Shonali Muthalaly takes you on a guided tour of the Chennai's restaurants that serve Sushi and meets the chefs who roll it out in style
Sushi is Chennai's trump card. Thanks to the city's many Asian expatriates, there have been authentic, reasonably priced, high quality sushi restaurants here for more than a decade. Akasaka, in Tiruvanmiyur, one of the first, became legendary for having its own boat, to ensure absolute freshness.
Now, sushi's gaining mass appeal. It's quick, convenient and famously healthy. The toasted seaweed sheets, called Nori, are high in B-complex, Niacin, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. The garnishing — ginger and wasabi — has antiseptic properties. While Akasaka and Dahlia are possibly the city's best known secrets when it comes to sushi, the number of places you can now eat maki has increased substantially. And even these old bastions, which featured only-Japanese menus for years since they had very few local customers at first — are now getting market savvy, with slick pictures and translations. The low tables, Japanese magazines and matter-of-fact service, however, remain. Momoyama, which opened about a year ago, is the newest contender. Every Chennai sushi loyalist has his/her favourites. And more often than not, they're one of these three.
But as the city opens up, there's more to come. Meet the next wave of Sushi chefs.
“I didn't like sushi at first. I wouldn't even taste it,” giggles Chef Pratibha Naik. When she joined the LaLiT Ashok at the age of 24, she surprised the all-male chef team by choosing to specialise in Teppanyaki. “It's a hot kitchen, and you know what most girls are like,” she says, rolling her eyes. “All dainty darlings.”
Chef Naik, however, was so fascinated by Japanese cooking that she started working on not just the style, but also the flair. “The chefs there helped me. When I cook, I toss the salt and pepper, throwing them in the air, and still seasoning the food in the right proportion.”
Now, two years later, in Chennai's Marriot hotel she's still the only woman in the teppanyaki kitchen, a fact she seems to relish. “I read somewhere that women can't be good sushi chefs because their hands are warmer than men's hands. But, for every problem there is a solution. When I make sushi I dip my hands two or three times in cold water, and my sushi is fine.” The real challenge? “Pronouncing the names in Japanese accurately. That took the longest time to learn.”
Her specialities featured at Paprika, the Marriot's coffee shop, include tempura rolls and dramatic dragon rolls. She's also quite excited about her range of vegetarian sushi. “I create my own recipes. Roast tricolour peppers in a tandoor with garlic, and make it into nigiri. I also use avocado, pickled radish and sweet shitake mushrooms. What finally convinced her to try sushi for the first time? “I didn't have a choice,” she laughs. “My executive chef said ‘you're going to make it. You have to eat it!'”
June Bautista and Joseph Ruiz bow low, and then shake hands. With almost two dozen countries between them, they're now experts at bridging cultures. Their sushi therefore, despite being firmly rooted in tradition, (both chefs have worked in Japan) also gracefully embraces contemporary food styles and local ingredients.
As Ruiz creates a plate of dragon sushi, with crunchy prawn tempura, juicy slices of salmon and a glistening topping of salty salmon roe, Bautista discusses his journey into sushi. “I started at the age of 17 as a dishwasher.” He was gradually promoted: to chef's helper, fish cleaner and eventually fish cutter. “All the time I was dreaming, ‘someday I will be chef'.”
Ruiz, who's half Japanese and half Filipino chips in saying he too began as a helper in a Japanese kitchen. “After that I just grew,” he says, adding, “Sushi for me is not just a ball of rice — it's art. I spend time decorating every plate. My sushi has many influences… I've worked in 12 countries so far.” His strongest influences are French. “It's like a canapé,” he grins, holding out another one of his very individual creations, a sushi Valentine's heart, made with strips of tuna.
Both chefs say they've been surprised at how easy it's been to fit in. “The ingredients are great. The prawn here is one of the best I've tasted. It's so sweet,” says Bautista, while Ruiz hold out his iPhone so we can admire a picture of him with a massive fish. “Look, its 54 kilos. Local tuna.”
The chefs are looking forward to summer's mangoes, for Sunshine rolls, topped with ripe fruit and salmon. They're also working on dessert sushi, featuring sweet rice and fruit. And keep an eye open for their Bento boxes, which will make a debut soon.
Roll sushi with Chef Juancho Miday at your own risk. As your hands get sticky with rice, after much huffing and puffing you'll probably end up with a roll that looks like it's been sat on by a sumo wrestler. His maki will, of course, be perfect. Precise, neat and quick, Miday's sushi-making is performance art.
At the Vivanta by Taj Connemara, he is now teaching people the art of sushi rolling as part of Hip Asia's 8th anniversary. “Nori is seaweed collected off a rock,” he begins, adding with a dramatic shudder, “It's slimy! So they wash it in fresh water, strain it and dry it in the sun for a week.” He grabs a handful of vinegared rice next, adding that although people started to eat sushi in the 17th Century, it was only much later that they discovered the effect vinegar has on rice. “It marinates the rice, so it doesn't spoil. And helps it stick together so it's easier to roll.”
He's a patient teacher. From the origin of sushi, he moves to the different styles available today. As he rapidly presses a ball of rice onto the nori sheet he explains the difference between nigiri, where the fish is used as a topping, and maki, where it's used as a filling. Then, he invites his guests to help themselves to his range of sharp, glistening Japanese knives, and neatly cut the rolls into an even eight portions.