With the city becoming a melting pot of international flavours, Japanese cuisine has found a new home, writes Shonali Muthalaly

Now, here’s an unexpected love affair. Chennai’s tryst with Japanese food. Dahlia, Momoyama and Akasaka, which once catered mainly to the expatriates, are now finally drawing locals. Sushi appears at buffets and brunches. Supermarkets have started stocking Japanese ingredients. And the recent launch of Raku Raku at the Radisson Blu Hotel, was yet another reminder that this niche cuisine seems to have the potential to go mainstream.

Teppan, part of the Oriental Cuisine group of restaurants, began catering to the general public from 2010. They’ve been so successful, they’ve now opened in Bangalore. Ashok, business manager of Teppan, says one reason it’s getting so popular is because the cuisine is healthy. “There’s minimal oil and fat. Lots of vitamins, minerals, proteins. Especially with sushi and sashimi,” he says. The restaurant has also made adjustments for the local market, without compromising on the integrity of the cuisine. “We offer vegetarian maki rolls. We use ingredients Indians are familiar with, so it’s a mix of the familiar and exotic.” Their wasabi blend is less powerful so it doesn’t take newbies by surprise. And they offer smaller portions so people can try more. “Sushi is usually served with eight pieces a plate. Now we serve four,” says Ashok.

Chennai’s advantage is great seafood. “The local tuna and sea bass are of really good quality. The boats come in the morning, and the fish is brought directly to the restaurant.” As the clientele base expands, it also makes it easier to import fish, since they can order relatively large quantities. “We bring in about 50 kilos of Norwegian salmon every month. Seafood with stronger flavours — like eel and octopus — find fewer takers, so we can just bring about five kilos of each.”

It’s not all sushi. Sandesh Reddy, founder of the popular Sandys’ Chocolate Laboratory and Chop, plans to open a ramen noodle bar called ‘GoGo Ramen’ by April. Although he feels that Japanese food won’t ever sweep the country the way Chinese food did in the 1970s and 1980s, it definitely has a market in Chennai. “It’s not a mass market cuisine,” he says, explaining that since Chinese cuisine is very broad, that makes it easy to adapt it to suit Indian taste buds. “The scope for making those changes is very narrow with Japanese,” he says. “You can’t Indianise ramen, for instance.”

Like the sushi-sashimi-teppanyaki wave, ramen as a trend will probably start with the expatriates. “There are already so many Japanese companies in the city,” says Sandesh, adding that the number is expected to rise by the end of the year. Besides, even if the local market is niche, it’s certainly far more adventurous, experimentative and enthusiastic than ever before. With young professionals eating out an average of four-five times a week, it’s inevitable that they’ll look for variety.

This is why Prakash Chandran, general manager Ramada Chennai Egmore, is working on a Japanese counter, which he hopes to eventually expand into a restaurant at his new hotel. “We’ve been having quite a lot of enquiries for Japanese cuisine,” he says, adding “So many Japanese companies are shifting base from Bangalore, and we want to capitalise on that.” They’re starting by bringing in a Chef from Japan this month for their multi-cuisine restaurant Boardwalk. “Our main focus is the Japanese and Korean clientele, but we also expect the locals to come here. After all, people are travelling a lot now and are so much more open to trying new food.”

Blogger's take:

Japanese food blogger Akemi Yoshi Purushotham’s noticed major changes since she moved to Chennai five years ago. Hailing from Yamaguchi prefecture (next to Hiroshima), she says even the five star hotels couldn’t get it right at first. “Now, even in Indian restaurants, I see Japanese dishes in the menu: for example Tempura at Copper Point in GRT Grand.” She adds that the next logical move would be for restaurants to introduce other facets of this cuisine. “Chicken Karaage (Japanese style deep fried chicken) is experiencing a boom in Japan now, with many Karaage restaurants opening. Considering how popular deep fried chicken is in Chennai, I think Karaage would be popular here too.”

Akemi’s relieved that ingredients have got a little easier to source. “It is still difficult to get good sticky rice, soy sauce and fermented bean paste (miso), but I’m really happy that nowadays seaweed paper (nori) is even available in Nilgiris though the prices of these ingredients are very high.” Married to a local boy she met while working as a translator at HCL, she’s added Miso soup (fermented-bean soup), Nimono (Japanese stew), Onigiri (salty rice ball wrapped in Seaweed paper), Nabe (Japanese hot pot) and Japanese curry to the daily home menu.

She’s not surprised that Chennai’s taken to sushi so well. “A friend’s brother moved to the US but didn’t like western food. He survived because of Sushi, since it’s a rice dish and therefore similar to South Indian food, even though he never tasted it in India,” says Akemi, adding with a laugh, “Maybe the similarities are the reason why I’m so comfortable here… Sambar is like our daily Miso soup. And I think of Phuliyodharai as South Indian Sushi. After all Sushi is basically vinegared or sweet-and-sour rice… I’m planning to create a fusion dish, South Indian Sushi Pocket/Inari sushi (deep fried bean curd stuffed with Sushi style Phuliyodarai).