Japanese food has become popular the world over. Restaurants serving authentic dishes at prohibitive prices have always discreetly dotted the world’s capitals, but in recent years, I have noticed an upswing of more casual, ‘Bento Box’ (the Japanese equivalent of the thali-cum-tiffin), stark eateries popping up in trendy areas of most cities. Sushi is today available at railway stations in the US, on conveyor belts and as takeaway in supermarkets. And now we have Japanese restaurants (and all exceedingly good ones, too) in India. In Delhi, you have Sakura at the Nikko, TK’s at the Hyatt and a sushi bar at threesixty° (The Oberoi). In Mumbai, we have Wasabi at the Taj Mahal, Pan Asian at the Grand Maratha, a sushi bar at Tiffin (The Oberoi) and at India Jones (Hilton Towers), and extensive Japanese menus rendered by well-trained chefs at a new stand-alone called Japengo and at the JW Marriott. And Chennai, of all places, has one of the most authentic little Japanese eateries in the country, Akasaka, catering predominantly to Japanese clientele working in the region.
So, what is Japanese food exactly? Well, it is austere and the preparation is relatively simple with presentation that often borders on art forms. And it requires very specialized ingredients that can’t be substituted or duplicated easily. At this point, you might decide to opt for one of the above-mentioned restaurants instead, and I wouldn’t blame you. Japanese ingredients, though now available in places such as INA market in Delhi and in most supermarkets in Asia, pose a bit of a technical problem. Everything is written in Japanese, often without English translations. For example, there are several types of nori (seaweed wrappers) which I only discovered when I served sushi to some Japanese clients (a brave move, and on their insistence). I also discovered that I had been using the wrong wrapper for several years. The actual nori for a sushi roll was much thicker than the one I bought and was later sent to me from Japan by the client. If you’re attracted by the unknown, by an array of mind-boggling flavours and are prepared to endure a lifetime of embarrassing culinary moments, read on.
Japanese ingredients, with all those strange pronunciations, represent the first stumbling block. So here are some tips. Dashi is a stock made from dried kelp and dried bonito flakes. Instant dashi granules (dashi-no-moto) are sold in packets, like soup powders, and provide a practical alternative. Nori, the most important, is dried kelp or konbu, an essential ingredient in basic stock or dashi. Nori is dried and sold in very thin, dark-green sheets for sushi. Pickled ginger or gari is a sweet vinegared ginger, sometimes dyed pink, and is a must for sushi. Mirin is a very sweet rice wine and is used only for cooking. Miso is a protein-rich salty paste of fermented soya beans. It is sold (either red or light) in bags or tubs in Japanese and health food stores. Light-green Japanese horseradish, wasabi, is probably the most popular accompaniment of all. It is widely available as a ready-mixed paste in tubes, although wasabi powder (available in tiny tins), mixed with a little water, gives a much closer approximation of the freshly grated root.
Apart from sushi, which most people identify with Japanese food, Japanese dishes also include the wonderfully light tempura (batter-fried dishes), which began its history in Nagasaki, where Spanish and Portuguese settlers recreated a version of their gambas fritas (fried prawns). The crumbed and fried pork cutlet, Tonkatsu, which often comes with potato salad and coleslaw, is a strange idiosyncrasy. Table-top party dishes, such as Sukiyaki and teppanyaki, are now world-famous and the variety of fish preparations is mind-boggling. Yakitori are simple dishes of grilled chicken or chicken balls with a really tasty, warm soya-based sauce that I feel is a good way to begin your venture with Japanese food. Here is a pretty authentic version. If you can’t get hold of mirin, just do without it. Don’t look for a substitute.
4 boneless chicken breasts, total weight 575-700g
½ cup soya sauce
100ml sake or whisky
100ml mirin (optional)
3 level tbps dark, soft brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, skinned and crushed
1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped very finely
Cut the chicken into bite-sized cubes, discarding all skin. Put half of the soya, half the saké or whisky, and half of the sugar in a shallow dish with the garlic and ginger. Whisk well together until the sugar has dissolved.
Add the chicken pieces to the dish and stir well to coat in the marinade. Cover the dish tightly and marinate in the refrigerator for at least four hours. Turn the chicken occasionally.
When ready to cook, remove the chicken from the marinade. Discard the ginger and garlic and skewer the chicken pieces. Cook over a charcoal barbecue or in a preheated moderate grill for 10-15 minutes, turning the skewers frequently and brushing with the marinade.
While the chicken is cooking, put the remaining soya, sake, mirin and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer for a few minutes until thickish. Serve the yakitori hot, with the sauce poured over it. If you are really going to go the authentic route, serve some seven spice powder (shichimi) on the side.
Write to Karen Anand at firstname.lastname@example.org