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The Japanese Takeover

india Updated: Nov 06, 2010 18:12 IST

Hindustan Times
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When it comes to food, the restaurant-going public has a way of surprising us. Twenty years ago, restaurateurs were convinced that the next big wave would be Thai food (like Chinese but spicier, they said) and Mexican food (tomatoes and chillies – how can that go wrong?).



Nobody gave Japanese food a chance. The flavours were too bland. The carbohydrate content was too low. Indians would never eat raw fish. The ingredients were hard to source. Good Japanese food was too expensive. And so on. And what do you know? The public has surprised us.



food

The Thai boom has come and gone. A few good restaurants (well, one at any rate) have survived. But otherwise, Thai remains a low-end, food-court cuisine. Mexican food never really took off. Lots of Gujaratis may want to eat nachos but the two rival Mexican restaurants which opened in Bombay with so much fanfare (at the Oberoi and the President) both closed because of paucity of customers.



Against the odds, it is Japanese food that has triumphed. The two Wasabis (in Bombay and Delhi) attract the rich and famous. The Oberoi serves excellent sushi at its coffee shops (in Delhi and Bombay, again), new stand-alone Japanese places keep opening every month, the younger generation has none of the reservations its parents had about eating raw fish and now, India’s hottest Japanese restaurant is rocking Bangalore.



Till the beginning of this decade, the market for Japanese food was thought to be restricted to Japanese expats. In the 1980s, after innumerable complaints from Japanese companies that their executives were reluctant to come to India because they could not get their own food, the government leaned on ITDC to open a Japanese restaurant at Delhi’s Ashok Hotel.



I remember the restaurant well. It had a light, airy décor and (until the ITDC waiters began shouting orders in the kitchen) you almost felt that you were in Bangkok or some Far Eastern city. And the menu was limited. No sushi. No sashimi. (Too difficult to source fresh fish.) No beef. (We are Hindu country, sir!) And lots of deep-fried stuff along with lots of noodles.



Even so, I liked it a lot – at least till standards collapsed a few years later. (This was the Ashok, remember?) But I was frequently the only Indian in the restaurant. It was meant to cater to Japanese expats and not to people like us.



Over a decade later, the owners of the Metropolitan Hotel in Delhi tied up with Nikko, the Japanese hotel chain (run, at that time, by Japan Airlines). The Japanese opened Sakura, also directed at their own expats, complete with Japanese chefs and ingredients freshly flown in from Tokyo every two days or so. (I think it was the Japan Airlines connection). For those of us who earned in rupees (unlike the expats who had hard currency salaries), the bills at Sakura could be steep (it was the high cost of fresh Japanese fish and beef) but the food was both authentic and excellent.



But even as this high-end expat-based dining was becoming available, two separate phenomena were taking place. The first was that the global explosion of sushi bars, often using such gimmicks as conveyor belts, had finally reached India.



Till the Nineties, the global image of sushi had been high class: you needed skilled Japanese chefs to cut the fish and shape the rice pellets. But as the sushi craze swept the US, cheaper (and perhaps much less authentic) sushi became available. It was only a matter of time before this kind of sushi, based on sweet and spicy flavours, on rolls that used cooked ingredients (such as tempura) and paid less attention to the quality of the rice (the point of sushi in Japan is the rice, perhaps even more than the fish) reached India.



At a more accessible, mass-market level, small sushi places opened up in most of India’s big cities, often selling take-away sushi or even delivering at homes. At a higher end, the Delhi Oberoi made sushi trendy and fashionable in the capital by launching its phenomenally successful Threesixty restaurant with a sushi bar. (The sushi master, Augusto is still there – one of the best reasons to go to Threesixty).



A second phenomenon was the global rise of modern Japanese food. Pioneered by Nobu Matsuhisa whose New York and London restaurants were even more influential than his Los Angeles original, this cuisine married traditional Japanese forms (sashimi, marinated fish, tempura, etc.) with eclectic cooking techniques and distinctly non-Japanese flavours (olive oil, dairy products, hot sauces etc.)



As Nobu’s empire spread with restaurants across the world, other chefs began following his lead and a new kind of Japanese cuisine was born. Because this cuisine was more modern and was open to new flavours, it had a far greater global appeal than


traditional Japanese.



The Taj group talked to Nobu about opening in India. When those talks came to nothing, they went with Nobu’s original executive chef from New York, Masaharu Morimoto, and opened two restaurants in Bombay and Delhi. When the Leela group’s tie-up with Nobu faltered at the last moment, they went with the up-market New York chain, Megu, instead. (The first Megu opens in Delhi in a couple of months.) Ai, located in a Delhi mall, has links with Zuma, a successful London restaurant that mined the popularity of the modern Japanese cuisine fostered by Nobu. And now, Nobu himself is going to be in India, taking over a Bombay restaurant for a brief pop-up operation, presumably as a way of exploring the Indian market.



The Japanese explosion has meant that there are effectively three kinds of Japanese restaurants in India: the ones meant for Japanese expats which serve traditional Japanese food (i.e. Sakura); the fancy ones doing modern Japanese for rich Indians (i.e. Ai, Wasabi etc.) and the many sushi places at various price points.



What nobody had ever tried was a traditional Japanese restaurant aimed as much at Indians as at Japanese expats. That’s why I followed the progress of Edo, the new restaurant at Bangalore’s ITC Gardenia Hotel, with interest.



Nakul Anand, ITC’s boss, had always wanted to open a Japanese restaurant but he was clear that ITC would create its own brand not borrow one from a foreign chef. Interestingly, he took the decision to go with real Japanese over mod-Jap arguing that this was more challenging. (Besides, the Taj had already done Wasabi with Morimoto.)



Insiders within the hotel business will recognise what a leap of faith this represented for ITC, a chain with excellent Indian restaurant but few world-class operations outside of the Indian space. But because Anand wanted to make a statement, ITC went to influential Japanese design firm Super Potato which recommended a stone-garden concept for the décor. (Expensive but at least it was a break from the now tiresome standard Super Potato look).



Then, Gautam Anand who oversees ITC’s projects and plans all its new hotels, asked the Japanese ambassador to India, Hideaki Domichi, to recommend the best Japanese chef he could think of. Even after the ambassador had suggested a chef and he had been hired, ITC brought in two other Japanese chefs (including chef Nakamura who gave Sakura its awesome reputation) to advise on the menu. The Gardenia’s chef Madhu Krishnan immersed herself in Japanese cuisine, the restaurant manager was sent off to Japan for training, an outside consultant was brought in to create a service culture for the restaurant and Edo did not open commercially for two months even though it was open for previews nearly every day.



All that hard work (and expense) has paid off. Edo is currently Bangalore’s hottest restaurant, with a sale that far exceeds


R 1 lakh even on weekdays and rave reviews from both Indian and Japanese guests. In a sense, it is a double whammy – the first trad-Jap restaurant in India to attract a substantial number of Indians and the first world-class restaurant launched by ITC that does not serve Indian food.



Though nobody at ITC will comment on this, my guess is that they will roll the Edo concept out in other cities. It will become their answer to Wasabi (though hopefully at lower prices). If that does happen, it will set off a cycle of non-hotel imitators as restaurateurs recognise that trad-Jap can appeal to Indians, provided it is done well.



With more Edos, Megu and perhaps Nobu on the horizon, it is clear that the Japanese food boom is here to stay.