Chef Zac goes to Japan

The Executive Chef of The Bombay Canteen on decoding life lessons from the Japanese kitchen. Also, where to eat and drink (and shop for shirts) in Japan

Whether it’s eating premium cuts of wagyu, stumbling upon hole-in-the wall restaurants or discovering new vegetables (like shungiku or spring chrysanthemums, which pop up in soups and steamed dishes), Japan is a culinary wonderland for chefs.

Japan, to me, also feels like a country on a different plane of existence. The attention to detail is present in every aspect of life. I remember coming across a vending machine with white shirts at a station in Tokyo, with a shower next to it, for anyone who’d missed the last train and had to sleep there!

Earlier this year, an initiative by Door to Asia, an organisation that works with the 2011 tsunami-hit regions in northern Japan, took me to the Hakoneyama Festival in Rikuzentakata, Tōhoku. I left India with a box of moras bhaji, packets of hing and kodampuli and other ingredients to cook dishes like meen mappas at the festival. But the plan was to stick around for three weeks and make a #ChefOnTheRoad trip out of the experience. That’s how the learning began.

As told to Surya Praphulla Kumar

Thomas Zacharias, Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen, highlights culinary diversity in his #ChefontheRoad series on Instagram

‘Shokunin’, or the artisan’s spirit: I’ve always wanted to witness first-hand the concept of shokunin: the mastery of a single skill, like chefs who’ve spent their entire lives making just udon or tempura (pictured). There is also the unparalleled respect for ingredients and seasonality. First stop, Nijo Kizuki, a restaurant in Tokyo, where chef Akira Morimoto focusses solely on perfecting the craft of sushi with a menu that changes daily and incorporates seafood flown in from across Japan. Photo: Thomas Zacharias
Toyosu snapshots: The Tsukiji market shut down because tourists were becoming a nuisance, and the local authorities thought that it was prime property which could have uses elsewhere. So they opened Toyosu, a professional wholesale market open only to those in the industry. I visited the fish, vegetable and fruit markets. The fish market is unbelievable — almost like 10 football fields long and reminiscent of a lab, with vendors in white coats, absolutely no smell of fish, and silence despite a lot of movement. I saw hundreds of varieties of seafood that I’d never seen before — including over two dozen types of clams and mussels, sea krill, etc. Chef Daisuke Nomura, who runs Suogo, a shojin ryori-style restaurant that showcases mostly Japanese Buddhist vegetarian food, accompanied me. The only contradiction I spotted: the amount of plastic used in the packaging. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Paniyaram, anyone? At Wanaka Namba in Dotonbori (the street food neighbourhood in Osaka), I’d tried takoyaki — octopus-stuffed balls topped with sauce, fried bonito flakes and mayo. It reminded me of the Tamilian paniyaram. So I’m thinking of doing an inspired dish at the Bombay Canteen soon. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Respect is key: This is reflected in the country’s restaurant culture. Most restaurants are 12- to 16-seaters, where the owner is usually the chef, and they want you to come in not because you happened to walk by looking for a meal, but because you yearn to experience the chef’s craft. At Udon Taira in Fukuoka (pictured), you can see fresh udon noodles being made every few minutes while the broth pot is constantly replenished, resulting in a comforting dish with a light but flavourful soup. Photo: Thomas Zacharias
Power of simplicity: You can literally walk into any restaurant in Japan and have an amazing meal. I was struck by the sense of simplicity and restraint, as embodied by the term shibui. For example, at Chef Nakamura’s Tempura Nakajin in Kyoto, a shrimp tempura is simply shrimp dipped in batter, fried and served. Nothing else. There is no urge to ‘fancify’ it with garnish. The way they plate a lone shrimp has a sort of romance to it. Also, if you go with preconceived notions, your prejudices will be shattered. I went to Kuchibashi Modern in Kyoto thinking that the chicken sashimi (pictured) would be bland, raw chicken. But I was blown away by the depth of flavour in the different cuts. Made with specially-bred sashimi-grade chicken, it is butchered just hours before it is served. Photo: Thomas Zacharias
Understand mottainai: This is a concept I loved, the belief that God exists in everything. The Japanese ensure they don’t waste anything. To the extent that after a meal of soba noodles — that you eat by dunking into a liquid made of soy and mirin — they bring you some of the noodle broth so you can mix it with any leftover liquid and finish it. Photo: Thomas Zacharias
Go modern, stay true: While everything from the takoyaki (fried batter with octopus) and okonomiyaki (made with cabbage and egg, and topped with whatever you like; I chose pork and squid) in Osaka, to the roast wagyu beef sandwich at Tokyo Cowboy was impressive, I reserved a couple of meals to enjoy Michelin-star food. Shirosaka in Tokyo was one of those. Chef Hideki Li combines technique and thought to create modern Japanese cuisine in the kappo-ryori style (the more casual version of the multi-course kaiseki). From a tuna tartare with caviar to a seaweed dish featuring the sweetest tomato I’ve ever tasted, each course captured the essence of the flavour and presented it in a contemporary way. My takeaway: you can modernise a dish while still respecting the cuisine. This is something that echoes with me and the work I do. Photo: Thomas Zacharias
Art of contradiction: Japan is also contradictory in a lot of ways. There are pristine restaurants and then you go down an alley and see a guy blowtorching tuna with his bare hands. At Toyo, a roadside eatery in Osaka, don’t let the setting fool you. The food is incredible, and the quality very high. Izakaya Toyo (you would have seen him in the new Netflix show, ‘Street Food’) sources some of the best cuts of tuna you’d find in Osaka. Photo: Kosuke Arakawa/Netflix
Sake helpline: Given that there are hundreds of sake producers, you can’t go to a bar and expect to order one that you are familiar with. Usually, you leave it to the bartender to decide your drink, based on what you like — dry, unfiltered, pasteurised, etc. And don’t be shy about asking friends and experts to help with recommendations. Melinda Joe, a writer for Japan Times, took me to a fantastic, secret sake bar and gave me a whole list of her favorite restaurants in Tokyo. Jason Adamson who runs Sake Tours in Osaka took me on a restaurant hop across the city. And the Izakya bars are a must-visit and showcase a lot of pop culture with great food. Photo: Special Arrangement
Mappas twist: I tasted as much as I could locally — at markets, the oyster farms in Karakuwa, a sake brewery — and incorporated that in the food I cooked at the festival. A Kerala-style mappas curry with Sanriku oysters also featured a variety of local beans called aomame in a ragda pattice with umeboshi plum chutney. I also did a version of the Bombay Canteen bhel with the tiny shirasu (Japanese whitebait, pictured at right) that I tasted at the market. Literally the size of half a matchstick, it is slightly cured and can be eaten as is. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Seasonality rules: At every restaurant I went to in Tōhoku, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka, seasonal vegetables like kogomi (ostrich fern), takenoko (young bamboo shoots) and nanohana (flowering rapeseed) would show up in dishes. Sadly, this is not the case in India. We grew up eating local and seasonal, and respecting nose-to-tail and root-to-shoot cooking, but somewhere along the way, we lost that. So, seeing all this in Japan was a vindication, and what I hope people here will aspire to follow in their interactions with food Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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