It’s not just Sushi anymore

For the love of noodles Satoshi Akimoto (extreme right) and his team at his restaurant Aki Bay, which specialises in ramen.   -  Swathi Moorthy

Indians now want a wider spread of Japanese cuisine



Revathi Nagaswami started Dahlia 25 years ago, and the oldest Japanese restaurant in Chennai has never seen better days. Nagaswami is finding more takers, both Japanese and locals, in recent times. The restaurant is adding more items to its menu. “The popularity is in part due to increasing Japanese clients and part driven by rising awareness about the cuisine domestically,” she says.

One of her loyal customers is Daisuke Hosoda, a Japanese language teacher. When he is not devouring biryani or dosa, Hosoda heads to Dahlia for a bowl of miso soup and sticky rice.

Others too are seeing the trend. General Manager of a five-star hotel in Chennai agrees. The hotel has turned its focus to Japanese cuisine in the past year seeing the interest from foreign and Indian guests.

Overseas restaurant chains like the Dubai-based Sumo Sushi and Bento are making inroads. The company plans to open 15-20 outlets across the country in the next five-seven years. According to Dinesh Chauhan, Franchise Operations Manager, it’s a mix of increasing economic-ties between the two countries and also robust supply chain that made the company choose India.

Anil Kumar Basotra, owns the Izakaya-style Japanese restaurant Daikichi with his Japanese partner Yukio Nishimagi in Gurugram, Haryana. The restaurant, which opened in 2010, is popular among both Japanese and Indian clients. “My clients are now 85 per cent Japanese and the rest are Indians,” he added. Basotra is now looking at metros like Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai for opening new restaurants.

Also expanding is the Gurugram-based Hirohama Group that operates Kuuraku restaurants in New Delhi, Neemrana and Chennai. The company plans to open "soon" in Mumbai.

Localisation

Following on the lines of McDonald's and Domino's, Japanese restaurants have also gone local despite Japanese cuisine predominantly consisting of fish and meat-based dishes. Vishant Vibhaker, proprietor of GOGO Ramen restaurant in Chennai, says, “Vegetarian dishes are a must to attract local population.” Nagaswami of Dahlia restaurant says many parties’ menu now include Japanese food, with many vegetarian options. “You also need to change the menu to suit local tastes, like making it spicier or sweeter depending on the area,” says Chauhan of Sumo Sushi and Bento.

It is not just the popular sushi that sells well. Japanese street food like ramen too are finding takers, says Satoshi Akimoto, owner of ramen shop Aki Bay in Chennai. “Ramen is a popular dish in Japan. During my stint here I was not able to find any restaurants serving good ramen,” he said.

That made him quit his senior position in an automobile company in Chennai to start a ramen shop in 2013. Now many locals come too. “Well, it has been a good journey and we are seeing a lot of crowd, especially kids,” he adds. He is now changing the menu to suit Indian taste palate by making his food spicier. “We are adding tempura and Japanese curry to the menu, which I feel will suit Indian taste buds better,” he added.

Many of the youngsters, like Meenal S, are drawn to Japanese food through other influences, like manga and anime. “After watching the anime Naruto I was tempted to try ramen,” she said. Meenal slowly graduated to savour dishes like omu rice (omelette rice) and okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) that are just picking up in India, but are well-liked back in Japan.

As more restaurants and shops open up, life for a Japanese in India has become a lot easier, confesses Shimizu Yuko. She came to Chennai eight years ago to work as the language instructor in the school she is managing now. “I used to go to schools and colleges to teach the language,” she said. “People did not even know where Japan was,” a memory that still startles her.

Getting Japanese cooking ingredients was a challenge too. “I had to cook with ingredients that were available,” she said. Things have changed for the better now. Shimizu says, “We not only have decent restaurants here but also supermarkets like Gormei Market and Amma Naana, we can buy ingredients at economic price.” Gormei market and Amma Naana are run by Indians to cater to growing demand for import foods.

“Well at least now I don’t have to teach people where Japan is,” she quips.

Published on September 25, 2017
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