It’s happening all over the country: Gourmands are ripping apart freshly baked naan bread and using it to mop up fiery-colored curries containing wicked concoctions of true Indian spices. Yes, authentic Indian food is now widely available all over Japan.

According to A.P.S. Mani, who heads Indian Community Activities Tokyo, “there are 1,700 Indian cooks working in the Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounding areas) and 500 in the rest of Japan, while there are at least 800 Indian restaurants in the country.”

But this is surely the tip of a chilled lassi (Indian yoghurt drink) iceberg that includes the widespread availability of Indian spices and ingredients in shops, and growing interest in Indian cookery.

Gravy-like sludge

Things have come a long way since 1949, when Nair’s was the first authentic Indian eatery to open in Japan — in its present location in Ginza, Tokyo. However, it made a slow start, possibly because Japan already had its own curry dish called kare raisu (curry rice). This gravy-like sludge said to have been introduced more than 100 years ago, is especially popular with children for its sometimes sweet flavor. But as for hitting the hot spot with a cool drink to hand, kare raisu just doesn’t cut the mango pickle.

It took a while for other eateries to open after Nair’s, but when they finally did, the response was phenomenal.

Yog Kapoor opened Samrat in October 1980 as Shibuya’s first-ever authentic Indian restaurant — and people came in droves. There are now 15 Samrat branches in the Kanto region. Similarly, Nanak, opened by Gurbir Singh in 1985 as Kyushu’s first Indian eatery, was such a hit that by 1991 he had a chain of 17 outlets.

Such soaring popularity can be attributed in part to the large influx of Indians living and working in Japan, but it’s also due to Japanese people’s increasing interest in all things Indian — from yoga, to handicrafts to a desire to visit India itself. According to India Tourism Japan, 103,082 Japanese visited India in 2005, 25,086 more than in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Bollywood film “The Dancing Maharajah (Odoru Maharaja)” hit Japan’s screens in 1998 with as much impact as a devilish vindaloo curry, putting India on the map in many Japanese minds and fueling interest in its enormous range of culinary dishes.

As for India’s iconic curries, their secret is of course in the spices. With just six basic ones — mustard seeds, cumin seeds, coriander powder, chili powder, turmeric and garam masala — anyone with a bit of know-how can create a multitude of dishes that represent many regions around India.

As India is not just a country, but a subcontinent stretching from the Himalayas almost to the Equator, it’s little wonder that eating habits differ by region. For example, in the north the main source of carbohydrate is bread, in the form of naan (flatbread made from wheat flour) or roti (round, flat and unleavened), while vegetarians in these areas rely on lentil-based curries. Meanwhile, in the south, white, long-grained rice is a staple, and many curries contain fish and are coconut-based.

As Japanese people become more knowledgeable about Indian food, eateries are increasingly under pressure to carve out a niche in a relatively crowded market.

Dhaba India near Tokyo Station is packed almost every night of the week, on weekends and at lunchtimes. “We are popular because few restaurants offer the south Indian dishes that we do,” says Yo Miyazaki, one of the directors. Their specialties include masala dosa, Malabar fish curry and mutton curry with fresh coriander masala. To maintain its standards, Dhaba India uses spices specially imported from India — including shipments of fresh curry leaves it has its vacationing chefs organize every few months.

No cutting corners

“Perhaps another factor in our success is that we don’t cut corners in the preparation stage,” says Miyazaki.

Back in the kitchen, bushy-mustached chef Y. Ramanaiah is as Indian- looking as men come. He worked for many years in five-star hotels in India before coming to Japan as head chef at Dhaba. According to him, the restaurant is so popular “because all the recipes are my own originals, and I make them in the exact same way that I did back home in Hyderabad (south India). The only difference is the spiciness. Customers can choose no chilies, one chili or two chilies — but not many Japanese people can handle the two-chili curries!” The wicked twinkle in Ramanaiah’s eye told the tale of many a self-proclaimed spice-meister who found out they took on more “fire” than they could handle!

But spice-meisters there surely are aplenty, as several shops specializing in spices have opened in recent years to meet the huge demand created by the army of Indian eateries. One of the main suppliers is Ambika Trading Co., whose direct connection with India enables it to provide fresh, in-season spices to many restaurants, as well as other retail outlets.

“We also supply super- markets with spices, and nowadays they also want to purchase beans and lentils for their health-conscious customers,” says President Nitin Hingarh, who as a member of the Jain religion is vegetarian. In fact, all of Ambika’s items are 100 percent vegetarian.

Vegetarians by the million

This factor is key for many Indians living in Japan, particularly Gujurati people (those originally from the western Indian state of Gujurat), who are generally vegetarian. Indeed, around 31 percent of India’s more than 1 billion population is vegetarian, according to the 2006 State of Nation Survey conducted by Hindu-CNN/IBN.

But in Japan, the woman who put the “v” into vegetarian was Bombay-native Hema Parekh, who has lived here since 1979. For 20 years, she has taught Indian vegetarian cookery at home and at the Tokyo American Club.

“Japanese people were at first surprised to discover that vegetarian dishes are both nutritious and tasty,” Parekh says. “But those people who want to eat meat can substitute vegetables with meat or fish.”

Asked how Japanese people’s views of Indian food have changed over the years, Parekh replies: “When I first got here, the distinctive smells of my dishes were very foreign to people here, but now they can’t seem to get enough chana masala (chickpea curry) or paratha (flatbread made from whole-wheat flour).” As for why Indian cooking is attracting so many followers in Japan, Parekh said, “With the right combination of spices, it’s quick and easy to make light, healthy and tasty dishes. Indian cooking opens the door to a whole new world of culinary experience.”

So what are you waiting for? Grab the naan and say “Itadakimasu!”

See related stories:
Mutual benefits as East meets East
Indian schools make a mark

Tokyo’s Indians in ‘home from home’

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