Green Café is a Japanese restaurant with a difference. It grows sushi rice and tofu, is run by a rural women’s group and is based in an agricultural college campus in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. The Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences (Shuats), formerly Allahabad Agricultural Institute, is home to this café modelled like a canteen. The menu, with items such as tofu cutlet, chicken karaage and tofu miso soup, could easily trade places with a hipster food spot in a bustling city.
The café, which is open to outsiders too, was established by the Makino School of Continuing and Non-Formal Education that operates under Shuats. It provides non-formal education to develop employable skills, such as farming and cooking, with a focus on Japanese ingredients. The practice goes back to the mid-noughties, when the university’s Japanese professor, Teura Miura, started farming organic ingredients for the Japanese expat community in India. He formed a farmers’ network that came to be known as the Allahabad Organic Agricultural Cooperative (AOAC), also run by Makino. The produce now has takers around the country.
Mumbai’s Niharika Goenka, founder of the artisanal salad dressing brand Arugula&Co., raves about the “transformative powers” of their soy sauce. “The best part is each ingredient is produced and grown by local farmers, especially women,” she says.
Though most ingredients for Japanese food continue to be imported, some are now being grown locally in limited quantities. Brands have already started training their sights on India. It’s a reflection of the growing popularity of Japanese food, particularly in cities and the North-East, as Indians develop a taste for other cuisines. The proliferation of Japanese restaurants is one reason for this change. Food bloggers and travellers have created an aspiration to try cuisines. And then there’s anime that can induce serious cravings for ramen, onigiri and bento boxes. Many Indians are also trying their hand at recreating Japanese dishes at home.
Taste is the deciding factor, says Vikas Jajodia of the Bengaluru-based gourmet food distribution company Cosmos International. One may not prepare sushi from scratch but putting together a ramen bowl with sticky rice or making a salad dressing with soy sauce brings a fresh touch to everyday cooking.
Jajodia, whose company supplies imported ingredients to supermarkets and hypermarkets in Karnataka, started stocking Japanese products like sushi rice, wasabi paste, oyster sauce, vinegar, miso paste and rice paper about seven years ago. “There was a time when people wanted Chinese and Italian ingredients. I believe Japanese is more popular now because our palate has widened and our desires are aspirational. Attend a high-end party, and you will find sushi,” he says.
Last month, Japan’s heritage soy sauce brand Kikkoman launched in India, hoping not just to fulfil the demand for Japanese ingredients but also encourage the use of their sauce in Indian cooking. Their brand ambassador in India, chef Vicky Ratnani, believes soy sauce can replace salt in a few dishes. He makes a chicken dish marinated for 12 hours in a brine solution with brown sugar, ginger and soy sauce: “I replaced salt with soy sauce in the brine. It imparts a nice depth of flavour and lovely brown colour.” He suggests sautéing onions with a touch of soy sauce and adding them to pulaos for both colour and taste.
Kikkoman has ambitious plans for India. Harry Hakuei Kosato, director and India representative, Kikkoman India, says: “We wish our sales in India to exceed that of our competitors in the Asian sauces category by 2030. It could take time for a different food culture or foreign ingredients to penetrate into an existing food culture. So we are working with a long-term view to achieve this step by step.”
Chef Augusto Cabrera, who has earned accolades for his sushi and heads the kitchen at the restaurant Town Hall in Mumbai and Delhi, has been using imported ingredients. But he has met a few people who cultivate sushi rice here. He says the Japanese food store Yamato Ya in Delhi sells locally grown sushi rice.
In the North-East, Japanese and Korean dishes have a crazy fan following. Imphal-based Ksh Donny runs a food Instagram page, Don_Uzo, chronicling her experiments with Japanese and Korean food with ingredients sourced locally, like the sticky Manipuri black rice chakhao. “These dishes are inspired by anime shows. I cook for fun whenever I get a break from work,” she says.
Donny says she started experimenting because it’s difficult to find Japanese ingredients in Imphal. She is planning to experiment with an indigenous aquatic herb similar to seaweed. Known as nungsam, it is a reddish algae added to chutneys in Manipur—she wants to use it in ramens and soups.
A cuisine evolves through experiments like these. While anime-fan Donny makes the most of the ingredients available to her in the spirit of “cooking is fun”, Ratnani suggests frying onions in soy sauce for Indian dishes and Arugula&Co. sells a salad dressing with chilli, jaggery and organic soy sauce from the farm in Prayagraj. In that sense, our love affair with Japanese food has broken a few rules and surpassed borders.
To order from the Allahabad Organic Agricultural Cooperative, mail firstname.lastname@example.org.