Most of us get overwhelmed and confused whenever we visit a Japanese restaurant as the first image that hits us is that of “Sushi” and “ raw fish”. For most of us, Japanese cuisine starts and ends with Sushi with an occasional Tempura or Yakitori thrown in.
Sashimi : raw seafood
Relax, help is at hand. I will take you thru some excellent Japanese dishes in a simple manner and try to correlate them with Indian flavours so that you are at ease. Walk confidently, order with ease and enjoy. We will also run thru average, good and great Japanese joints in India. Please see that I will write about only the ones that I have visited and there could be many more which maybe better. Atleast you will have a list to start with!
Lets start with Sushi first. As starters, not all Sushi dishes have raw fish. One common ingredient is off course rice. Japanese rice is short grain rice as opposed to our long grain basmati that we love so much. So Sushi rice cannot be basmati or long grain.
Sushi’s are basically of 2 types ( with nori sheets or without nori sheets; nori sheets are green in color and made of seaweed, pressed and gently roasted). I love nori sheets flavour. They are available at all high end general stores and can be put in soups or mixed with your usual rice as well. Be warned, Nori Sheet flavour and taste is an “acquired taste” i.e. you may start liking it if you use it frequently. Also chances are that if you like umami tastes ( prawn, crab, shellfish, shitake mushroom), you will have a natural liking towards Nori sheets. Its a strong flavour.
Sushi without the nori sheets ( Nigri) consists of a flattened mound of rice covered with raw fish or a pickled vegetable or a slice of omelette. There are several types of raw seafood options available ( yellowtail, prawn, cod, salmon etc). So Nigri means without nori sheet Sushi. I personally don’t like Nigri’s except for the one with an omelette.
Sushi with Nori Sheets are of several kinds. The nori can be outside and rice inside ( Maki or Uramaki rolls) or nori can be inside and rice outside ( Futomaki). Preparing Futomaki is an art as rice is outside with nori sheet and assortment of fish, vegetables inside. It needs dextrous hands to prepare. Maki rolls are easier to make. Futomaki rolls were first created in US as Americans initially weren’t amused with the color, texture of Maki rolls with nori sheets outside. I don’t have a bias either for Maki or Futomaki. Both have a great taste and I love them.
Then there is great “Temaki rolls”. Here, nori sheet is rolled like a ice cream cone and instead of ice cream, an assortment of rice, crabstick, carrot, avocado, salmon, various dressings are put. You take big bites of it and all the flavours burst into your mouth. Sometimes, they put Salmon roe ( small orange balls which actually are Salmon eggs) are put on top. It has to be eaten fresh as the nori cone becomes soggy if not eaten quickly. Temaki rolls comes with various name; California rolls is my favourite with crab stick and avocado ; Philadelphia roll comes with a Salmon stuffing ( I don’t prefer Salmon stuffing, so I give it a go by!).
Place to eat great Sushi:
Sakura, Nikko Metropolitan, Bangla Sahib Road, Connaught Place, New Delhi : Till now, there has been only one and only place in India to eat Great Sushi i.e. Sakura at Nikko Metropolitan Hotel, New Delhi. It was closed for a year due to renovation but open now. Don’t visit Sakura on Sunday afternoon as their unlimited brunch is nothing to talk about. The Sushi platter is however completely divine. If you are eating first time or generally are non-adventurous kind, don’t order Nigri. Order some Temaki rolls and Futomaki rolls. You can request them to have fillings of your choice ( I don’t like tuna and Salmon). If you know how to use chopsticks, use them or otherwise use your hands to pickup the Sushi. You are also provided with a small shallow plate to pour in your soya sauce, a mound of wasabi ( pungent horseradish paste) and sweet pickled thin slices of pink colored ginger. Pickup your Sushi, gently glide it over the soya sauce ( don’t dunk the whole Sushi as otherwise the rice will drink up the sauce) and put the whole thing or half of it in your mouth. You can also mix some wasabi with your soya although this is not recommended while eating Sushi ( the mixing of soya and wasabi is recommended when eating Sashimi) as the Sushi already has wasabi inside. If you are using chopsticks, you are suppose to gently poke your chopsticks into wasabi mount so that tiny wasabi specs stick on to the chopstick and then pickup the Sushi and eat (Presto!). In between morsels of different types of Sushi, you can eat those lovely ginger shavings. They are supposed to clean your palate ( just like you smell coffee after smelling many parfums) i.e. it erases earlier flavours and makes your tongue ready for a new flavour. The Sushi platter is good as it has a wide assortment of flavours. Sakura is an expensive place, but if you have a Citibank card, generally you get a 20% discount. It’s expensive but the ingredients used are top class, regularly flown in; cutlery is magnificent; minimalistic decor, service is top class; Top Honours.
Oriental Avenue at Shangri-La, Connaught Place, New Delhi : The Sushi sizes are big, flavourful and generally more expensive. But it comes a close second.
360 at Oberoi, Delhi and 361 at Oberoi, Gurgaon serves excellent Sushi. But a notch lower than Sakura and Shangri-La.
Yum Yum Tree, Friends Colony Market, New Delhi : Only place in New Delhi where Sushi is served on a conveyer belt. You have a thin U shaped slow moving conveyer belt and you are seated outside the U shaped belt which keeps moving. The Sushi Chef stands at one end, keeps preparing Sushi, puts them in a bowl or a plate and places them on the moving belt. You pickup whichever plate you like. Generally, its an unlimited platter and you keep picking the stuff. At times, it becomes very annoying as the guests seated at the early end of conveyor keep gobbling your favourite flavours and you get their discards. However, once they are satiated, you can have your pick. The Sushi are good and its value for money. They have Sushi brunches on Sundays and some other days and they are well worth the money spend. But is it gourmet, definitely no!. Its cheaper than Sakura, Sushi’s are small but you can frequent this place many times unlike Sakura.Value for money.
Zest or now called as Setz at DLF Promenade Mall, Vasant Kunj also serves great varieties of Sushi. Its middle of the road between Sakura and Yum Yum Tree. However it is too busy, crowded and serves many other cuisines other than only Sushi.
Indian Jones at The Oberoi, Mumbai, Pan Asia at Grand Maratha in Mumbai are also great places to have your Sushi full. Great ingredients, but are generally very busy restaurants.
Sushiya in Delhi is your take away Sushi counter. Its decent, millions of notches below Sakura and Yum Yum but for a fast joint, serves average fare. Tamura doesn’t add up at either Friends colony or Basant Lok Branch. Its a big no.
I haven’t been to Wasabi at Taj or the new place at Leela, Chanakya Puri. But have read rave reviews and hopefully would visit them one day.
Noodles & Broth:
As you flip thru the menu, Soba, Udon and Ramen noodles would catch your attention. What are they? Simply said they mean:
Soba means thin noodles made of buckwheat : Guess what is buckwheat. For starters it is not wheat and its not a cereal. In India Buckwheat is known by a popular name “Kuttu ka Atta”!!. Yes, the same atta which is used for making puris and kachoris during fasting days ( during fasting , no cereals are are allowed). See, we are closer to Japanese than we think. These noodles are at times served cold? Yes cold!, Don’t try it. You maynot like them. Try them warm in a scalding broth.
Udon slurpy noodles
Udon means thick wheat noodles ( unlike buckwheat). They are really thick, more like spaghetti but have a lustrous feel to them. They are generally dunked into a piping hot scalding broth alongwith vegetables, prawn tempura and a whole egg. Its really a treat. If you like your soup in a large bowl, very hot (piping), then this is for you. I love this broth. The noodles actually have no taste. They just slip thru. Don’t mistake these for your Hakka noodles or the Pad Thai. They are different.
Ramen are Chinese type noodles in Japanese cuisine. If you don’t eat Pork, stay away from Ramen noodles or Ramen noodles broth. Chances are 100% that these noodles are served in pork broth with pork meat shavings. They are similar to our maggi noodles.
Tempura, Yakitori and Teriyaki:
Well Tempura is your “pakora’!, yes it is like your pakora, but made with fine flour, crispy and crunchy. The batter is very thin and vegetables are visible. Don’t even try vegetarian Tempura’s, our pakora’s are much better. But Prawn Tempura is the king, its awesome, delicious and one has to have couple of them. Paste them with wasabi and add a touch of soya and they are magic.
Yakitori are chicken skewers ( Japanese version of Kebabs minus the garam masala). They smoother soft chicken pieces in variety of sauces and grill them. Awesome. Soft, delicious chunky chicken pieces melt in your mouth. My favourite.
Teriyaki is a sweet Soya marinade used in chicken and fish dishes. Excellent taste.Kids just love it.
Okonomiyaki ( Japanese utthapam) : Seriously its Japanese answer to American pancakes or Indian Uthapam. You can different meats put on top along with Mayonnaise. Great indulgent stuff. But please don’t eat before eating Sushi as you will be already full.
I like spinach Gomae. Its a wonderful melange of spinach, sesame, soya and slightly sweet. Great to start the meal with.
So, although the Japanese Menu would list many dishes, the above would keep you happy.
Gyoza are similar to chinese Kothey’s. They are wontons and then shallow fried.