BANGALORE, India — A few years ago, most Indians couldn't tell the difference between sushi and sashimi — let alone tempura and teppenyaki.
Until recently, India's biggest cities — Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore — had fewer than a dozen Japanese restaurants between them. The average Indian dismissed sushi as raw cuisine.
But a flurry of Japanese dining options, from high-end restaurants to sushi takeaway joints, is changing all that.
In November, celebrity Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa flew out a 26-member contingent of chefs, managers and service staff from London along with kitchen equipment and ingredients to convert a Mumbai restaurant into a Nobu dining experience. Prices for a sit-down Nobu dinner ranged from $600 to $1,200 per head.
Now, Japanese food is keeping pace with high-end luxury goods such as Louis Vuitton bags, Stella McCartney fashion and Christian Louboutin shoes.
The New York-based brand Megu will launch in both New Delhi and Mumbai this year, its traditional Japanese food already a favorite of well-heeled Indian travelers. Sakura at The Nikko Hotel in New Delhi and Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai helped locals discover Japanese cuisine, both traditional and with a Western twist. In Bangalore, Edo opened a few weeks ago to the delight of diners who boisterously took to both the sake bombs and the robatayaki grills.
“Indians are getting palate-adventurous and demanding global dining-out standards,” said Suresh Hinduja, who runs the popular online food and drinks portal GourmetIndia.
In a thriving economy, old myths such as Indians will never take to raw fish and Japanese food is too pricey, are falling by the wayside.
“We are a young country and our markets are just beginning to mature,” said Gev Desai, senior executive chef of the luxury Indian ITC hotel chain which houses Edo. “After exploring regional Indian and Chinese cuisine, the rest of Asia and Japan is a natural transition,” he said, adding that carbohydrate-loving Indians will start with sushi and then go on to other Japanese dishes.
Mumbai homemaker Alpana Chandavarkar grew up relishing the zesty pungency of Indian foods. But her latest culinary love affair is with delicately subtle Japanese cuisine.
“It’s so fresh, light and healthy,” said Chandavarkar, who first tried sushi on vacation while in London at a conveyor-belt sushi joint.
Less affluent Indians, too, are embracing the cuisine, as the Japanese sections of menus at pan-Asian restaurants are getting larger. Small sushi take-away restaurants have arrived in the suburbs, and even traditional, vegetarian supermarkets such as Neelam Foodland in Bandra and Chheda in Matunga have stacks of sushi for sale and do-it-yourself sushi kits.
Some foodies are skeptical. They dismiss the Japanese trend as just another fad that will come and go, like Thai and Mexican food.
Others say it is plain snob value. “For affluent Indians it is a chance to flaunt their chic factor much like their Jimmy Choo and Gucci labels,” said Rashmi Chaitanya, a call center employee.
As high-end Japanese restaurants vie for market-share in fast-growing India, their success will show whether Japanese food in India is just a passing infatuation or a lasting love affair.