The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Were you to eat the way you do in Japan, you’d be regarded as a barbarian
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi traces the history of modern Japanese food, and the influence chef Nobu Matsuhisa has had on it.more lifestyle Updated: Nov 22, 2017 10:29 IST
Unless you are a fan of authentic Japanese food --- which can be complex and filled with delicate flavours --- the chances are that what you think of as Japanese food is probably modern Japanese. This is a style of cuisine that uses some Japanese forms (say sushi or sashimi or a piece of grilled fish) but dramatically increases the seasoning, adds new (non-Japanese) flavours and sometimes plays around with the form itself.
The sushi boom and the explosion of Japanese restaurants around the world depend less on traditional Japanese cuisine and much more on modern Japanese.
Usually, when the modern version of an ancient cuisine becomes popular, it is a slow and gradual process that takes decades.
But the case of modern Japanese is unusual, because almost all of it was created by one man. And we can date the origin and the spread of that cuisine by following his career.
Nobu Matsuhisa is now the most famous Japanese chef in the world, and probably among the world’s most famous chefs, regardless of cuisine. His Nobu restaurants, named after him, are so popular that people who have never been to one still recognise the name. There are, for instance, no Nobu restaurants in any Indian city. But almost all Indians with any interest in global cuisine have heard of the restaurants.
And any Indian who has eaten Japanese food, whether at mid-market sushi places in our cities or at fancy restaurants like Wasabi or Megu, has eaten dishes created by Nobu --- even though the restaurant may not have credited him as the inspiration.
Foodies are used to a potted version of the Nobu story. According to this, Nobu was a bright young Japanese chef who went off to Peru where there is a flourishing Japanese community. He liked the food of that community and loved the chillies and spices of Peruvian-Japanese cuisine. Then, he came to Los Angeles and opened a restaurant called Matsuhisa. Many movie stars came to the restaurant. One of them was Robert de Niro who liked the food so much that he persuaded the chef to open a restaurant in New York in partnership with him. The restaurant was such a success that Nobu and de Niro were able to open nearly 50 restaurants around the world.
Elements of this story are accurate but it is a little too pat. In 2014 Nobu published a memoir in Japanese called The Smiling Faces of My Guests Mean Everything. Now, Simon and Schuster have just published an updated English translation simply titled Nobu. It is a short, easy-to-read book that anybody who is in the hospitality business should get. And it tells the true story of the origins of Nobu’s Modern Japanese.
Yes, he did go to Peru. But there was no flourishing Japanese restaurant scene there that served a fusion cuisine created by the local Japanese community. “On my first visit, the country seemed backward,” he writes. “There were only three or four Japanese restaurants in Lima.”
Nobu spent three years in Peru making sushi and did not immediately fall in love with the local flavours: “Peru is where I first encountered cilantro, which Peruvians love. Put off by its pungent smell, I couldn’t eat it at first....Eventually I grew to like it.” (Cilantro is very closely related to dhaniya.)
By the time he left Peru and went to work in Argentina, Nobu was still making standard Japanese food. And he continued cooking it when he moved from Argentina to Alaska. It was in Alaska that his restaurant burnt down leaving him suicidal: “All I could think about was death and how to go about dying.”
Almost all of the innovations in cuisine that we associate with Nobu were created when he began working in Los Angeles. Some dishes drew on the experience of his travels. But to call his cuisine Japanese-Peruvian as many critics still do, is quite wrong. The South American influences were superficial.
For instance, South Americans marinate fish in lemon juice to “cook” it and serve it as ceviche. The Japanese sometimes put little sudachi juice (a sudachi is a citrus fruit not unlike lemon) on fish before serving it. Nobu chose a middle path. He took the stronger Peruvian ceviche sauce but instead of marinating the fish in it, he mixed it with the raw sea-food just before serving the fish. The dish that resulted was Japanese-style but the seasoning was South American, giving the fish a much stronger flavour than the delicate tastes of Japanese cuisine.
Other innovations had nothing to do with South America. At an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, Nobu tried soft-shell crab for the first time. He liked it so much that he began serving it deep-fried at his restaurant. Later, he put it at the centre of a sushi roll, creating the Soft Shell Crab Roll, one of his signature dishes. (If you have eaten Prawn Tempura sushi rolls, then you have eaten a downmarket roll descended from this dish.)
Black Cod in Miso, Nobu’s signature dish, now copied all over the world, arose out of convenience. Americans like tender-fleshed fish so Nobu went looking for some. He came across frozen black cod which was cheap and easily available. He considered making Saikyo Yaki, a Kyoto dish that requires fish to be marinated for several hours in a local white miso paste .
But the point of the dish was price (frozen black cod was cheap) so he did not bother to import the local miso from Kyoto. The original Kyoto dish has a delicate flavour because the fish is first wrapped in cloth and the miso is applied to the cloth wrapping so that only a hint of the flavour reaches the fish.
Nobu took normal white miso (not the Kyoto version) added sugar and Mirin (a sort of Japanese sweet sherry) and then applied it directly to the cod. When he grilled the cod, the sweet flavours were loud and pronounced and the dish became a classic.
Other dishes emerged out of the American reluctance to eat raw fish. One day, Nobu served a dish of thinly sliced white-fish sashimi to a customer. She refused to eat it. Nobu then sprinkled ponzu sauce (a citrus-based brown sauce commonly used in Japanese cuisine) on the fish and “cooked” it by drizzling some hot olive oil over the raw fish. When the fish turned opaque and no longer seemed raw, he brought it back to the table.
This time around, the customer loved it.
Nobu called it New Style Sashimi. If you have been to Wasabi in Mumbai or Delhi, then you will probably know it as White-fish Carpaccio.
Some dishes emerged out of American gastronomic ignorance. In Japan, if you were to put a dollop of wasabi into your bowl of soya sauce and mix it all up, you would be regarded as a barbarian. But this style had been popularised by sushi parlours in America, probably to mute the harsh flavour of the synthetic Wasabi they used. Though Nobu knew it was wrong, he did not stop his customers from doing it.
In fact, he had an idea. If this was what Americans liked, why not capitalise on it? He took powdered wasabi, dashi (the basic Japanese soup stock) and soya sauce and cooked them together till they reduced enough to make a thick sauce. He seasoned the sauce with garlic, melted butter and black pepper. As he writes, “when I served it over such things as grilled tuna, scallops or chicken, it was a huge hit...I bottled it and sold it in the restaurant and it is now one of our signature sauces.”
Many other dishes were created because of his desire to get around the American aversion to raw fish. “Americans are quite health conscious and often have salad for lunch,” Nobu writes. “I added some slices of seared tuna to a salad, drizzled it with a soya-based dressing and called it Sashimi Salad. It was a great hit. Because sashimi is raw fish, many Americans felt wary of trying it. Adding the word salad made the dish sound more familiar.”
And on it goes. Reading Nobu’s stories of how he created dishes that laid the foundations for new kind of Japanese cuisine, you realise that, at the time, he wasn’t really trying to create a new style of food. He was simply responding to commercial pressures and trying to create dishes that would sell.
There was one basic idea that guided him: Japanese food is about delicate flavours and the taste of the original ingredients, which is why so many dishes are served raw or nearly raw. Americans, on the other hand, like cooked food with louder, less delicate flavours.
And that is what Nobu gave them.
As an idea, it is not particularly original. Indian-Chinese food, for instance, is based on ramping up the flavours --- more soya, more chilli etc. But the difference between Nobu and all the other chefs all over the world who have tried to adapt traditional cuisines, is that Nobu is a genius.
Only a genius could have spotted the opportunity and tweaked one of the world’s great cuisines so that it appeals to millions of people all over the globe.
The rest of the story is well-known. Yes, Robert de Niro did partner with him and they now have restaurants all over the world. But what’s interesting is this: while most restaurant chains pride themselves on delivering the same dish everywhere in the world, Nobu encourages his chefs to adapt to local tastes: “Although we teach the chefs at every restaurant to faithfully reproduce signature dishes that are served worldwide, such as Black Cod with Miso, we must leave the fine-tuning of the seasonings to the judgement of each chef. After all, each country and culture has its own preferences when it comes to such things as the amount of salt or chilli pepper used in a recipe.”
May be that is the secret of his success of the global Nobu brand. He created a template for a modern Japanese cuisine that is followed all over the world. But at each restaurant, most dishes will vary slightly, depending on the needs of the guest and preferences of the chef.
Which is only right. Nobu invented his dishes in response to the tastes of American guests. And now his chefs follow the same principle to please guests in other parts of the world.