What makes Japanese food the right fit for the modern palate
Will Indian chefs ever have the stomach to experiment with trendy flavour combinations to give their traditional cuisine a modern makeover like their Japanese counterparts ?brunch Updated: Aug 26, 2017 22:06 IST
Masaharu Morimoto is probably the best-known Japanese chief in India, even among those who have never eaten his food. Morimoto owes his fame to two pioneering restaurants, both called Wasabi by Morimoto. The original opened at the Mumbai Taj, and a second (better) restaurant followed at the Taj Mansingh in Delhi.
When the first Wasabi opened, Morimoto had only a stint as Japan’s Iron Chef (a TV show that most Indians have not heard of) and one restaurant in Philadelphia to his name, but the Taj put its faith in him. Apparently, Raymond Bickson who then ran the Taj’s luxury hotels wanted to open a branch of Nobu but negotiations failed. Bickson knew that Morimoto had been Executive Chef of the first New York Nobu, before striking out on his own. So, he asked him to open a Nobu-style restaurant in Mumbai.
The first Wasabi was very clearly derived from Nobu, but its success spurred Morimoto to develop his own voice. He opened a large and successful place in New York and then took his empire global; there are now 17 Morimoto restaurants around the world and at least another four in the planning stages.
I ate at the New York Morimoto shortly after it opened and was struck by how different it was from Nobu. For instance, the Toro Tartare (toro is fatty tuna belly) was not the small bowl that Nobu served (and the Mumbai Wasabi still serves) but an elaborate, colourful mosaic of tuna, cream, sauces, caviar and other ingredients.
The Delhi Wasabi menu includes many of Morimoto’s newer dishes. But I suspect that most people who go to both Wasabis want sushi rolls, black cod in miso and whitefish carpaccio and don’t really care what else is on the menu.
The definition of modern Japanese cuisine is so broad that it allows Morimoto and chefs like him to do virtually anything they like
Many years ago, I was eating at the Mumbai Wasabi when Morimoto was in the hotel and he very kindly offered to cook for us himself. We ate omakase (a Japanese term that translates very roughly as “I am leaving it up to the chef”) and the food was outstanding.
Last fortnight, Morimoto was in Delhi and offered once again to do an omakase meal for us. This was a treat because a) celebrity chefs don’t actually do much cooking themselves but here, Morimoto cooked the food in front of us and b) because it allowed me to see how far his food had travelled from the Nobu-era dishes that the Mumbai Wasabi still serves.
Much of the food was sensational and while some of it was clearly Japanese (lots of sashimi and an uni roll that was out of this world), some of it was hard to characterise. The soup course was an intense duck consommé with wonton-style dumplings. The dumplings were vaguely Chinese but instead of traditional dim sum skins, he had used gyoza (Japanese dumplings) dough. And then he grated summer truffle over the soup, which is hardly Japanese!
The salad course was also roughly as Japanese as John Wayne. It was a dish Morimoto had created for President Obama’s dinner for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House. Morimoto had wanted to symbolise US-Japanese friendship. So he created a salad of vegetables sliced longitudinally with bits of duck breast in a fancy Japanese cellophane packaging with gold ribbon. It came with ranch dressing.
The advantage Morimoto and other chefs like him have is that the definition of modern Japanese cuisine is so broad that it allows them to do virtually anything they like. I discovered later from my mates in the Wasabi kitchen that while planning the menu, he had asked the regular chefs what dishes my wife ordered the most. He was told that she liked kakuni (a slow-cooked pork dish) and boribap (a rice and fish dish). “Ok,” he apparently said, “let’s combine the two.” And so he made boribap with kakuni. It was absolutely delicious.
No Indian chef – modern or otherwise – has the same freedom. Would any chef say, when told that a guest liked khichri and pork vindaloo: “No problem. I’ll combine them in one dish”?
The freedom afforded to modern Japanese chefs is largely a consequence of the pioneering work of Nobu Matsuhisa. Though he trained as a chef in Japan, Matsuhisa found his voice when he worked in Peru and discovered the cuisine of the local Japanese community, which was spice-rich. With the powerful backing of Robert De Niro, he opened a string of restaurants that added spices to Japanese food and included ingredients that were distinctly Western: olive oil, dairy products, etc.
As the craze for modern Japanese food spread, Nobu had a global challenger in the shape of Zuma, started by Rainer Becker, a Western chef who had worked in Japan. Zuma, owned by Becker and Arjun Waney (they would later also open Roka) catered to the Nobu market by riffing on Japanese traditions while adding trendy new flavours.
Today, there are those who feel that Zuma is the new Nobu and those who argue that in many cities (New York, for example) Nobu is better while in others (London, perhaps) Zuma has the advantage.
What’s more interesting is the legacy. Modern Japanese has now morphed into modern Oriental. Alan Yau was supposed to open the first Hakkasan at London’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. His brief was “create a Chinese Nobu”. (As it turned out, Yau seized the idea and opened on his own.)
I went, just before it opened, to Avik Chatterjee’s POH in Mumbai where Vikramjeet Roy is the chef and Anurodh Samal is the manager. (Both men were poached from Tian at Delhi’s’ Maurya hotel and Vikramjeet learnt Japanese food at the Delhi Wasabi.) The food was wonderful, a continuation of the sort of award-winning cuisine that Vikram would turn out every night at Tian, but at non-five star prices.
Since I went, the restaurant has opened to great success and glowing reviews. Vikram’s former sous chef Sahil has also found his own voice and is the chef behind Zorawar Kalra’s quickly-expanding, delightful Pa Pa Ya chain.
None of these chefs, and none of these restaurants, would be around today without the Nobu revolution (and without the success of Zuma). In purely kitchen terms, Nobu created a new language that gave chefs a new freedom to create their own dishes.
Will that ever happen with Indian food?
To some extent, I think it is already beginning to happen. The old London chefs of the last decade adopted French techniques, but the new innovations are coming from the East. The reason Manish Mehrotra’s food seems so different is because his background is Thai cuisine.
Then, there is the great Gaggan Anand who, despite knowing every molecular technique there is to know, finds most of his inspiration in Japan these days. I can’t think of anyone else who would have dreamt of pairing Indian alphonso mango with Hokkaido uni (sea urchin) and creating a classic dish.
The next step is to create something like an Indian Zuma. Many are trying, but I don’t think anyone has gone as far as Ankur Bhatia, the owner of the Roseate chain of hotels.
At Roseate House in Delhi’s Aerocity, Bhatia has just opened Kheer, his vision of an Indian Zuma. The restaurant certainly has a Zuma type look about it mainly because Bhatia hired the Japanese designer who has conceived of many Zuma branches.
But the idea is to go beyond the Zuma décor and to buy into the philosophy. The golgappa platter, for instance, comes with four different paanis, each with a different flavour. Instead of a sushi bar, there is a chaat bar, where you sit at the counter while the chef makes you individual portions of chaat.
The main courses will make you sit up. For me, the standout dish was a tuna tartar with Indian flavours. This was followed by a terrine of tandoori chicken. It looked different but the flavours were authentic. The breads were also outstanding and could be a course in themselves.
Kheer has a large area where they will serve snacks and drinks and (presumably) pump up the volume late at night after dinner. But Bhatia is looking at serious diners who want quality but different Indian food in chic Zuma-like surroundings.
He should get them. Aerocity has taken off as a dining destination: both the Andaz and the JW Marriott have casual dining restaurants that are jam-packed.
Will there ever be an Indian chef as influential as Nobu?
It’s hard to say.
Gaggan has already spawned one wave of molecular knock-offs. Perhaps our chefs will have the courage to follow him on his new journey where the traditions of India and the Orient fuse to create a new culinary language.
From HT Brunch, August 27, 2017
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First Published: Aug 26, 2017 22:03 IST