Japanese food: My journey from fear to fondness
‘It’s a tricky cuisine for me to navigate, since I‘m a fan of neither seafood nor sushi. I’ve found delight in it nonetheless,’ says Kunal Vijayakar.Updated: Jul 19, 2019 19:55 IST
This is all new to me. The fear of raw fish has driven me so far away from Japanese food, that I might as well be approaching this cuisine from miles away. I remember the whole haut monde of South Mumbai going sycophantic when Wasabi by Morimoto opened.
At thousands of rupees per person, Cuffe Parade crème, Peddar Road peerage and Altamont aristocracy would go ga-ga over the gyoza and batshit over the shiitake. My only encounter with Japanese food then had been sushi, and since I abhor fish of most kinds, the sushi I tasted first was Veg Sushi at a banquet at the erstwhile Rampart Row, part of Farrokh Khambata’s Joss.
Now I have a theory about sushi eaters. I have come to the conclusion that not many people legitimately like sushi, but lots of people think that they should. I too have force-fed myself California rolls to be part of the hip gang, but it’s not an easy taste to acquire. The sticky texture of the rice, the briny aroma of the seaweed, and the slippery raw feeling of the fish in your mouth… it’s no wonder that most pseudo sushi eaters douse their sushi in a pungent and salty 1:1 mixture of soya and wasabi paste before struggling with their chopsticks and the wideness of their mouths before popping one in.
Back to all those many years ago, the ITC Gardenia in Bengaluru was about to open its Japanese restaurant. It’s called Edo and the exuberant and veteran chef Madhu Krishnan insisted that I do a sampling of their food. I was with Rashmi Uday Singh, the queen of cuisine, and I just watched in bewilderment as the two food femmes discussed Togarashi, Miso Soup, Enoki Mushrooms, and spouted words like futomaki, uramaki and hosomaki. It was all Japanese to me.
Soon after that, India Jones at the Trident, Mumbai, began doing a Teppanyaki Table, and I found myself riveted as I watched the teppan chef perform theatrics for diners. He juggled pans, tossed eggs into the air and caught them in his hat, piled up onion rings and made flames shoot through them, broke eggs mid-air, the contents falling on his hot table, and with much row and racket, created some superb grilles with strips of wagyu, shrimp, stir-fried crab-rice with rice wine, and okonomiyaki. Now this was something I could get behind. Grilled meats are so much friendlier than slippery, raw fish.
At Pan-Asian at the ITC Maratha, the warm and welcoming chef Liang Xiao Qing plied me with sake and a variety of Yakitori — chicken liver and other parts of the chicken grilled on small skewers. Such was my initiation into the mysteries of Japanese food.
Even when abroad I never pick a Japanese restaurant. Cherry blossoms notwithstanding, I can’t summon the courage to travel to Japan, just in case I can’t eat the food. The streets of London and New York are lined with Japanese restaurants and sushi places. I’ve been to the much celebrated Nobu in New York, skimmed thru the sashimi menu and gone straight for the Wagyu Tobanyaki, medium-rare beef with Japanese mushrooms served with signature toban-yaki sauce roasted on a ceramic plate; or the Lobster Tempura with Creamy Spicy, Ponzu or Smoked Jalapeno Aioli.
I am just not a true Japanese food lover. Zuma at Knightsbridge in London is a bit different. They say the food at Zuma is a sophisticated twist on the traditional Japanese izakaya style of informal dining. Here we have small plates of Ika No Kari Kari Age (crispy fried squid with green chilli and lime) and Ebi Tempura with Citrus Mayo (deep-fried shrimp with shiso and a citrus mayonnaise).
I always gravitate towards deep-fried foods or a robata of steak with fresh wasabi and yuzu tahoon. Gobbledy-gook? Was to me too. But this week was great, because it opened a door in my mind, and knocked at the mental blocks I’d been living with. So when a friend suggested that we try Izumi in Bandra, I jumped at the opportunity. Of course it helps that Izumi is run by Anil Kably, someone I will always remember as responsible for opening Bandra’s first truly happening and cool hangout bar and restaurant, Zenzi. Zenzi no longer exists but Nooresha Kably, who trained at the Tokyo Sushi Academy and The International Ramen School in Yokohama, has with her hubby opened up this casual, bright, warm, small restaurant whose benches and counters are just packed with the hip lot of Bandra.
Even on a Tuesday evening, we couldn’t get a booking for the 7.15 pm sitting, so my buddy and I decided to just try and walk in. We were lucky to coincide with a cancellation and we settled down to order. Anil, ever helpful, suggested a few signature dishes and we ripped into our Stranger & Sons.
One after another, the food started arriving at the table. Panko Coated Prawn Maki with Seared Yuzu Mayo and Tobiko, soft on the outside, crisp inside with a generously plump prawn. Yakitori skewers with chicken liver in a soya honey sauce, and grilled chicken skewers with leek in togarashi butter. Buta Burra with Enoki Mushrooms and Tuna Carpaccio with Truffle Ponzu Sauce. I wolfed down the carpaccio without even realising it was fish. It was just divine and I got converted to a fish eater. Even if it was for just that meal. With Japanese food and me it’s been a journey. From Fear to Fondness.