Quinessentially known as ‘sushi,’ there is more to Japanese cuisine that is now being appreciated around the world. Many foodies have already sampled the raw fish or batter-fried shrimp, which are quite popular in the Japanese cuisine. In the India market, this far east Asian cuisine still has to grow to compete with the already popular Chinese and Italian cuisine. Many new Japanese restaurants are lining up in the metro cities, but except from a niche crowd of foodies, still people lack knowledge about various traditional Japanese offerings. Russell Merdjanian, BOT operations manager, Benihana India, says, “Japanese cuisine is still very young in the India market, just as wine is still also yet to become popular and well known to the general Indian national who hasn’t travelled abroad. Chinese and Italian cuisine has already matured in the India market and has been transformed into ‘Chinese Indian and Italian Indian’. Japanese food is yet to evolve since it is new to the market.
Merdjanian says that many Japanese dishes have an Indian connect to it, “Some of the most popular Japanese dishes are Chicken Yakitori (similar to Tandoori Chicken but no masala), Vegetable Tempura (similar to Indian Pakora), and various noodle dishes which feature Japanese Udon noodles.”
Benihana is a Doral, Florida-based American restaurant company. It owns and has franchised a total of 116 Japanese cuisine restaurants around the world. This company recently entered the India market with a restaurant in New Delhi. Speaking about the response from this market Merdjanian comments, “The response has been positive for many diners who are experiencing Teppanyaki and ‘eatertainment’ for the first time. Much of the India market does not know what to order when they come to a Japanese restaurant, so they need guidance from our staff which is highly trained to guide guests’ through our menu by explaining about the dishes along with how Benihana’s unique dining experience works. With that said, the India market is definitely not looking at Japanese cuisine the same as it is towards Chinese and Italian cuisine, which has almost become mainstream and also been adjusted towards the Indian palate.”
Sake, an alcoholic beverage and a very important part of the Japanese cuisine is made from fermented rice and is often referred to as ‘rice wine’. In Japan, where it is considered as the national beverage, Sake is often served- gently warmed in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle called a tokkuri, and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki. This beverage is still rare to find in the India market. Merdjanian says, “Sake is once again still very young in the India market as an alcohol beverage. There is not much awareness in the India market about Sake and it is very hard to find due to the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) who are holding hostage containers of imported food, wine, beer, and various imported goods worth crores. This is the main reason why sake is very hard to find in India. Most of the clientele that comes to Benihana who are familiar with Sake have travelled abroad to experience their first sip of the fermented rice beverage.”
Speaking about the key for a delicious Sake, Merdjanian explains, “According to me, the key for a delicious Sake is excellent water and rice quality. Specific regions in Japan such as Niigata are famous for their Sake due to excellent water quality and rice. In a brief overview, production of Sake starts with first polishing rice grains. The rice grains are then washed and steeped. After washing and steeping of rice, the rice is then steamed. Once steamed, koji and Sake yeast is added to the rice and the fermentation process begins for a number of days depending on the Sake brewer’s recipe. Once the fermentation process has finished and the rice has broken down into a mash, the mash is then filtered and pasteurised. The Sake is then placed into storage and bottled for consumption. There are thousands of Toji also known as sake brewers in Japan and each of them have different methods and recipes which go back hundreds of years.”
According to Merdjanian, Sake can also be paired with Indian cuisine, “Sake can be paired with any type of cuisine just like traditional wine. There are many dry full bodied Sake that go well with cuisines that have heavy sauces and spice such as Indian cuisine.”
The Indian touch
Just like ‘Chinese Indian’ and ‘Italian Indian’, Japanese restaurants in India are preparing dishes with an Indian touch. Benihana, also has a variety of Japanese vegetarian dishes which is hard to find elsewhere, as fish and meat is the base of this cuisine. Merdjanian concludes, “I would like to mention that Benihana does not serve or specialise in authentic Japanese cuisine. We have westernised Japanese food to be more easily accepted towards the westerner’s palate. This is how we as Benihana have become one of the most successful Teppanyaki restaurant chain in the world with over 100 locations. Our vegetarian menu has been modified to suit the Indian palate by adding spicy new sauces and various seasonal vegetables which are staple foods in many of the common Indian household.”