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Masaharu Morimoto: The ‘Iron Chef’ dreams of sushi

Masaharu Morimoto on his love for rice, the art of sushi, Indian fish, and whether a California roll passes muster

Masaharu Morimoto. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Masaharu Morimoto. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Masaharu Morimoto, 62, was born in Hiroshima. At age 18, when a shoulder injury cut short a possible career in baseball, Morimoto started working at a local restaurant, learning all about sushi and the art of Kaiseki, or Japanese fine- dining. Seven years later, he opened a café in Hiroshima. During that time, he says, he juggled four jobs to save money.

Finally, with $200,000 (around Rs1.3 crore now) in the bank, the 30-year-old decided to travel around the US and learn various cooking techniques. “If I failed to do something, I could always come back to Japan and restart my shop," he says.

He honed his skills while training in some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Nobu. It was during this time that he also leapt into the public imagination, with his stint on the popular Japanese cooking show Iron Chef. He started his first eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia in 2001. In India, he opened Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai in 2004, and then in New Delhi in 2008. Today, through his unique cooking style, he has created a bridge between traditional Japanese food and global tastes.

Morimoto was in town to inaugurate the 10th anniversary celebration of Wasabi by Morimoto at Delhi’s Taj Mahal hotel. He spoke about his humble beginnings, current sushi trends, and the challenges of working with Indian seafood. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is your comfort food and your favourite ingredient to cook with?

I am Japanese. So what else could it be but rice? When I was young, I used to play baseball and I would eat a lot of rice without thinking about it. I used to eat rice with miso soup, with sashimi and with tempura. It is also my favourite ingredient to cook with.

Tell us about the story of Wasabi.

When I opened the first Wasabi in Mumbai 14 years ago, I had no ideas specific to India. I was very confident about bringing in the Morimoto signature style to the food. However, soon after, I was shocked when I got a call from my chef there, who said we would have to change the menu. He said more than half our customers were vegetarians and there was nothing for them to eat. I didn’t think the percentage of vegetarians would be that high. In Japan, we eat vegetables but they are very different and we use things like seaweed. How was I supposed to cook Japanese food with Indian vegetables? And use condiments like wasabi, which were so alien to the palate back then. However, over the years, I have learnt a lot and our customers have also evolved.

Spicy Tuna Rolls by chef Morimoto.

What is your take on a California roll? What about trends like a sushi burrito? Do they even qualify as sushi?

Why not? I am not the one to decide this is real sushi and that is not. People like it and pay for it. It is about their choice and I respect that. I personally don’t like a sushi burrito, but then I can see it as a business opportunity.

Explain the versatility of sushi as both fast food and a fine-dining experience.

Sushi is sushi, whether you eat it in a fine-dining restaurant or from a takeaway in Japan. And the same goes for most other cuisines. Tell me, what is the difference between a pasta or a biryani from a small local restaurant in Italy or Delhi and the same at fine-dining establishments?

Why is sushi-making such a male-dominated profession?

I really can’t say. Personally, I would like to welcome many more women to join the kitchen. Actually, in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, I have seen many women chefs in professional kitchens and this is not with respect to sushi alone.

Is it possible to make sushi with local Indian fish?

So far, I don’t think so. Because it is very hard to get fish so fresh that one can eat it raw. There are no regulations for storing and transporting. So the daily catch travels a long distance, and is exposed to the sun and other weather conditions. By the time it reaches restaurants, it is not fresh. However, if you can give me live fish from the ocean, I can make sushi from Indian fish as well. When I go to fish markets here, Japanese fish is so expensive. So it makes business sense to use local fish and I want to use local fish, but I just can’t. It is good for cooking—deep fries, curries, tandoori—but it is not fresh enough for sushi.

If you could eat only one kind of cuisine for a month and Japanese was not an option, what would it be?

I think it would have to be Chinese as we are very close to each other in terms of food.

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