to remember and too much information to sink in for a patron! But, yes, we shall adopt this too, as we love to ape. But can it be as penetrating as Chinese, probably never. Keep some of the above information handy, to avoid embarrassment, and stylishly sip on some hot sake.
For an Indian diner, I feel, Japanese cuisine is just a passing infatuation and not a lasting affair, for sure!
Photo Courtesy: Pioneer Chef
This article originally appeared in Pioneer Chef- A complete chef and food magazine