Taking ‘desi khaana’ to Japan

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For nearly three decades, she’s been associated with Indian cuisine and cooking. Meet Kaoru Katori, a Japanese writer and cooking instructor, who has been trying to help Japanese know more about Indian cuisine through her books.

Kaoru Katori came to India as part of a youth development programme. The trip eventually drew her closer to Indian cooking methods. Here, Kaoru shares more about her books and Indian cuisine in conversation with Janani Rajeswari S. Excerpts.

ABP: You came to India as part of a voluntary programme in 1985. Was it related to cooking? Tell us how much you knew about Indian cooking/cuisine back then?

Kaoru: International Youth Year and volunteer programmes are held in different parts of the world. I took part in a project in Odisha and helped plant trees at an archaeological site. At the time, I had just completed my education and was already working. But my job was nowhere related to cooking. However, I became interested in it because my father was a gourmet and took me to Indian restaurants when I was a child. Back then, I thought tandoori dishes such as naan and chicken curry, was what Indians ate every day.

However, my perception completely changed when I visited India. There were over 50 participants in the camp and some local chefs took care of our daily meals. They cooked ordinary Indian home style food, using lady fingers, pumpkin or plantain. I never imagined that we could make a curry with these vegetables.

ABP: What was the level of awareness about Indian cooking among the Japanese?

Kaoru: I wanted Japanese to know that just as we cook most vegetables using particular seasonings like soy sauce, broth, salt and sugar and produce variety of dishes, Indians prepare curry with certain spices such as turmeric, mustard seeds, red chilli, cumin and coriander.

I also wanted to tell them how these spices serve as remedies for health problems. I wanted to share how Indian mothers take care of their family’s minor health problems like indigestion or gas related to daily meals using spices.

N o o n e u n d e r s t o o d o r believed me till my friends ate the Indian dishes I brought to a home party. They wanted me teach them how to make those dishes.

That is how I started sharing what I knew. A few years later, I won a recipe contest and then went on to set up a cooking school in 1992.

ABP: How have books on Indian cuisine changed the standard of cooking served in Japanese restaurants?

Kaoru: Rash Behari Bose, an independence activist, who was chased as a political criminal, escaped to Japan in 1915. He is said to be the first person who introduced the Indian style chicken curry in Japan. In the following years, Indian Tandoori restaurants appeared in Japan.

The first cook books on Indian cuisine were published around 30 years ago. In the last 10 years, a lot of recipe books of this kind were published due to an ethnic food boom in Japan.

Furthermore, the increase in the number of Japanese travellers to India proved to be a tremendous boost. Those who experienced the authentic Indian food during their trip made requests at the restaurants in Tokyo for samosa, dosa, etc. Thus some restaurants started providing Indian breakfast (tiffin items).

When Indian food lovers threw parties at restaurants, the requests include pani puri or rumali roti.

When I included lessons on Indian cooking in my school, I received unexpected reactions. Initially, I assumed that most people would like to learn making rich non-veg dishes using meat or shrimp as they were popular at Indian restaurants in Japan back then. But once they tasted sabzi or poriyal, they were more attracted to ordinary homemade food and keen to learn them.

B e i n g a b l e to cook Indian food at home does not mean people stopped going to Indian r e s t a u r a n t s . Rather, many people enjoyed the taste offered at restaurants and also trying them out at home through cook books.

ABP: Which was the first book you wrote on Indian cuisine? Tell us about the challenges involved.

Kaoru: My first book was ‘Indo Gohan – Spice De Genki’ (Indian Meals: Healthy Life with Spices) published in August 2005. I approached three publishers and was rejected by two, saying there was no need for a book on authentic Indian cuisine, which starts from preparing spices.

Finally, a publisher agreed to work with me through the strong recommendation of my friend who was a prominent author of books on India. He supported me because he was convinced that it is a matter of time before Indian cooking boom took place in Japan. That first recipe book turned out to be successful and almost half of the pages were my essays on Indian food culture.

The readers who were not actually interested in cooking Indian food could also enjoy reading it. I have published 12 books and the 13th will be out early next year.

ABP: How have you adapted Indian cooking methods to the Japanese taste?

Kaoru: Except for the dish ‘Tempura’ and some others, most Japanese dishes are just perfect without any oil. So, in my recipe, I try to keep the use of oil to the bare minimum. Otherwise, most Japanese end up misunderstanding Indian dishes as being too oily and unhealthy.

Japanese are not used to spicy flavour either. If too much red chilli is added, it makes their tongue and nose numb and thus won’t be able to enjoy any taste or aroma. So I reduce the chilly content and complement it with ingredients of spice like black pepper or ginger. This way, I make keep the food less spicy and rather addictive for the tongue of Japanese.

ABP: Many of the ingredients native to India may not be available in Japan. This brings us to your book on cooking with just five spices (Cooking with Only 5 Spices!- Indian Home Food for Beginners, 2012). Kindly elaborate on the same.

Kaoru: This book was meant for beginners so I could not expect the readers to have access to ingredients such as curry leaves and mustard seeds. So, it was exclusively a book of North Indian home food which you could cook basically with cumin, coriander, red chilli, and turmeric and garam masala. Of course, you can always make it richer with more spices but I wanted to encourage beginner to try cooking potatoes or cauliflower sabzi and dal with minimal spices. Food is simple but tasty enough to transport readers into the world of cooking with spices.

I have had a vision of Aloo Gobi being a part of an ordinary evening meal in Japan or Japanese having dal and rice. Now, I see it coming true. Through my books and courses, I adapted the original taste to that of the Japanese only in terms of minimizing oil and spice level.

ABP: How did get you get interested in Ayurveda?

How have you managed to tell the Japanese through your books on the subject? Kaoru: I learnt cooking from many Indian homemakers. They taught cooking as well as offered tips to keep us in good health. However, those tips, turns out to be effective for some but not for others. I wondered why

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