Targeting busy, young, working professionals, she wrote a book on creating fuss-free Indian meals
Serendipity. That’s the only explanation. Even if it’s not really an explanation at all.
A trail of coincidences leads Kaoru Katori to this kitchen, and this unusual collection of people. Japanese cook book author, Katori, is stirring a rasam here, with quick, confident, fluid movements. She’s watched carefully by her teacher for the day, Gourmand Award winning cookbook author Viji Varadarajan. Beside them stands Katori’s young Japanese research assistant, giggling shyly as she’s complimented on her startlingly fluent Hindi. Acting as translator and sous chef is Akemi Yoshi Purushotham, a blogger whose business card reads ‘food tale collector’. Between passing Viji the turmeric and stirring the sambar, Akemi shows off the traditional South Indian thali around her neck, telling us how she moved to Chennai as a translator for HCL, and ended up marrying a colleague.
The link that holds everyone together? Idli Thayir pachadi-Mango rice-Morkuzhambu. Or, in other words, traditional Tamil vegetarian food.
Katori is a cook book author who writes about Indian food — in Japanese. She’s released about ten recipe books so far, all based on research she’s done in India over the last couple of decades. She began in 2005, with Indian Meals, a collection of essays and basic recipes. Then came one of her most popular books to date, Cooking With Only Five Spices — Indian Home Food for Beginners. The spices? Turmeric, chilli, coriander, cumin, garam masala. Targeting busy, young, working professionals, she wrote one more book on creating fuss-free Indian meals. Stock Paste Curry: A Concept Of Using 3 Basic Seasonings — deeply caramelised onion, stewed tomato paste and mixed masala to make quick curries. Curry for one. 45 easy recipes follows the same theme. Instead of following the traditional recipe format, which caters to two or four people, this is designed to create meals for one. Additionally, it uses Japanese instant curry mix and powder, and each recipe promises to take an average of 10 minutes.
Born and brought up in Tokyo, Katori says she was always fascinated by India. In 1985, she finally managed to visit. “I was a volunteer at an International Youth camp in Bhubaneshwar for one month,” she says. It was hard work. “We worked in archaeological sites. Cutting bushes. Clearing trees. It was a very hard job.” Nevertheless, she loved it. “There were 50 Indian students and I was the only Japanese girl. Everyone invited me to their home,” she laughs. “I went to Haryana first with a friend. Ate channa batura. Paneer mutter. Dal…”
Back in Tokyo she found herself increasingly dissatisfied with Japan’s version of Indian food. “Tandoori everywhere.” Although she was working at the Turkish embassy, she decided to learn how to cook at an Indian restaurant. “I finished work at 5 p.m. So I would go after that. I got a job at a restaurant called La Oya, it was one of the only restaurants in Tokyo that employed girls.”
She was now hooked. “I came to India as often as I could. I would work for a while and earn enough money to pay for my air ticket. Come here. Then go back, work again.” How many trips so far? She thinks for a minute. “Maybe 25?” Delhi came first. “I was learning Odissi in Tokyo, and my Indian teacher moved back to Delhi. So I visited her.” She adds, “I started visiting families to learn cooking. Middle-class families. People who do not have cooks. I can stay in the kitchen with the women all day.” She adds admiringly, “The mothers finish making breakfast, then start lunch.”
Realising she needed to learn Hindi to communicate, Katori joined a Hindi night school in Tokyo. “I once invited my teacher and classmates home for an Indian meal. He was so impressed he told me to start teaching people.” The next step was a cooking school. Kitchen Studio Paisley Culinary School began in 1992. Katori says it’s the largest Indian culinary school in Japan, with more than 1,700 registered students. “Ingredients were a problem — especially at first. We could not find curry leaves. So I planted a tree. It’s about four metres high now,’ she smiles. “Most of the students are Japanese housewives and young ladies. About 10 per cent are men.”
Now she’s in India researching Ayurvedic cooking. A board member of Japan Ayurveda society, she’s written three books on the subject. She says, “I want to learn about and teach people the healing power of spices.”