Like most Japanese girls, Kaoru Katori began her kitchen experiments by baking sweets. By the time she was 15, she was cooking Chinese and French dishes. Her interest in India was sparked by a novel she read in high school. “The history, culture and ethnic varieties depicted in that novel attracted me so much. I got to visit India for the first time in 1985, when I was 23. It was then that I first ate ordinary Indian food such as sabzi . They were so different from the Indian food I knew, because back then, Indian restaurants in Japan were offering only high-end Mughal cuisine,” says Kaoru.
But it was the breakfast staple, the masala dosa, which captivated her. She recalls, “Who would expect such tasty potatoes to be hidden inside a brown paper? The dosa was crispy but moist, roasted and sour, served with a cup of red soup and some white paste; I had no idea what it was at the time. But what a great combination when they were all eaten together!”
What fascinates Kaoru the most is the metamorphosis of the taste. “When having a South Indian meal, by mixing multiple items on the plate, one after another, the flavour changes. Another attraction is the aroma. For example, the delicate but savoury aroma of fermented dosa, or that of roasted cumin and black pepper in rasam is addictive,” she explains poetically, adding, “Crunchy or crispy touches, the blend of different sour tastes, piquant flavours and various other fragrances are all combined like the performance of an orchestra.”
Since that first visit, she has been back to the country several times: “I have stayed with more than 50 families and learnt their home cooking. I sometimes stayed in India for more than a month, and other times, at least for a week. Even when I am in Japan, I occasionally visit Indians to taste their food and learn.” With all this research, Kaoru has written several cookbooks in Japanese, the latest being one on South Indian cooking.
Ask her why, and she says, “About ten years ago, South Indian restaurants appeared in Japan; curry leaves had become available (through very limited routes), and I heard more and more Japanese voices wanting to cook South Indian food at home, but there were no recipe books available. As I had run my Indian cooking school in Tokyo for 15 years by then, I knew I could compile a cookbook.”
Writing about her favourite cuisine was easy, as she has over two decades of experience in cooking it and 12 years of experience trying to make publishers understand that South Indian cooking is vastly different from North Indian cooking. It also helped that there are many fans of Indian culture in Japan, some of whom are growing their own curry leaves to use in cooking, and that there is a biryani boom in the country right now, which helped convince the publishers that this is the right time to come out with a cookbook. Her book, with its beautiful photographs, covers the basics tiffin items and what they pair best with (sambar and chutney), regional favourites like Chettinad cuisine and the fact that there are innumerable versions of each dish, according to the region. She says, “Japanese people do not mix food on the plate while eating, so I included a guide on how to eat, so that they did not end up taking a bite of dosa, then having a sip of sambar, then a lick of chutney and then eat a spoonful of poriyal! I believe that a recipe book that provides only recipes cannot convey the depth and richness of the eating culture, so I wrote a lot from the cultural perspective too.”
On her future plans, Kaoru says, “It’s my dream to publish this book in English. The focus is solely on how to let the readers/cookers successfully reproduce the dish as the author intended. Above all, it is a beautifully designed book, showcasing the workmanship of proud Japanese creators.”