Feeling right at home

There he stands between the onions and potatoes. He bows meaningfully, narrowly avoiding a shopper laden with coconuts, bananas and an extra large sprig of curry leaves. Despite the sweltering heat, he’s in a dapper tie, stylishly pointed boots and a neat, precisely tied white apron. We face each other in the vegetable aisle with the grim determination of two warring sumo wrestlers. (Cue music from The Karate Kid, or any other suitably clichéd oriental action film of your choice.)

I’ve challenged Japanese chef Yasuhiro Katayama, who recently opened the swanky Sora Jima restaurant at Accord Metropolitan, to cook a meal from produce found at a local grocery store. Japanese chefs are notoriously picky about ingredients, importing everything from fish to ginger. In fact, professional chefs in general, have a frustrating way of peppering recipes with ingredients that are exasperatingly tough to source. Which makes you wonder: how would a chef fare if he had to shop in the same stores that we do?

All this to explain why chef Katayama, the hotel’s executive chef Puneet Kumar Khanna, a clutch of PR people, an inevitable knot of curious bystanders and I are warily eyeing each other in the crowded aisle of Annai Pazhamudir Cholai in Abhiramapuram. Fortunately, the delicious scent of the Banganapalli mangoes beside us breaks the ice. “India’s mangoes are so good,” says chef Katayama, lifting a particularly plump yellow specimen to his nose and inhaling appreciatively. “Sometimes, I carve mangoes, and serve them on a sushi platter,” he adds, carefully putting it into his shopping basket.

“Chef’s favourite fish is the Hamachi (yellowtail), which we import,” smiles chef Puneet, adding, “but we also go to Kasimedu market at 4 a.m. to buy local fish for the restaurant. “The tuna here is excellent,” says chef Katayama, “It must be absolutely fresh, and undamaged, to be used for sashimi.” He picks up a couple of yellow and red bell peppers, then adds a bunch of carrots to his shopping basket. “I use lots of local radish and ginger,” he states, picking some up.

“Look chef, your ‘edamame’ is just like this,” chuckles chef Puneet, pointing at a pile of beans. “Lab lab?” says chef Katayama, reading off the label. Both move forward and start filling the basket rapidly. “Red pumpkin, okra, aubergine for tempura. One cabbage for a stir fry. Cucumbers for sashimi. A big crunchy head of lettuce.”

They pause at the arbi. “Taro root,” says chef Katayama, “I make it with chicken wings — it’s good.” He emphasises his point with a ‘thumbs up’, before adding, “Also for tempura.”

Standing in line to pay the bill, chef Puneet’s eyes light up when he spots a basket of fresh figs. “Have you tried poaching these?” he asks. “Just add some star anise and serve with whipped cream. It’s delicious.” Impromptu recipes: just another advantage of shopping with chefs.

As we drive back to the hotel, chef Katayama talks of growing up in a food-obsessed family thanks to his mother, who ran a restaurant in Nagoya, Japan. Determined to learn to cook professionally, he apprenticed at a restaurant in Nagoya when he was 17 years old. “For two months, they only let me wash dishes. Then I was promoted to fish cutting,” he says, adding, “It takes five years of practice before you can call yourself a sushi chef.”

When he was finally deemed ready, he moved to New Zealand, where he worked at a restaurant for two years, before relocating to Bangalore to open Matsuri, at The Chancery Hotel. Now, at 28, he’s just launched Sora Jima on the top floor of the Accord Metropolitan. “It means ‘Island in the Sky’,” he says as we walk into the restaurant, which offers dramatic views of the city.” As his team unpacks the groceries, chef Katayama proudly takes out a lethal-looking knife. “This one is a Seki,” he says, holding it up so it glints dangerously. “Seki also makes the Samurai knife,” he adds, pointing to elegant lettering embossed on the blade. “That’s my name. I bought this 11 years ago, when I first started cooking.” Like all chefs, he treasures his knives. “My knife sharpener alone costs the equivalent of Rs. 60,000.”

The meal begins with sashimi, wrapped in impeccably sliced strips of cucumber. There’s also a fluffy Japanese omelette, cut into two fat squares, and made by whipping together eggs, water, sugar and fish stock, then flipping it dexterously in a special square pan. It’s accompanied by a little pyramid of finely grated fresh radish. So far, so good. Everything’s local. Then I spot the glossy, dark hijiki. “Imported!” I squeal. Chef Katayama nods. “But it’s so good for you. It’s soaked for a day, and then mixed with sweet sake. And look, those carrots we bought are in there too.” Mollified, I taste some and it’s delicious — a tantalising blend of the earth and sea, managing to be sweet, salty, juicy and crunchy all at the same time. “Very good for your hair,” grins chef Katayama, “My father’s almost 60 and his hair is all black because we eat this often.”

As we chat, sous chef Dipesh Rai, quickly slices carrots, okra and aubergine into uniform pieces and then dips them in a tempura batter before frying them in smoking hot oil. He works deftly, flipping them over with a large pair of chopsticks as soon as they turn golden. Then does the same with a handful of large local prawns. Meanwhile chef Katayama is sneaking more exotic produce into the meal. “Soy hiyayakko,” he says pushing forward a creamy block of silken tofu. “Very good for your skin.” He pauses for a minute, then calls for the cabbage stir-fry and miso soup, “Also good for you skin. And hair.” Just as I start wondering if chef Katayama has secret spa manager ambitions, chef Puneet pops by, and suggests we all have lunch together. “Here?” sputters chef Katayama, looking visibly disappointed. The staff bursts into laughter, as a waiter helpfully inserts, “He wants to go to the coffee shop downstairs to eat biryani.” Chef Katayama is clearly settling down comfortably in Chennai. Nightclubs? “Um. I went once,” he says. Curious, I ask which one. “Hmm. I don’t remember,” he says, calling a waiter. “Can you ask chef Puneet which one?” The waiter helpfully starts reeling off a list. “You went to Blend. Then to a club on the ECR. Then Dublin…” Embarrassed, chef Katyama cuts on, “Ok. Thank you. Bye.”

In an attempt to look more grown up, he grandly announces that he has just moved into his own apartment last week, and is in the process of setting up his home kitchen. “So, what do you cook there?” I ask, envisioning elaborate traditional meals that remind him of Nagoya. “Bread. And coffee,” he laughs. “Black coffee, because I don’t even have milk at home most of the time.”

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 6:16:15 PM |

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