Can there be two more unlikely bedfellows than Japan and India or, more specifically, the two countries' food preferences? The former is super-modern, high-tech and hyper-clean, with a cuisine that's famous for being light, non-spicy and never overcooked. Meanwhile, many of India's bustling bylanes and bazaars are hugely challenged on the aesthetic front, and regional cuisines tend to be rich, heavy on carbohydrates and spices, with nary a raw fish in sight.
How, then, did Japanese food – the antithesis of Indian food – become all the rage in India? About 10 years ago, only a handful of Japanese restaurants were found in five-star hotels; now numerous such eateries and sushi bars abound, especially in the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru, as well as in smaller cities and states – from Pune and Chandigarh to Goa and Assam. Given the importance of weddings in the country, the real test of a global cuisine's acceptance is perhaps whether it features on a wedding buffet. And guess what? It does.
Creating a market
One setter of this trend is Oxford-educated Japanese entrepreneur Hakuei Kosato (known to his friends as Harry). Before coming to India, Kosato helped launch famous brands, including Dyson, in Japan, but was beginning to get bored. “Are you going to spend the rest of your life selling vacuum cleaners in a small country, or are you going to go out there into the wider world?” his wife once asked him. It hit home.
Kosato zeroed in on the virgin market of India with its billion-plus population and a rising middle class. Making Mumbai his base, he began to promote Japanese culture and cuisine in the country. "My philosophy is that you can either enter a market or create a market. I chose the latter," he says.
Kosato started by importing the ingredients needed to prepare authentic Japanese food in 2007 through his company La Ditta, and spread awareness by hosting and participating in food festivals. In 2011, he opened the first outlet of Sushi and More in Mumbai, the country’s first takeaway and delivery sushi bar.
“No one understood Japanese food back then,” says Kosato. “The ingredients weren’t available. When people dipped wasabi into their soy sauce for sushi, they used four times the amount they should. There were about five Japanese restaurants, all in luxury hotels, and expensive and exclusive. Japanese food was out of bounds for young Indians. By making sushi affordable in our takeaway and delivery bars, we gave them a chance to try it out.”
Taking critics by surprise
Everyone, including food critics, have since been surprised by the cuisine’s rapid popularity in a country known for its penchant for “ghar ka khana” (home-cooked food). They had seen French food fall flat. Thai had come – there was a boom for a bit – and gone. Mexican had a few takers, but never really became big.
"When it comes to food, the restaurant-going public has a way of surprising us," food writer Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times newspaper in 2016. "All of us who have been writing about the Indian food scene for over a decade are gobsmacked by sushi's triumphant progress through the metropolitan restaurant scene. Whenever F&B professionals would gather in the old days to discuss the possibility of opening Japanese restaurants in India, the consensus would be uniformly negative. [The] food is too bland, they would say. The flavours are too delicate for Indian palates. Besides, Indians are revolted by the thought of eating raw fish." Sanghvi then goes on to call sushi the "butter chicken of the new generation".
Health and wealth
The expensive dishes served in five-star hotels were another deterrent, he notes. That's where the pricing at Kosato's Sushi and More takeaway and delivery bars – which costs 1,000 rupees (Dh50) for a meal on average – was crucial in attracting young Indians. Since that first outlet opened, there's been no looking back for Kosato or for India's love affair with Japanese food. Sensing the zeitgeist, the Japanese embassy in New Delhi supported Kosato's drive to hold food festivals, train chefs, conduct sushi contests and start sake clubs. Other sushi bars and stand-alone Japanese restaurants popped up, in shopping malls and scruffy marketplaces alike, becoming accessible at the mass-market level.
Indian writer and Tokyo resident Pallavi Aiyar, who is writing a book on the two countries, says the popularity also stems from more Indians travelling abroad and becoming exposed to other cuisines. "It's the outcome of the rise of the globalised Indian. Earlier, when Indians tried foreign foods, they sought food that had some affinity with Indian food – Chinese or Mexican. They Indianised those cuisines. Then they became more adventurous and curious about very different food, and wanted the genuine article," she says.
The willingness to experiment aside, India's interest coincided with the rise of modern Japanese cuisine pioneered by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, which appealed to a new consumer, who may not have been interested in traditional Japanese food. The new flavours and cooking techniques were seen as cool and sophisticated, and became the go-to for discerning foodies the world over.
The growing desire for healthy food was another factor: fresh ingredients, fewer calories, and low-fat and low-salt dishes continue to be all the rage. In India, Kosato successfully plugged the trust gap by consistently delivering fresh fish, despite the challenging climatic conditions and the country's few cold-storage facilities. "I used to be nervous about how fresh the fish was, but it's become an established brand in Mumbai because its sushi is consistently fresh and delicious," says Neha Bassi, a regular customer of Sushi and More.
Others were doing their own pioneering work. Sakura, the Japanese restaurant at The Metropolitan Hotel & Spa in New Delhi, opened in 2000 and catered initially to an upmarket crowd (it used to fly in fresh ingredients from Tokyo every couple of days). Sakura's first patrons were members of the Japanese community, who worked and lived in India, and then the word spread.
Head chef Swapnadeep Mukherjee says he has most enjoyed the challenge of winning over the country’s vegetarians. “Even non-vegetarians like to try our exotic variety of vegetarian dishes – yasai tempura, avocado tofu salad, yasai okonomiyaki and yaki soba. For people on the move, we do a vegetarian bento box, which is popular. Because Indians are better travelled now, they demand high standards,” says Mukherjee. About 40 per cent of Sakura’s menu is vegetarian.
The Japan External Trade Organisation reports there are about 100 restaurants in India that serve mainly Japanese cuisine, up from 60 last year. These include top names such as Sakura; Megu at The Leela Palace, New Delhi; Wasabi By Morimoto at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai; and Edo at ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru, but the figure doesn't include smaller sushi bars, nor the many eateries that serve sushi as part of their wider menus. That number, one would imagine, would run into the thousands.