Young Kurumi Arimoto balances carefully on her toes, and stirs the carrot mundhiri payasam. Maiko Shimizu fiddles with a nifty camera, capturing the moment. Meanwhile, Akemi Yoshii, ponders over translating araithu vitta thakaali vengaaya sambhar into Japanese. In the middle of the kitchen, cookbook writers Padmini Natarajan and Viji Varadarajan simultaneously try explaining everything from ghee-making to how American frozen spinach cubes make for mulagu kootu that’s “out of this world.” Welcome to the new global culinary classroom. Kurumi, the daughter of Japanese cookbook writer Yoko Arimoto, has written one recipe book and is currently working on another. Her fascination for Tamil Brahmin cooking is what led her to Viji’s kitchen and kadais. Maiko is a professional writer, photographer and radio presenter. She runs the website One doodle land (http://onedoodle.jugem.jp/) and is working on recording and collating Kurumi’s culinary adventures in Chennai for a travel-food story, for her website. The link that brought everyone together is Akemi, Japanese translator with a Chennai software company, she’s also a freelance food writer with a Masters degree in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide, Australia. This is their first introduction to home made Indian food. Yet, all three state that while Viji’s cooking is exotic, it isn’t unfamiliar. As Kurumi deftly makes kuzhakattais stuffed with moist coconut and crumbly jaggery, they talk of how similar these are to Japanese wantons, and those ever-popular dim sums found in every chinatown in the world. Kurumi plans to work on popularising this kind of fresh, easy South Indian home cooking in Japan once she’s back, because she feels it fits in well with Japanese traditions. “Our staple diet is rice… and our food taste is also mild and fresh.” Despite Indian food’s reputation for being high on spice and chillies, Tamil Brahmin food relies more on the taste of individual vegetables, cooked gently with carefully matched seasonings, which fits in comfortably with the Japanese culinary ethos. As recipes and kitchen tips are swapped, Kurumi and Viji cook their way through an elaborate lunch. Eventually everyone’s tucking enthusiastically into the sutta kathirikkai gotsu, made with carefully smoked brinjal and twanging with the distinctive flavour of hing paired with fragrant venn pongal. “We don’t eat Japanese food everyday,” says Akemi, talking of the various kinds of cuisine available in Tokyo. “Indian food is our favourite and we even have our own curry!” However, South Indian restaurants are rare in Japan. The few Indian restaurants that move beyond the flaming red curry route tend to limit themselves to dosas. Although chicken tikka and greasy curry tend to represent India in places like London and New York, these cities are also cosmopolitan enough to nurture change. In many of the world capitals, Indian food is ceasing to be defined by the curries, naans and kebabs of North India. Regional food is getting popular, as Indian chefs introduce the world to the likes of Kerala beef fry, Goan prawn balchao and Chettinad chicken. However, the fact that Kurumi’s in Viji’s kitchen, learning how to make a perfect semiya upma is indicative of the fact that we are poised at the beginning of a new wave: foodies travelling the world to learn cooking from individual households, recipe hunters leaving no page unturned in their quest for something new, cooks tracking down each other to swap techniques. Thanks to the Internet, with blogs, You Tube and websites, all this knowledge is quickly available to everyone. Who ever thought a vendaikkai thayir pachadi could travel so far, so fast, so flamboyantly. (Viji Varadarajan and Padmini Natarajan recently won the Gourmand Jury award for their book Classic Tamil Brahmin Cuisine.)
Thanks for the plug…the Japanese encounter so well recalled. I got a lot of feedback after kith and kin read your column on the web.
Our Tam Bram book has been shortlisted for a second award–the Best Cookbook in the World category.This result will be announced at the meet on July 1st in Paris. So please keep your fingers crossed.