Ask Vir Ask Vir

The Japanese approach food in a very different way from the rest of us

Last fortnight I went to a tempura-only restaurant in Tokyo,

where elderly chefs, tempura masters who have spent their lives perfecting the art, served pieces of tempura, fresh from the fryer to guests who sat patiently at a counter waiting for the chefs to decide when each piece of tempura had been perfectly fried and was ready to leave the hot oil.


My favourite of the tempura was onion. When we eat tempura in India it is usually a golden, breadcrumby, pakora-like dish where, when you bite into each piece, the filling and the casing quickly separate.


   In Japan, high quality tempura is not like that. Tempura masters scour the markets, looking for the best vegetables (any good tempura menu is usually at least 70% vegetarian) and fish to drop into their batter.


   As with nearly everywhere else in Japan, the ingredients are the point. At a high-quality place, the batter will be thin and will cling to the vegetable or the fish. Make it the way we do in India (and in many countries other than Japan) like the fried fish from an order of fish and chips, and the chef will be sacked. The batter should be just thin enough to preserve the flavour of the vegetable/fish; nothing more.


   My slice of onion, covered by a film of batter, was perfect. All too often low-quality onion tempura will unravel in your mouth, the onion’s layers separating into thick chewy strands. But here, the onion kept its shape, it remained sweet and deliciously firm.


   You will get all kinds of tempura in Japan. You will get fairly basic tempura on the streets and at less elevated restaurants. At some places they will take a piece of shrimp tempura and serve it in a bowl of broth, a move that always puzzles foreigners who can’t understand why anyone would want to destroy the crispness of the tempura’s batter. But at top tempura-only places, you will get this sort of delicate tempura: the best vegetables gently battered and then fried so that their flavours are sealed in.


   Later, when I thought about it, the onion tempura seemed to me to be the perfect metaphor for Japanese cuisine. It really is like an onion. You think you understand it but you have only got to the outer layer on the onion. You eat more widely and decide that now, Japanese cuisine has finally revealed its secrets to you. But no, you will have only got to the second or third layer of the onion.


   I have been to Japan four times (one of which was a food discovery trip) and have eaten at Japanese restaurants all over the world. But I still don’t understand Japanese cuisine. The more I learn, the less I know. There are just too many layers to the cuisine (like everything else in the complex and opaque society that is Japan).


   Some things need to be said straight out. Yes, it is true that Japanese is one of the world’s greatest cuisines. It is also true that their cuisine philosophy is the opposite of ours. When we see a gobhi (cauliflower) we think: should I make a sabzi out of it? What masalas should I use? Should I put it in a paratha? And so on.


   When a Japanese chef sees a gobhi, he first tastes it to make sure that it is an exceptional gobhi. Then, he tries to find ways of preserving the taste of the original gobhi. (Tempura is one way.)


   As the Japanese like to say, the rest of the world sees an ingredient and thinks: what can we add to this? The guiding principle in Japanese cuisine — at the top level — is subtraction rather than addition.


  "As I said, the more I learn about Japanese food, the more confused I get. So I now follow simple rules. Accept that you will always be ignorant."

   We can argue that this is because, unlike us, they don’t understand the magic of spices and don’t know how to marry a gobhi with the perfect masalas or how to turn a piece of fish into an Alleppey curry.


   I don’t take sides in this argument. But it is important to recognise that Japanese approach food in a very different way from the rest of us.


   I used to say that it was impossible to eat badly in Japan. I don’t say that any longer. There are 3 lakh restaurants in Tokyo alone. (Yes, three LAKH!) It is not possible for every one of these restaurants to be wonderful. All Japanese chefs are not very good. The percentage of bad restaurants out of the total is roughly the same as say, in Bangkok.


   On the other hand, there is a lower proportion of bad restaurants in Tokyo than there is in say, Paris or Delhi. And just as not all Indians can tell good food from bad, neither can all Japanese. They are not a nation of super-gourmets. (There is a McDonald’s on every corner.)


   But there are things that the Japanese do very well at every level. Sushi is one example. Most Indian sushi chefs would find it hard to get a job in Japan. Sushi is 80% about the rice, about the quality, about how long it is cooked for, about what temperature it is served at, how loose the rice pellet is etc. It’s only 20% about the fish.


   But even when it comes to fish, the Japanese are not like us. Fresh is not the best. Many fish (say tuna) benefit from ageing. The cutting is crucial. The fish must be served at exactly the right temperature. Sometimes the chef will warm the sushi in his palm to release the fish’s natural oils before serving it.


   In contrast most sushi in India tastes like it was made on the North Pole. The pellet is iced, tightly pressed on poor- quality rice and the fish is nearly always too cold; even expensive toro or tuna belly is served so cold that the fat has not had time to express itself and you wonder what you are paying for.


   Around 95% of all sushi in Japan is nigiri. No Japanese foodie would think much of (or even recognise) the sushi rolls served in India. If you were to dip the rice part of your nigiri sushi into soya (as most of us do) the chef would look at you with the sort of polite contempt that the Japanese have mastered. But top quality sushi is one of life’s great pleasures; sadly it is nearly always very expensive and it is almost impossible for non-Japanese to get into the best sushi places.


   On the other hand, an inexpensive convenience store packaged egg sandwich is not hard to find. As the food writer Matt Goulding has written: “The math doesn’t work out — squishy bread, industrial fillings — but what comes out of those plastic wrappers is glorious. Egg sandwiches from 7-Eleven and Lawson are little miracles of creamy golden yolk and umami-rich Kewpie mayonnaise.”


   He is right and it is counter intuitive. Why should we enjoy a sandwich that was made on an industrial-style assembly line miles away many hours ago? Isn’t the point of Japanese cuisine that you eat food cooked by chefs who use the best ingredients?


   Yup. It is. But what can I say? These sandwiches are delicious. I could live on them. And, to a lesser extent on the katsu sando (a sandwich made with a pork or beef cutlet).


   As I said, the more I learn about Japanese food, the more confused I get. So I now follow simple rules. Accept that you will always be ignorant. Eat at cheap places or on the street. Always be ready to raid the convenience store. Don’t be disappointed if the food at a mid-level place is not good. (That happens a lot.) And save up for the great restaurants; they are always worth it.


   It doesn’t mean I understand anything. I still don’t. But somehow, I manage to eat well.



Posted On: 14 Apr 2023 11:50 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi