Japanese cuisine sets great store by presentation, combination, the actual process of eating and enjoying the flavour of each ingredient in a dish.
I was introduced to Japanese cuisine during a business trip in 1999, when I sat down to dinner with two executives of a Japanese company. They instructed me in the use of chopsticks, that indispensable accessory without which it is impossible to enter into the strange and fascinating world of Japanese food and cooking. I was a diligent student, and was soon using the chopsticks with a dexterity that pleased them.
During the instruction, we consumed several flasks of sake, and all through I was given instruction on the correct way to hold the sake cup, the right way to pour sake into another’s cup, the way to acknowledge and express appreciation when another fills your cup, and so on. Every aspect of Japanese cuisine, from its preparation to its final consumption, is governed by rules and conventions.
For an Indian like me, this was initially confusing and frustrating, but gradually I began to understand what Japanese cuisine was about.
I learned much about food and cooking in general through my experience of Japanese cuisine. This has influenced my approach to my own cuisine of India, and I see how my enjoyment of the local cuisine of Kerala, and various parts of India with its rich diversity has also improved as a result.
Japanese cuisine sets great store by presentation, combination, the actual process of eating, and it is all about recognising and enjoying the flavour of each ingredient in a dish. The Japanese lunch box or Bento provides the context and setting for understanding this unusual approach not only to food, but indeed to life as a whole as brought out brilliantly by Kenji Ekuan in his eponymous book on design and aesthetics.
Typically, a Japanese meal will consist of soup, rice, meat or fish or both, and vegetables. These four elements of a meal are placed in four compartments in the lunch box. Within each element, many variations are possible. Combinations of each different variation in each element can in turn be combined with an array of combinations of each of the other three compartments. Business lunches, served in the conference room, consist of such lunch boxes, each of which are usually attractive lacquered boxes each of which looks like a collector’s item. Servings are fixed, so there is no question of having more. I never plucked up the courage to ask for more rice, as I feared my hosts would think I wanted one more lunch box!
Watching the progress of a meal is interesting, and these are never long drawn out affairs, but briskly concluded, with much slurping and smacking of lips, punctuated by sighs of appreciation. Soup is slurped noisily, which met with my immediate approval. I warmed to the Japanese upon discovering that even in the most exclusive and expensive restaurants, one could track the consumption of soup at the far end of the room by the noises alone.
The usual reaction of a novice on opening his lunch box for the first time is total puzzlement. What greets his eyes is an assortment of modest servings of food items, which appear to have been randomly selected and stowed into the four compartments. Picking up the chopsticks tentatively, he will wonder where to start, and furtively glance at the others seated near him. If he knows how to use chopsticks, he will at least be able to imitate the actions of those around him, which is the strategy I adopted. Business lunches are usually washed down with a bottle of green tea or Coke or coffee.
After the meal, accessories including chopsticks are carefully stowed away, and the table cleaned of remnants of the meal mean using paper napkins, which are also stowed in the lunch box before it is closed. What remains after a meal is a clean table, with not a speck or crumb of food to be spotted on pristine table tops.
In the evening, after work, meals are a more relaxed affair. Coats are removed, ties loosened, collars unbuttoned, shirtsleeves rolled up, as the waitresses come and go refilling glasses with shochu, replacing empty flasks of sake, or opening fresh bottles of chilled beer. The noise level gradually increases, and soon, there is a continuous reverberating roar, as a hundred throats compete to be heard in the din. Brays and hoots of laughter sweep across the throng and break against the walls like waves in the sea, punctuated by the clear voices of the waitresses exclaiming: Sumimasen! as they make their way through the throng bearing trays heaped with dishes of various kinds.
I find myself enjoying Kerala cuisine more, by trying to get the taste of the fish in the curry, the soft chamba rice, the lightly cooked beans thoran, instead of mixing them into one mish-mash ball and popping it into my waiting mouth. I enjoy mouthfuls of rice without any curry drowning its taste, savouring the soft but rough texture, and the rich taste, following it with a spoonful of fish curry. I now enjoy lightly spiced curries, which allow the taste of the meat or fish to be savoured.
Even the way I eat our traditional food has been subtly influenced by Japanese cuisine, as I prefer not to pour curry over the rice, but serve myself with each portion on a different part of the plate. I prefer to use the little ‘katories’ to hold different items such as thoran, avial, fried fish, beef curry, and so on, that I can enjoy one after the other, and not mix all together in a mess where all identity is lost. I am strongly of the view that the Japanese way of presenting and eating food will greatly enhance our enjoyment of our own cuisine.
(C. Balagopal is a former bureaucrat entrepreneur. He is the author of the book On A Clear Day You Can See India)