There is much more to eating out in this graceful nation than just sushi, tempura, and teppanyaki

Stendhal Syndrome is defined as “a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful...”.

But that afternoon, as I stared in wonder at the perfectly poised ‘cherry blossoms’ fashioned out of a blushing pink radish, surrounded by tendrils of carrot, all adorning a miso-glazed piece of red sea bream, accompanied by a quivering egg and seafood savoury custard called chawanmushi, I knew that I was struck by the aforementioned affliction with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I was in Japan on a mission. A food-forged mission that I hoped would have serendipitous consequences. Adamant to have a taste of the ‘real’ Japanese cuisine, something other than sushi, tempura and teppanyaki — the holy trinity that has assaulted us with all its might here in India — I found myself in the hallowed and sacred environs of the Haryo-in Temple in the mountain town of Koya-san in Japan’s Kansai region, sitting down for a meal.

But this was no ordinary meal, I was told by the temple priests. I would be indulging in the Japanese version of haute cuisine called kaiseki-ryori, that this temple, doubling up as a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), serves its patrons. Mainly a meatless eight-course meal, kaiseki-ryori is an elaborate and expensive affair at around Rs. 4,500 per person.

Among other fish and vegetarian dishes, go-han or Japanese style boiled rice is always eaten last along with assorted vegetable pickles called tsukemono, rice dough-based wagashi (dessert) like the adzuki red bean paste-stuffed mochi. All this is lubricated by the smooth-as-silk rice wine, sake, or the tepid ocha green tea for the teetotallers.

Offering me a glimpse at another one of Japan’s edible wonders (with a less expensive bill at the end!) was the Matsuzaka restaurant in Tokyo’s trendy Akasaka area that specialises in shabu-shabu — a dish popular with the Gen-Y set. A variation of sukiyaki, where thin slivers of meat are blanched in a herbed, citrusy broth and then served to patrons, this dish puts a D.I.Y. spin on things by making diners do all the cooking themselves over the pots of steaming broth that are fitted onto gas stoves built right into the tables.

Surrounded by a phalanx of giggly teenagers dressed as cosplay and manga comics’ characters, I got down to business. All the while under the watchful gaze of the rather bemused wait staff who were still coming to grips with the idea of a gaijin (foreigner) attempting to infuse a little grace into the rather messy preparation!

Another über popular D.I.Y. preparation is the famed okonomiyaki. Literally meaning “grilled as you like it”, this pancake-meets-pizza doppelganger is as fun to make as it is to eat.

My friend Satoshi Abe at whose Roppongi Hills Tokyo pad I was crashing at, threw an impromptu okonomiyaki party for me, where he and his friends introduced me to the dish’s nuances. Made from a slurry of flour, water, shredded cabbage, ginger, beaten eggs, seafood and any other meat or vegetable of your choice, the diners are supposed to pile all these up in layers onto a hot oiled flat top griddle (see recipe). Once ready, the pancake is drizzled with a sweet brown sauce and mayonnaise and sent off with an embellishment of dried bonito fish flakes.

As I travelled south of the country to the once doomed city of Hiroshima, I learnt that there is a lot of conjecture with regards to the provenance of the dish. While some believe that the okonomiyaki, made all over Japan, is the Real McCoy, there is a whole other school of purists who is adamant that the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki made with soba noodles, with pork or beef substituting the seafood is the only kind there can ever be.

But at the risk of sounding like a total Philistine, I must admit that the one that I ate at the Okonomi-mura Okonomiyaki House at Shintenchi Plaza Building in downtown Hiroshima was no better or worse than its other country cousins.

The streets of Kyoto, particularly the Geisha-infested alley of Ponto-chô were my Aladdin’s cave of treasures as far as street food went.

Rushing me past restaurants, whose window displays featured plastic replicas of assorted food and drinks (including a very authentic looking masala dosa, I kid you not!), my former university buddy and de facto Kyoto guide, Fumie Takai led me to her favourite local Japanese-style pub called an izakaya. Featuring on its menu were grilled skewers of offal like gyutan (ox’s tongue), torikawa (chicken skin) and motsu-nabe (pig’s heart) along with octopus balls called takoyaki and bowls of steaming beef ramen noodle soup. All criminally encore-worthy.

Also gaining popularity, I was told, was the rather Indianised kari (curry) dishes. The tonkatsu kari that I bought in a packaged form from an Osaka train station shokudô (casual restaurant) was a curious dish of a deep-fried pork cutlet and prawn doused with a sweetish curry sauce with subtle nuances of Madras curry powder, all sitting atop a bed of raisu (western-style cooked rice). Perfectly edible. But curry, it sure was not.

And I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without a bit of sumo action. But not the kind you’d be expecting. Chanko-nabe is a hearty stew developed to put the heft into apprentice sumo wrestlers. Made from a base of chicken stock to which copious amounts of chicken, tofu, and vegetables like onions, shiitake mushrooms and Chinese cabbage are added along with herbs like ginseng root to bulk things up. Half a bowl of this power-packed concoction at downtown Kyoto’s Chanko Tomoegata restaurant and I was ready to call it quits. I was finally full.

Accepting defeat, I skulked away from the restaurant, averting my eyes from the piercing gaze of my fellow diners. But ecstatic that my must-eat list would see its final ‘check’!

SATOSHI’S OKONOMIYAKI

Ingredients

1/2 a large cabbage

2 cups plain flour

2 2/3 cups water

4 eggs

2 chicken/vegetable stock cubes

150 gm mixed seafood (squid, prawns, oysters, mussels) or mixed blanched vegetables (peas, diced carrots, French beans)

1 tbsp pickled pink ginger (gari) chopped finely

2 spring onions sliced thinly with stalk

2 tbsp HP sauce or thick Worcestershire sauce

2 tbsp mayonnaise

1 tbsp oil

2 tbsp dried bonito fish flakes (optional)

Method

Finely slice cabbage. In a large bowl mix flour, water and eggs. Mix in stock cubes, spring onions and pickled ginger.

Add cabbage and combine well. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan.

Spoon cabbage mixture into the pan to make a nine inch circle about 3/4 inch thick. If the mixture spreads out of the circle, try and coax it together with a metal spatula. You can even use a cooking ring to pour the mixture into, to retain its shape.

Sprinkle the seafood or blanched vegetables on top of the okonomiyaki and let it cook for about four minutes. Carefully flip, then cook another three to four minutes.

When cooked through, turn onto a plate with the seafood/vegetable side upwards.

Using a squeeze bottle, drizzle both the HP/Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise over the okonomiyaki.

Top with bonito fish flakes, cut into wedges like a pizza and serve hot.