My favourite cuisine is Japanese, not Chinese. And I am now in a position to guide you to an authentic Japanese restaurant in town. Go to Mr. Narang's Ambassador, your favourite and mine, in Churchgate Street, get into one of those tiny lifts and crawl up to the revolving restaurant, enter The Pearl Of The Orient, and restrict yourself exclusively to the first page of the menu. That's the page listing the Japanese specialities. Sticky, glutinous rice, to be primed with soy sauce, a touch of horse radish, some sweet ginger, and eaten; filets of pink tuna, raw and natural; and some of the finest sushi, heard, seen and prepared this side of the China Seas.
There is no soup on the Japanese menu, no mizo, but that does not matter. In any case, it tastes like Bovril. And the two starters, compliments of the house, are Korean and Chinese, khimchi, the cabbage salad, quite spikey, and Chinese flat noodles, stir fried, not deep fried, hence with very little oil. They are like gentler versions of our papads. Order some Chinese tea, jasmine flavoured and jasmine infused, and, as you sip it, admire the view. I suggest you go for lunch, that's when you get a perfect panorama of downtown Bombay, full 360 degrees in 90 minutes, from Brabourne Stadium. In the night, the restaurant lights, in spite of the best efforts of the management, tend to reflect back and ruin the view. Also, Japanese food is ideal for an afternoon meal, it sits light and easy on the stomach. And the colours and designs of the food, come out in full bloom in the bright light of the day. In case I did not mention, I am an admirer of Japanese food.
We refresh our face with a cold towel, strongly cologned, wash our mouth with a sip of jasmine tea, or a large swig of beer, washing down the throat, and consume the sushi first. There are six pieces in a plate, plus two claws of prawns, as decorations that may be eaten, horse radish paste on a cucumber top, and the Japanese soy sauce, which is thicker and saltier than the Chinese. Bibhash Chatterjee, GM, and Santosh R. Kutty, F&B, are my guides for the afternoon. The Japanese soy sauce is called soba, they instruct me, and the horse radish is named wasabi. You get the horse radish in Mumbai, at gourmet food stores like Rustom's on Wodehouse Road. They sell it in tubes. I suggest you buy a tube and keep it at home. It comes in handy with other bland food also. And it is so strong that the tiniest tint on the tongue and it straight off hits up the nose and into the forehead.
The sushi, I have seen young men make it in the sushi bars of Tokyo, on my one and only visit to Japan. They wear samurai bands round their foreheads, and they make the sushi with great dexterity of hands and shoulders. It is as dramatic a display as our chefs making roomali rotis, spinning them in the air. Basically, it is sticky rice, flavoured with sesame, wrapped in seaweeds in the shape of a long cylinder, then cut into smaller and more convenient slices. And the rice contains bits of raw prawns, ham, a variety of items, including bits and pieces of vegetables for the vegetarians. You eat the whole thing, seaweed wrapper and all, it is lovely. But it becomes lovelier if you eat the right way.
Since you will be spending Rs.700 for a platter of six pieces of sushi (see illustration), you better learn to eat the right way and get your money's worth. You take the wasabi (horse radish) and add to your bowl of soy sauce, taking care not to put in too much and make your sauce inflamatory. Then, with the plain wooden chopsticks (Japanese use wooden chopsticks, Chinese restaurants have lacquer), pick up a sushi (you are welcome to use a fork, so don't get intimidated), dip it in the soy sauce, carry it to the mouth and bite. You get a mouthful of sticky rice, delicate meats, with a sharp twang of horse radish, plus the seaweed that you quietly chew through.
That's sushi. Next, the seafood tempura. It is mainly prawns, and a basic seafood, though it could be chicken, crunchy vegetables, these are dipped in a besan-like batter, rather thick, and deep fried. What emerges is what we would call a bhajia or pakoda. And it is served with ginger radish and soy sauce. Rs.550 for a platter. You may skip this, though I know many vegetarians who are delighted with the crisp bhindis and cauliflowers. In any case, don't miss the teriyaki, which is a choice of chicken or fish fillets (with Japanese, it is wisest to stick to fish), marinated for two to three hours in rice wine, and oven finished.
All the ingredients, and some of the basic foods, are imported, that is the best part of this Pearl of the Orient. The wasabi is imported as a powder, then made into a paste. The soy sauce (Japanese, soba sauce) is imported in bottles, and the sticky rice, known all over the Orient as Thai rice, comes in 20 kilo bags at Rs.1,150 for a two-kilo packet. What makes the Japanese rice different from our rice is the extra starch content, also the method of cooking, they do not throw out the water. When you put a spoon into the vessel, the rice sticks to it, the more the quantity of rice that sticks, the better the rice. Santosh Kutty says the nearest comparison to Japanese rice is the new Basmati rice, the one in which the grains break. It is the local cousin of the sticky rice.
The rice comes in a bowl, steamed, Rs.175. Add soya to it, eat it with sashmi. Sashmi, of course, is the piece de resistance of the restaurant. It is fresh, raw tuna, skinned, pat dried, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper and served. It tastes like boiled custard, and, like the custard, it is light and effervescent. You eat it and you do not know you have eaten it.