“Wow, Japan? Enjoy the sushi, tempuras and other awesome Japanese food,” gushes a dear friend when she learns I'm going to Japan. A colleague from London who checks out a story idea, has this response when I tell her I'm in Tokyo: “Envious of the wonderful food you must be having”.
So all you lovers of Indian vegetarian food, particularly the thing called samosa... I mean the stuff filled with an endless quantity of aloo, and not the delicious kheema samosa that we Bohris make — should bear with me when I say that on my first evening in Tokyo, when I'm told the dinner is in an Indian restaurant, I actually felt sorry for myself. Of course one yearns for Indian food while travelling overseas, but on the fourth or fifth day… not on Day 1. And then for every little celebration we have in Business Line… a birthday or a farewell, I've frowned at the samosa always being included along with the cake, eggless or whatever.
So to be served samosas on my first ever dinner in Japan, and that too in the first course, in a restaurant called Moti, made me want to weep. The usual fare followed.. sheek kebabs, tandoori chicken, butter chicken, delicious dhal and butter naan — nothing less. And a dozen of us — Indian journos on a visit to Japan — dug into the delicious food even while complaining that it was a pity we were not getting an introduction to Japanese food.
But when our itinerary said all our lunches and dinners during the five-day tour would be only in Indian restaurants, it was time to revolt.
Before long, even the vegetarians — four out of 13 — in our group were clamouring for Japanese food. But there was one problem with this demand… the Japanese like to plan things meticulously to the last detail, and get quite perturbed when their detailed planning has to be changed, that too on the whims of visiting journalists. But at the same time they are among the most courteous and hospitable hosts and do not take the request of their guests lightly.
I already had a taste of their meticulous planning when much before even my visa or air tickets had come, I got a call from a restaurant in Tokyo asking me to clarify my food preference. Said the very polite voice at the other end: “You've said ‘non-vegetarian, but no pork'. Would you take beef?” I said I don't prefer it but wouldn't mind it if nothing else was available.
“That means all the non-vegetarians in your group will not take pork, but may take beef?” I explained that many non-vegetarian Indians, particularly Hindus, might take pork, but not beef. Puzzled she asked: “What about chicken and fish”. I tried to tell her some people were either allergic to or did not like fish. But when this was construed as all non-vegetarian Indians not taking pork, beef or fish, I gave up the battle and asked her to avoid only pork and beef; we would eat the rest.
Apparently, our hosts had reckoned that the safest thing to serve would be Indian food, so when the request for Japanese food came in, and that too with more than a dash of insistence, they went into a huddle and decided to organise at least one Japanese dinner for us.
Obviously, the decision to service only Indian meals was taken because a couple of our Japanese hosts have been working in India for a year now and know exactly how squeamish Indian vegetarians can be about the smell or touch of non-vegetarian food. “In many Japanese restaurants the stock made from beef, pork or any other meat is used in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, and Indian vegetarians are very particular. That is why we thought it safer to stick to Indian food,” explained one of them.
Anyway, one meticulously planned dinner has been replaced with a Japanese dinner… it would be a barbecue… to eliminate the danger of a beef stock being used on vegetables. So all of us are happy.
But one tip to all vegetarians who relish the delicious rice crackers Japan Airlines serves on its flights from and to India: If you enjoy munching on these with your glass of beer or wine, don't look at the ingredients that go into those rice crackers. You might be in for a shock!