Few images evoke Japan as powerfully as sushi. Well, some may like to place Mount Fuji, Cherry blossom in full bloom and an elegant kimono clad hostess performing the tea ceremony but for foodies give them boxful of assorted sushi with wasabi, pickled pink ginger with chopsticks and it echoes Omar Khayyam – a flask of wine, a loaf of bread, a book of verse and thou, wilderness is bliss now!
There is something about a dainty disc rolled lovingly on sushi mat enclosing within sticky rice a morsel of raw salmon, an irresistible bit of tuna or maybe a prawn peeping out of the exquisite finger food.
Truth be told sushi is not a newcomer in the subcontinent. Indians had started getting a wee bit bored with various regional renderings of ‘Chindian’ when the sushi began to tempt them. As with most trends, at first it was an acquired, exotic taste that only the ultra rich well travelled could indulge. What we are witnessing at the moment is an almost wild craze for sushi not only in India but all over the world.
The reasons are obvious. The portion size is small, eye appeal is great and the ingredients used are believed to be super healthy–mostly fish rich in Omega oils. Add to this list of virtues that it can be prepared in no time and all the right boxes are ticked.
Sushi in India had its tryst with fusion destiny and few shining moments in culinary history when it was served to the then now late prime minister of Japan during a visit to India. Our PM has a penchant to embark on a charm offensive whenever a state guest is around and part of this is a vegetarian menu rustled up of Guajarati delicacies khichadi-dhokla sushi made its appearance at this particular event. We don’t know if Shinjo Abe asked for seconds or complemented the chef with his autographs on the menu but this triggered a heated debate in gastronomic circles. A standup comedian (India) set the car among pigeons by warning Japanese friends that if they didn’t watch out in time Indians would do to Sushi what they have done to dim sums, and momos. It will be scorched in the tandoor and emerge after the ordeal by fire unrecognizable! Draped in mint chutney and drizzled with chaat masala.
Pretentious Indian foodies threw more fits and made more fuss than puritanical Japanese who are believed to be very touchy about tradition. At the outset it must be pointed out that it was in Japan that the transformation of sushi had started. Youngsters growing in Japan had perforce acquired a taste for Yankee fast food – burgers, hot dogs and pizzas. Some of these flavours seeped in to sushi. Realizing that it is children who control the purse strings of parents sushi makers gave the kids what they wanted–ice cream sushi, multi-coloured kit kat sushis and more.
Why then blame the foreigners? In the USA an enterprising cook has blended Tex Mex with Nippon to create Sushirito. The name sound odd but the chef is laughing all the way to the bank. An Indian- American chef has come up with a curd rice sushi laced with a thin strip of mango pickle. The palate and texture of this dish don’t violate the spirit of sushi–simple yet subtle and sublime.
Sushi’s journey in India hasn’t been smooth till a couple of years back. Many Indians are squeamish about eating raw fish and prawn. Then beef and pork are excluded as they are prohibited for Hindus and Muslims. This has not deterred chefs from plating a rich harvest of vegetarian sushi. The ‘Cauldron Sisterss’ were the first to introduce shakahari sushi in a city of rich vegetarian diners. Then an invitation offer– a box of 8-10 assorted sushis with high quality condiments that matched the best sushi platter in the Capital’s specialty restaurant. Sabyasachi Saby Gorai the gifted chef and food anthropologist likes to stay on the straight and narrow path. This is what he practiced when working at Ai. However, he has an open mind about improvisations and innovations. After all, this is how food evolves. The chef must give satisfaction to guests and not try to dictate terms to change their palate. Forget Chindian, Italian, Thai, Korean all have had to adjust guests taste buds, The corporate chef of Senin, the group that operated N from the Tamarind Court, has introduced vegetarian and non vegetarian sushi platters in ‘Street Stores’ in Bangalore, Connaught Club in Delhi. He follows a no holds barred philosophy. He just stops short of those daredevils who serve insect crested–scorpion, centipede or a crisp cockroach- sushis. He has done well we think to keep away from biryani sushi or sushi in makhani gravy.
Gone are the days when sushi bars were a USP for de lux restaurants. Most pan Asian mid market eateries offer you a choice of fairly decent stuff wrapped in weed–sea weed we mean. The Covid lockdown also popularized sushi as a delivered at door step option. Sushi may be changing but it’s here to stay.