Shubham Thakur's love affair with Japanese food began during an early stint at Megu, The Leela, when he saw his seniors wielding sharp knives that sliced through the toughest meats as effortlessly as through butter. There he learned how to sharpen blades of steel as sharp as katanas. “The chef would spend hours getting the blade as sharp as he wanted, and go early morning to get the best meats and catch from the market,” the chef recalls. This was an eye opener, that someone who was heading the kitchen would spend so much time on such basic tasks. Observing the Japanese attention to detail, he learned early how to work long hours and to slice fish, poultry and meat to paper thin slices. He also admits that he was fascinated with a completely different style of cooking.
At the helm in Yokoso ('welcome' in Japanese), The Lodhi in Delhi, Chef Shubham Thakur reinterprets classical Japanese cuisine in a modern way. This, he explains, is more to do with modern equipment rather than a change in recipes. He tweaks the classics, of course, but remains true to what a native would recognise.
There's a sequence that's followed at the table, he explains. Lean and less fatty fish is served first. “This is to build up the appetite slowly. If a fatty tuna is served at the start, you'd have to chew more.” The right temperature is important to get the right flavour. “If you serve a fatty fish cold, it will be hard.”
The norm in the culinary world of Japan is that restaurants tend to specialise rather than offer a variety of items on the menu. So, there are those offering sushi, others miso, others ramen and so on. Expertise results in perfection and gets the best of a specialty. The endeavor when cooking is to retain the original colour and taste of the ingredients, this means there aren't too many flavours added when cooking. The other interesting aspect is the presentation. Plating is a work of art: minimal and aesthetic much like the three-lined haiku (poetry) or ikebana (flower arrangement).
That's what Chef Shubham has tried to do at Yokoso. When he planned the menu with his team, he was clear he didn't want a thick booklet of a menu card. They stuck to 40-odd dishes.
“If you order five items, the flavours should complement each other but not be the same. I didn't want similar proteins with different sauces. Modern doesn't mean fusion. It's a progressive take on the classic but with a modern twist. Tempura, for example, is age old, but you can incorporate more flavours in it.” Japanese food in Peru, for instance, has evolved to Nikke which is essentially local ingredients married to Japanese techniques.
Chef Shubham enjoys simple Indian fare after tasting Japanese flavours the whole week. Food is a hobby for him to the extent that even on his day off he cooks at home. This dates back to his school years when he would come home and catch Sanjeev Kapoor's Khana Khazana on television. From his early sometimes failed attempts at cooking, to his years at iconic restaurants like Megu and Wasabi under Japanese masters, he now helms Yokoso. He makes it a point to check out a new restaurant once a week or as often as time allows. This keeps him up to date with what's happening in the world of food. And membership in a chef's group is where he gets to exchange industry news and gossip.
Working at Japanese restaurants, and with Japanese chefs, has made Chef Shubham become respectful of his ingredients, his equipment, his knives in particular and that's what he's brought to his kitchen at Yokoso. “More than anything, apart from food and techniques, I think it's an attitude.” And no, he's not a bully, a la Gordon Ramsay. He grins at the thought and even makes an excuse for the famous celebrity chef: You have to see it as passion not anger. He's developed an interest in art and sketches his ideas in Adobe on his iPad. “When I think of something new, I sketch it to see how it looks, like a sort of blue print to what the dish should look like.”
Dos and Don'ts of Food etiquette
Do make a slurping sound when you hold the bowl of Ramen to your mouth
Don't stick your chopsticks to stand straight in your bowl of rice. Place them on the stand provided
Avoid asking for wasabi or other additives because the dish has been prepared to balance all the flavours
Avoid mixing wasabi and soy
Do serve rice spread on a plate rather than in the shape of a mould
Seniority always gets first place
Avoid wearing a strong perfume when eating at a restaurant so that the scent on you does not drown the aromas of the food
Sake is allowed to overflow the cup. This signifies abundance and an appreciation of your visit
Ingredients: Shrimps 120gm; Pickled ginger 15 gm; Wasabi paste 10gm; Dark soy 20ml; Homemade spicy mayo 30ml; Tempura flour 30gm; Sushi rice 90gm; Nori sheets 1000
Method: Marinate sushi rice with sushi vinegar; De-vein and shell the shrimps; Coat in dry tempura flour, then in a chilled tempura batter; Fry; Spread rice over a toasted nori sheet, turn the sheet up down, place the tempura shrimps in the centre and roll it;
Topping: Boil and cook shrimps, pass through cold water, finely chop shrimps and add spicy mayo; Top the sushi with shrimp salsa and bake under a salamander; Serve with wasabi paste and gari (pickled ginger)
Washoku or 'eating'
To add flavour to the largely simple dishes, there's often an array of condiments as accompaniment: wasabi, pickles, soy, miso, dipping sauces, lemon
Chopsticks: These are called hashi, and also otemoto in Japanese
Tobanjan: Salty paste made from salt rice soybeans and fermented broad beans
Bonito Flakes: Or katsuobushi are bits of dried and fermented tuna'
Dark soy: Thicker darker and sweeter than the regular soy
Sake Carafe and Glasses: The carafe is said to be inspired by a classic wine bottle; Sake glasses are typically made of ceramic
Seaweed: A form of algae found in the sea
Miso paste: A paste made from soya beans
Wasabi: A spicy green paste made from mustard and horseradish
Cooking Sake: 2 per cent salt makes it an ingredient for cooking and unsuitable as a drink