Wasabi – New Delhi, India

Any Iron Chef fans out there?  I’m not talking about Iron Chef America.

Growing up in Tokyo, I used to love watching the original Iron Chef on television.  Back in the 90’s the show was a huge hit in Japan, where people all over the country tuned in every week to watch a brave newcomer battle one of 7 distinguished Iron Chefs.  The show featured chefs from all types of cuisines- Kenichi Chin who was a master of Chinese cuisine, Rokusaburo Michiba who represented traditional Japanese kaiseki and French chef Hiroyuki Sakai to name a few.  Sadly, the show ended in 1999, only to be replaced by a more westernized version called Iron Chef America that I haven’t been able to embrace.  I saw it coming when I watched in sheer horror as future Iron Chef America Bobby Flay jumped on top of his wooden cutting board with his filthy shoes while pumping his fists like a drunken baboon in a premature victory cry against Morimoto in an original Iron Chef episode.  What a disgrace for any chef to contaminate his sacred wooden cutting board where once living animals and fish are prepared for our nutrition.  And what irony that now both Flay and Morimoto are resident Iron Chefs on the American show.

There are a lot of things that bother me about Iron Chef America.  Chairman Dacascos’ exaggerated acting, for one.  It makes me feel very uncomfortable when I see his adrenaline pumped dilated pupils stare into the screen as his robotic limbs flail about in a mechanically uncoordinated dance.  His animated persona at the beginning of the show gradually wanes with time, and by the end of the meal his presence starts to disappear from the screen as he squeaks his refusal to eat dessert, claiming that he is watching his waistline.  And why do they always put English subtitles for Morimoto, even when he’s speaking English? I only watched 2 episodes of Iron Chef America and I was done.

Although I have a disdain for Iron Chef America and for Morimoto, who probably started off as a humble chef in Japan but has now transformed into an arrogant Americanized celebrity, I applaud him for making it big here in the states.  America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not every day that a foreigner achieves huge success and becomes a household name.   After all, Morimoto is an extremely talented chef whose creations make me drool with excitement.  Morimoto has restaurants in New York, Florida and Philadelphia that are all doing well.  You would think that his next venture would be in London, Paris or even Dubai.  Did you know that he has a restaurant in New Delhi, India?

I went to India a couple of months ago to visit my brother who lives in New Delhi.  Although I was looking forward to spending my first day eating dosas and curries, ironically my very first dining out experience in India was lunch at Morimoto’s restaurant called Wasabi.  I joined my sister in law who was meeting some friends there for lunch.  Wasabi, a contemporary Japanese dining restaurant, opened in 2008 in the lower level of the Taj Mahal Hotel in the center of New Delhi after a successful run of the same restaurant in Mumbai.

The restaurant was small and quaint in size, though grand and a bit clamorous in decor.  Dark red lamps hung over the open grill flanked next to a blood red painting of roses.  I didn’t mind the geometric lines and contemporary furniture so much as the fluorescent purple glow that the ceiling lights cast onto my food.  3 Japanese sushi chefs stood poised behind the sushi counter as they greeted expatriate business men and Indian madams for the lunch service.  I talked to the head sushi chef who told me that their fish was flown in from Tsukiji twice a week.  I also asked him how he found living in New Delhi, and he chuckled nervously as he shook his head from side to side (in a western gesture of ‘no’, not the Indian gesture of ‘yes’).

Our amuse was a pickled lotus root served with kuromame and a garnish of parsley leaf.  I was nervous about eating at a Japanese restaurant in India, but this dish exemplified simple authentic flavors of sweet and sour in a typical manner of understated beauty.

Even the salad was good at Wasabi.  I made a vow not to eat any raw vegetables while traveling through India, but this was obviously an exception.  The simple vinaigrette was refreshing and tart, and the dried bonito shavings were flavorful.

I couldn’t believe that I was eating sushi in New Delhi- and excellent sushi at that.  The sushi lunch set came with 2 types of tamago (egg) which were both soft and spongy, spicy tuna rolls, ikura and an assortment of fresh fish flown in from Tsukiji the day before.  My favorites were the chu-toro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail) which tasted as good as anything that I would get in Tokyo, and the salmon, scallop, squid and mackerel were all fantastic.  Although the restaurant is called Wasabi, I didn’t expect freshly grated wasabi to actually be served with my sushi.  I felt like I was in Japan, and the fact that I was in this chaotic city of New Delhi hadn’t quite sunken in.

Our fellow Indian diners weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try raw fish, so they ordered teppan yaki grilled prawns for their lunch set.  The prawns were plump and sweet, and the soy garlic sauce that they were sauteed in was marvelous.  The large and extensive menu offered an array of grilled meats, fish and tempura, and I was impressed with the variety of choices that Wasabi offered.  Even more impressive was the beverage list.  They had a complete and comprehensive sake and tea list that featured fine selections from Japan.  The sake list was divided into categories like junmai daiginjo and honjyozo, and teas like kukicha, sencha, genmaicha and gyokuro filled up a whole page on the menu.

Green tea mousse cake, in a strange glow-in-the-dark color, was fluffy and light.  Its subdued sweetness and delicate flavors reminded me of patisseries in Ginza.

In this city where the residents are predominantly vegetarian and do not drink alcohol, I initially wondered how this restaurant could survive.  The small bar to the left of the entrance, lined with rows of whiskey bottles, practically screamed sin.  However, even at lunchtime on a weekday, the restaurant was bustling with customers and the small private dining room was quickly taken by a group of 6.  Sushi seems like an alien concept to the Indian community, but I saw that there was a high demand for this type of cuisine in New Delhi.  The growing Indian economy and business industry attracts foreigners with a taste for global cuisine, and this is exactly the type of place that they seek for business lunches, fancy dinners and a special dining experience.  I thought it was clever and brave of Morimoto to pinpoint this specific niche in a part of the world that seems the farthest from Tsukiji.

Wasabi

The Taj Mahal Hotel

1, Mansingh Road
New Delhi – 110 011
India.
Tel No.: (91-11) 23026162

Random trivia: Did you know that the lotus root, which has 9-10 holes, is considered to be an auspicious vegetable?  It is believed that through these many holes, one can see through to a positive and prosperous future.  Also, each lotus flower seed cup contains many seeds, which is believed to represent fertility.