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Jalebis in Japan

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PASSION FOR FOOD: Katori at her school (left) preparing a meal. She frequently travels to India to learn new dishes

A Japanese woman travelled to India as a volunteer and took back more than just Indian handicrafts. Kaoru Katori has been running a culinary school in Tokyo for the past two decades and has been spreading love and information on Indian cuisine, especially from the South.

She talks about garam garam jalebis with a foodie's passion and handles her sari with consummate ease. When you meet her, it is difficult to believe that the woman sitting across the table is actually Japanese. Kaoru Katori is clad in a green sari, with a mangalsutra round her neck and a red bindi adorning her forehead.

"I always wear a sari when I cook Indian food as a mark of respect, " says Katori, who is back after a pickle-making session with an Andhra family in Chennai. "I am familiar with Tamil, Kerala and Udipi cuisine but had no experience of Andhra cuisine, " says Katori, who plans to bring out a book on south Indian cuisine in Japan.

The 50-year-old, who calls herself a specialist/ researcher of Indian spice cuisine, has been running the Kitchen Studio Paisley Culinary School in Tokyo for the last 20 years. "I first tasted home cooked Indian food in Bhubaneswar, " says Katori, who came down to India in 1985 as a volunteer. "It was just subzi and rice but I was really struck by the taste. Then, in Japan, Indian restaurants served only tandoori food, and Japanese people thought Indian cuisine means just Punjabi food. "

She was so smitten by the various dishes and flavours that when she went back to Japan after a one-month stay in India, she began working after office hours in an Indian restaurant. "I learnt to knead the dough, make pooris and simple vegetarian dishes, " says Katori.

Six months later, she was back in India. "I was a contract worker so I would work for a few months and then come to India. As I had several friends here, I would travel to various parts of the country - Haryana, Delhi, Orissa - and sample the cuisine, " says Katori, who also signed up for Hindi and Odissi dance classes in Tokyo. "I thought I would be able to communicate better if I learnt Hindi, " says Katori, who would visit middle class homes and learn cooking from homemakers.

It was her Hindi teacher who urged her to start teaching. "I invited him home for a party and cooked many varieties of Indian food, " says Katori. "He was really surprised and advised me to begin taking classes in Japan. " According to her, the Japanese really like Indian food though with less chilli. "We have our own version of the curry and our miso soup is similar to sambar, " she says.

Since the 1990s also saw the ethnic food boom in Japan, her classes had many takers. "I started off by teaching a few friends but slowly more people signed up, " says Katori. Her school has various courses - the beginner's course, vegetables and beans course, party items course and a master course.

"The beginner's course, a five-month course which is held once a month for three hours, teaches you how to use spices as well as vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, samosa, chapatti and poori, " she says. The vegetables and beans course is spread over 12 months as she wants to use seasonal vegetables while the six-month party course covers dishes like prawn curry, special fish curry, tandoori chicken and lamb chops.

The one-year master course is for people who want to become professional chefs and all classes are taken by Katori herself. "Earlier, I had problems teaching south Indian cuisine as we don't get curry leaves in Japan, " says Katori, who then planted some in her own kitchen garden. "So now I have a separate course on south Indian cuisine, " she says, with a smile. At present, she has more than 1, 700 registered students. "Ten per cent of them are men, I even have a 70-year-old student, " she says.

According to her, there is a growing interest in south Indian food in Japan. "The Japanese are very health conscious so there is a lot of interest in the Ayurvedic concept of eating for various body types, " says Katori, who had an 'Ayurvedic cooking session' in Kerala sometime ago. "While north Indian food is well-known, south Indian cuisine has become popular in the last few years, " she says. "People love dosa, sambar and poriyal. " However, sambar and rasam are served with less spice, she admits.

Katori, who has written several cookbooks on Indian cuisine, began conducting gourmet tours of India nine years ago. Every year, she takes 15 to 20 people on a week-long trip covering Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. "I expose them to a variety of cuisine - garam jalebis on the road, aloo chaat, a south Indian restaurant and even Bengali tiffin, "she says.

She sometimes takes clients to Kerala, travelling to Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Alapuzha, treating them to a traditional sadya - since it contains many dishes - as well as mutton stew, payasam and the famous Kerala parotta. "They love learning to crush it, " she says.

For the last one year, she has been researching Chettinad cuisine. Last year, along with her Chennai-based friend Akemi Y Purushotham Katori visited Kanadukathan village in Chettinad. "Visalakshi Ramaswamy of M. Rm. Rm. Cultural Foundation in Chennai arranged for us to attend a relative's engagement ceremony. We went there at 5 am and watched they prepared food for 200 people, " she says.

Her energies, right now, are focused on bringing out her south Indian cookbook. "I want to put together the cuisine of all four states, " she says. In the long run, she wants to inspire Japanese people to use basic Indian spices daily. "They are very good for health and I want more people to become aware about their benefits, " says Katori.

A JAPANESE'S INTRO TO INDIAN CUISINE

MAPPING THE DIFFERENCE:

Katori starts her class by first showing a map of India to her students and telling them the difference between the north and the south, the east and the west - the cultures as well as cuisine. "In my classes, I use the map to explain the background of recipes. The climate, religion, history, etc, of a place is strongly related to cuisine, " she says. "For example, in Kolkata, it took a week to dry my jeans during the rainy season. There was no refrigerator even though people were eating fish everyday. The secret behind Bengali food is the anti-bacterial power of mustard oil. "

BEST COMBOS:

The next step is to tell them how to eat Indian food. "In restaurants many people order naan with sambar. Or when they order thaalis, they finish one side dish entirely before going on to the next, they don't know how to mix various dishes together and eat, " she says.

SPICE USE:

It is very essential to teach how to use the various spices, says Katori. For instance, cumin seeds have to be fried before being used

HANDY TIPS:

Eating with your hands can be a really fun experience, as Katori demonstrates

(Photos courtesy: Yoshimi Arai)

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