On A ROll

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE - Vir Sanghvi

NAV NEET KALRA, THE en­tre­pre­neur (Dayal Op­ti­cals and many o ther en­ter­prises) who is o ne o f the part­ners in To wn Hall in Khan Mar­ket, was telling me the saga o f his su­per­suc­cess­ful res­tau­rant. Kalra had the lo catio n in the in­ner part o f Khan Mar­ket, spread o ver two flo o rs, but was no t sure what to do with it. Then, af­ter vario us res­tau­rant chains o ffered him vast sums in rent fo r the space, he de­cided to run it him­self. He en­listed o ther part­ners, amo ng them, the o wn­ers o f Amo ur Bistro , and Au­gusto Cabr­era, who had been the sushi chef at Three­sixty at the Delhi Obero i fo r a decade.

Au­gusto is the man who in­tro duced a who le gen­er­a­tio n o f Dil­li­wal­las to sushi when Three­sixty first o pened, so Kalra was sure that the qual­ity o f the sushi-sashimi wo uld be ex­cel­lent. But wo uld that be eno ugh fo r the res­tau­rant to suc­ceed?

The hottest food in Delhi these days, a trend no one saw com­ing, is sushi. Call it the but­ter chicken of the new gen­er­a­tion!

The part­ners were no t sure, so they o pted fo r a mul­ti­cui­sine menu (Chi­nese, Ital­ian and Go d alo ne kno ws what else) to co ver their bets.

They needn’t have wo rried. Right fro m the day To wn Hall first o pened, it has been jam-packed. And while so me peo ple do o rder the o ther stuff, the res­tau­rant’s sell­ing po int has been sushi. So great is the de­mand that no t o nly will yo u find so me o f Delhi’s mo st high-pro file fo lks eat­ing there, many peo ple send their driv­ers fo r takeo ut sushi.

Kalra still can’t be­lieve it. “Sushi has beco me the new but­ter chicken fo r Del­hi­ites,” he says. “Yo u have to serve it. And ev­erybo dy wants mo re and mo re. I wo uld never have imag­ined it.”

He is right, o f co urse. The ho ttest fo o d in Delhi these days is sushi. Go ne is the era when yo u had to pay eye-wa­ter­ingly high prices at W asabi and Megu to eat sushi. It’s the stan­dalo nes that are thriv­ing be­cause they o ffer sushi at rel­a­tively affo rd­able rates.

Au­gusto ’s fo o d is, I recko n, ro ughly in the same league as W asabi and yet it is o ne-third the price. W hat’s mo re, he uses the same sup­pli­ers so yo u get the same qual­ity o f fish – fro m hamachi to un­agi to chuto ro – at rates that are lo wer. No r is Au­gusto the o nly perso n to serve high-qual­ity sushi at affo rd­able rates. At the Am­bi­ence Mall in V as­ant Kunj, chef Saito , who used to be at Megu, no w serves sushi at a co unter o ut­side the PV R Directo r’s Cut cin­ema (the sushi bar is o ne o f PV R o wner Ajay Bi­jli’s ven­tures) at prices that wo uldn’t buy yo u much mo re than a bo wl o f edamame at Megu.

All o f us who have been writ­ing abo ut the Indian fo o d scene fo r o ver a decade are go bs­macked by sushi’s tri­umphant pro gress thro ugh the metro po litan res­tau­rant scene. W hen­ever F&B pro fes­sio nals wo uld gather in the o ld days to dis­cuss the po ssi­bil­ity o f o pen­ing Japanese restau­rants in In­dia, the co nsen­sus wo uld be unifo rmly neg­a­tive.

Japanese fo o d is to o bland, they wo uld say. The flavo urs are to o del­i­cate fo r Indian palates. Be­sides, In­di­ans are revo lted by the tho ught o f eat­ing raw fish. Ho w co uld yo u even imag­ine that they wo uld eat sushi?

So me en­terp ris­ing ho teliers recko ned that while tradJap wo uld no t wo rk in In­dia, N o bu-style mo dern Jap anese might suc­ceed.The Taj nego tiated with N o bu but the nego - tia­tio ns went no where be­cause N o bu wanted a large res­tau­rant and the Taj wo uld o nly risk a small (un­der 50 co vers) res­tau­rant.Even­tu­ally, the Taj fo und Masa­haru Mo rimo to who was the first ex­ec­u­tive chef o f the N ew Yo rk N o bu and o p ened Wasabi (in Bo mbay, first, and then Delhi later), which based its menu o n N o bu’s great­est hits.The N airs o f the Leela Gro up man­aged to land N o bu, who agreed to o p en in their ho tels.Then, he backed o ut witho ut warn­ing and the Leela went with Megu in­stead.

But the Wasabi-Megu kind o f p lace was meant fo r highro llers o r p eo p le o n exp ense acco unts.What we are see­ing no w, ho wever, is the demo crati­sa­tio n o f sushi.The stan­dalo nes do no t nec­es­sar­ily ap p eal to high ro llers.They o ffer the sushi exp eri­ence to nearly ev­eryo ne who wants it.

This raises two ques­tio ns. O ne: why is sushi so exp en­sive at so me p laces and so reaso nably p riced at many stan­dalo nes?

It is a hard ques­tio n to answer be­cause much o f the same thing is true o f To kyo o r even N ew Yo rk.Yo u can go to so me­where like Masa in N ew Yo rk and sp end $750 p er head fo r a sushi-sashimi meal.O r yo u can eat sushi fo r un­der $1 0 at a cheap sushi bar.

O ne answer has to do with qual­ity.The to p p laces in To kyo o r N ew Yo rk will use bet­ter qual­ity fish.But what re­ally makes the dif­fer­ence is the qual­ity o f the chef.The great Jap anese sushi masters have no w beco me cult hero es thanks to films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Yo u and Imay wo nder what it is that makes them so sp ecial.Af­ter all a p iece o f to ro sashimi is a p iece o f tuna belly no mat­ter who cuts it.But in Jap anese cui­sine, the way the chef se­lects the fish and cuts it is cru­cial.Asp irants sp end decades try­ing to get it right.

A dif­fer­ence that yo u and Ican eas­ily tell, ho wever, is the qual­ity o f the rice.Fo r the Jap anese, sashimi is abo ut raw fish; sushi is abo ut the rice.A Jap anese p erso n will judge the sushi o n the qual­ity o f the rice p el­let.

Fo r sushi to be any go o d, the rice must never be co ld, as if it has just co me o ut o f the fridge.N o r sho uld it be tightly p acked to gether.It sho uld be ro o m temp er­a­ture, and the p el­let sho uld have a lo o se feel abo ut it – the trick is in get­ting the rice to ho ld to gether witho ut co mp ress­ing it to o much.

ROUND IT OFF

The sushi that most In­di­ans like is not the ni­giri w ith its raw fish but the roll. And that can be masaledar, crunchy and even vege­tar­ian

The cheap er sushi p laces, wher­ever in the wo rld they may be, p ay lit­tle at­ten­tio n to the rice.They kno w that no nJap anese guests do n’t re­ally care abo ut the qual­ity o f the rice p el­let, so they hire cheap line co o ks to make the sushi. And even in Jap an, the cheap er p laces have been kno wn to use ma­chines to make the rice p el­lets.

So that’s o ne key reaso n why sushi can vary so much in p rice.The fish mat­ters to o .The likes o f Saito and Au­gusto will no t co mp ro mise o n the qual­ity o f the fish.But the chefs at many stan­dalo nes do use much cheap er fish.

As fo r the “Why do In­di­ans lo ve sushi?”, ques­tio n, I have no real answer, just ten­ta­tive guesses.

First o f all, it is imp o rtant to re­mem­ber that what the Jap anese re­gard as sushi and what the rest o f the wo rld calls sushi are two dif­fer­ent things.The Jap anese do have maki ro lls (tho se ro und rice things wrap p ed in sea weed with the fish o n the in­side)but se­rio us sushi is al­ways ni­giri – a p el­let o f rice with a chunk o f raw fish o n to p o f it.

The Amer­i­cans turned the maki ro ll into the dish it is to day, blo wing up its size (the Cal­ifo rnia ro ll), adding new in­gre­di­ents (avo cado to mimic the fatty taste o f to ro , fo r in­stance) and p o p ular­is­ing the idea that sushi isn’t re­ally abo ut raw fish – yo u can p ut what yo u like in­side the ro ll fro m vaguely Jap anese in­gre­di­ents (p rawn temp ura)to dishes that have no thing to do with Jap anese cui­sine (sp icy chicken!).

The sushi that mo st In­di­ans like is no t the ni­giri with its raw fish but the ro ll.And that can be masaledar, crunchy and even vege­tar­ian.It is no t sushi in the sense that the Jap anese kno w it.But it is clo se eno ugh to Jap anese fo o d in shap e and idea to p ass o ff as the real thing.

So why did we get it so wro ng when we said In­di­ans wo uld never take to Jap anese fo o d? Well, p er­hap s we didn’t get it wro ng af­ter all.

What In­di­ans lo ve is no t p ar­tic­u­larly Jap anese at all.It is a rice ro ll, yes, but that is all that is Jap anese abo ut it.The flavo urs and in­gre­di­ents have no thing to do with Jap an.

Be­cause the Indian F&B in­dus­try did no t have the imag­i­na­tio n to re­alise that the bo o m wo uld be in sushi ro lls, no bo dy wo rked o ut that a)this kind o f sushi did no t nec­es­sar­ily invo lve raw fish, b)that it co uld be p ro duced cheap ly with in­exp en­sive in­gre­di­ents and c)there wo uld be no need fo r trained sushi masters who co uld make the ni­giri rice p el­let.Any child can make a maki ro ll; it re­quires vir­tu­ally no skill.

So sushi is the favo urite fo o d o f a new metro p o litan gen­er­a­tio n.But it’s no t nec­es­sar­ily sushi as the Jap anese kno w it.As K alra says, it is this gen­er­a­tio n’s but­ter chicken.

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

FISH­ING FOR COM­PLI­MENTS

Sushi is the flavour of the mo­ment in the cap­i­tal. At Megu (above), good qual­ity comes at eye-wa­ter­ingly high prices, but more af­ford­able places are start­ing to thrive

Pho­tos: SHUTTERSTOCK

Photo: SAUMYA KHAN DELWAL

QUAL­ITY IN­DEX

Delhi sushi chefs like Saito (above) and Au­gusto Cabr­era (be­low ) w ill not com­pro­mise on the qual­ity of the fish at their restau­rants. But the chefs at many stan­dalones use much cheaper fish

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