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South Indian Cuisine from a Japanese Couple

更新日:5月11日





How did a husband a wife with no experience in the food and beverage industry fall in love with the cuisine of a distant region and spend their career (and their savings) serving this adopted culinary culture in a small restaurant? It is a particular type of cultural and professional journey that we have seen several times in our research in Nishi-Ogikubo. Japanese restaurant owners in Nishiogi often serve cuisines from other regions, whether popular cuisines such as Chinese, Mexican, or Thai, or less typical ones such as Uzbek. The Southern Indian restaurant Toraya Shokudo is an intriguing example of this type of culinary odyssey. It involves not only the story of one couple who adopted Keralan cooking; rather we discover that there is an entire community of Japanese cooks and restaurateurs who adopt this Southern Indian style and culinary identity through closely sharing experiences and recipes. This extends to celebrating the festivals of Kerala in events at the restaurant. It is a type of adopted culinary community. We explore it here through the story of this one small neighborhood restaurant which is operated by Noriko and Masahiro Sakaki.


Encountering South Indian Cuisine in Japan

As in many husband-wife restaurants we have interviewed, Noriko manages the front of the house, while Masahiro (affectionately known as “Tora-san”) handles the kitchen. We interviewed Noriko for this article, beginning with the circumstances that led them to start a South Indian restaurant. "The first time my husband (Masahiro) encountered South Indian cuisine was at a place called Kerala-no-Kaze Morning in Omori,” she said. “The owner-chef there, Mr. Numajiri, was working as a resident expatriate businessman for a trading company in various parts of India. When he went to Kerala, he tried [the local South Indian] meal and thought, 'Oh, this would suit Japan.' So, when he came back to Japan, he thought there weren't many South Indian restaurants around because Northern Indian cuisine was more popular at the time. So, he decided to try making it himself, but when he served it to the family, they didn't like it much. So, he thought, 'Well, I want someone else to try it,' and he ended up making it at a public facility. He held events like 'Introducing Meals to the Public' at public facilities, and my husband went to his 100th event called the '100 People Meals.’ At that time, Numajiri-san was still working as a corporate employee. So, he did these events himself on weekends and holidays while working as a salaryman on weekdays. My husband attended one of these events held at Sangenchaya for the first time. That was their first encounter."


Masahiro never worked here at Kerala-no-Kaze. He participated in the Numajiro’s culinary events as a leisure activity. This led to ever deeper involvement, Noriko explained. "It was delicious,” she said, “and from then on, he tried to join whenever Numajiri-san was doing it, helping with carrying stuff and cooking rice on the side. Numajiri-san put on events from Okinawa to Hokkaido. He would go whenever he was called upon. But he was just an amateur. After that, Numajiri-san opened his restaurant, and at the same time, he announced to us that he was going to stop all such activities. He said that he would not do any new events because it would create too much publicity for his restaurant. But then, some people said they missed the events and wanted to eat there again. So, Tora-san (Masahiro) made some of the dishes and had people try them. And then Tora-san started doing the same sort of events outside of his regular job. We opened this restaurant five years ago in February. We started by renting a space. But we were already doing it in almost the same style as Numajiri-san's restaurant.  We started saying that we wanted to open a store in 2016 or 2017, and we had people look for a place to rent, but we couldn't find anything that fit the bill. In 2018, we were introduced to this place.”


The location where they opened Toraya had been occupied by several businesses previously. "The landlord originally ran a karaoke snack bar here,” she said. “So, the first business was a karaoke snack bar. The next one was a book cafe, then a Sri Lankan restaurant (Tobiuo Kitchen), and then Toraya Shokudo. The first karaoke snack bar was very profitable. It was right in the bubble economy. He said he couldn't help making a lot of money. He also gave us a lot of advice. He also consulted with us when we rented the place. When we rented the space, Tora-san made a [sublease] contract with the landlord, the real estate agency, and the person who was renting the space, and we also signed an insurance contract before we started.”


In the early days of the restaurant, the couple engaged in a type of space sharing with the operators of Tobiuo Kitchen, a Sri Lankan restaurant (now closed) that also specialized in wine. So the property was used by Toraya Shokudo for the lunch service and by Tobiuo Kitchen at night. This was a time-sharing pattern we have seen with other start-ups, such as Stand Manna.

"But we both got tired of this way of doing things,” Noriko said. “In the end, even cleaning up after lunch was a lot of work, with dishes to wash. And there were preparations to be done at night for the next day. Both cuisines use spices, so there wasn't an issue with smells, but we were dealing with completely different menus. Of course, if it had been a sushi restaurant at night, it would have been tough, right? In that sense, we didn’t mind the smells, but the spices we used were completely different. But we both got tired, so we decided to divide it vertically. Certain days of the week were for Toraya Shokudo, and the other days were for Tobiuo Kitchen. At first, it was a 50-50 split, but by the end, it looked like we would be running the restaurant about five days a week. They (Tobiuo Kitchen) eventually decided not to renew the contract, and I asked the landlord if he would let us keep the contract, and he said, ‘It's better than having a contract with someone I don't know.’”



From Salesman to Chef

Before opening his own restaurant in Nishiogi, Masahiro was a salesman for a real estate company. Masahiro thus made a big career change, Noriko said. But even before he discovered South Indian cuisine, he loved to cook. “Not only South Indian food but also Korean food,” she elaborated, “like grilling Korean barbecue at home.”


At first, his cooking was just a hobby, she said, and scaled up gradually without planning to.  “In the beginning, he said that it was fine if we didn’t have people to eat the food,” she said, “But after he started making South Indian food, he wanted someone to eat it. So, we went to my friend's place and rented a kitchen to cook. He made food for our friends first, but gradually, those friends started asking him, 'Can I invite my friends too?’ And then the scale became larger and larger, we ended up hosting 40 or so people. Then he realized that he wanted to open a restaurant.”


Masahiro was drawn to South Indian cuisine because it seemed easier on his stomach, Noriko said. “What he (Masahiro) said most is that he never gets sick to his stomach,” Noriko explained. “He eats a lot. He ate so much Indian naan that he was called the "naan king." But at a certain age, if you eat a lot of naan, it's not that you can't eat it, but it is a food that makes your stomach upset. If you eat too many North Indian curries, it becomes a bit difficult, and you have a hard time the next day. But the first time he ate at Numajiri-san's restaurant, although he had refills, it wasn’t heavy on his stomach. Of course, the food tasted good, but more than that, his body told him, ‘This is good.’ I could see he was very impressed.”


“Also, I guess it's the freshly made factor. I use oil and ghee, but in small quantities. And we use the freshest oil we can find. When Numajiri-san cooks at an event, he cooks ingredients he buys on the spot and cooks them right away. So, what he buys today is cooked today and eaten today. So, instead of saying that the curry the next day tastes good, as is often the case in Japan, the food that is made right away tastes the best. I think that is a key point.”


Masahiro thus learned to make South Asian dishes through this network of Japanese cooks working in Japan. We asked if he went to learn culinary techniques in India.  “He didn't really feel the need to do so.” Noriko said. “Of course, as we became restaurateurs, we decided to visit the area, so we went there with Numajiri-san and Chef Inagaki from a restaurant called "Nandori" in Arakawa Yuenchimae. Of course, we also went to a cooking class and we were taught by a famous teacher, but my husband thought it was more refreshing to eat in the town. It was more like, 'Oh, it's delicious when you put it together like this,' or 'It's delicious when you put it together like this. I think it was better for him to learn things like, "Oh, I wonder if it would taste good in this kind of combination.”



According to Noriko, Toraya Restaurant's approach to South Indian cuisine is grounded in Masahiro's palate developed before becoming a chef. “He used to be a business traveler,” she explained. “So, he had a lot of opportunities to eat out for meetings. I think that his experience of eating at such restaurants is very useful. It's the accumulation of the food they have eaten, learning how to eat this and that, how to cook them in this way, and how to serve them in this way. It could be Japanese food, Chinese food, French food, Italian food, and so on. It could be Japanese food, Chinese food, French food, Italian food, and so on. I think it is also significant that we have eaten not only Indian food but also spicy food and many other kinds of food. So we often serve Indian food using Japanese ingredients. I don't think we would be able to come up with such a dish.... Of course, there are basic spices and techniques, but I think there is more to it than that. It's the attractive part that is ‘unique to Tora-san’ that supports this restaurant.”

Starting a restaurant with no experience in the industry was still very difficult.  “We didn't have any hands-on experience,” she said. “We had no idea what to do because we both had been an office worker for a long time and never worked in the food industry. But our seniors taught us a lot.”


“For example, I learned a lot about restaurants from various people in Nishiogi. Also, there was a place in Sangenjaya where I had promised to work for two weeks before I started renting a place in Nishiogi. The cook of the cafe was going on her honeymoon, so I was asked to come to her place. I went there right after Toraya started, and the owner taught me how to serve water, how to take orders, and even how to prepare the menu. She worked with us until after midnight washing dishes. She taught us everything even how to put a price on them. We’ll never forget what she did for us."


“She was concerned about the price and the quantity, saying, ‘Indian food is always cheap, but if it is too cheap, people in Sangenjaya might think it is not tasty, so you should price it considering the location of the restaurant.’  She also told us how to win the hearts of customers. It was only two weeks, but it was a very intense two weeks."



Making Use of Novel Ingredients

South Indian food makes use of numerous spices that are unfamiliar in Japan. We asked how Masahiro learned to cook with these novel ingredients. “He learned from Numajiri-san and YouTube,” Noriko said. “They recently published a recipe book called Masalawala South Indian Cookbook, which includes of course recipes that they have refined and refined, but when they were asked, ‘How did you learn South Indian cuisine in the beginning?’, they answered ‘YouTube.’ There are so many videos of South Indian recipes. My husband was watching them very intensively. The Internet has made it easy to learn, and I think it is a very interesting era. Because you can't smell and taste them through video. But he seems to be able to absorb it very well. He also looked at cookbooks published in India in his free time, even though he can't smell or taste them.”


Spices are the best part of Indian cuisine. We asked Noriko which spices are typical of South India.“Mustard seeds and tamarind,” she said. “Tamarind is the sour ingredient in sambar and rasam, and it is full of fiber. Mustard seeds are in almost every dish. For example, dal. It is served on top of rice, but at the end of cooking, a little bit of oil is used to flavor the dish with the mustard seed flavor. So instead of starting with a splash of oil, he cooks the beans first and season them last. That way, the amount of oil is kept to a minimum. The mustard is not yellow, but a tiny black one. It is a different variety from the yellow ones. Of course, some dishes do not contain mustard seeds.”


In addition to the typical mustard seed and tamarind, we asked, various other spices have also become increasingly available in Japan. “In the past, it was difficult to find this and that thing used in South Indian cuisine in Japan,” Noriko said. “But now you can find almost all of them. That's how knowledgeable Japanese people have become. They know more and more about it, so they want it, don't they? The Indian community living in Shin-Okubo or Kasai, for example, will order Indian food because the Japanese people want it. We were surprised that we could buy such things in Japan. There was a festival on Saturday and Sunday the other day. They served pink water called ‘Pathimugam’ at the festival. It's made by boiling [Sappan wood] tree bark, and it turns a lovely color. It has no taste, but it is something that people in India say is very good for you. But there is no evidence (laughs). You used to not be able to buy that in Japan, but I hear you can buy it now.... We used to ask people who had gone to India for training to share Pathimugam with us. And now we can buy it normally. I was like, "Oh, there's such a need in Japan? Well, the color is pretty, so I guess people here wanted to try it out."


Other unusual ingredients also are now available in Japan. “Matta rice, or red rice, used to be hard to find, but now it is commonly sold in Japan,” she said. “However, Matta rice is something that is eaten by ordinary Indians. The price here is the same as basmati rice, which is a very expensive rice in India. Matta rice is not exported very much by the Indian government. Basmati rice has already been exported more and more to earn foreign currency, and everyone knows about basmati rice, unlike Matta rice. In Japan, only people who want this specific item import Matta rice.”


“The basic rice we serve is Thai,” she continued. “Matta rice and basmati rice are used for festivals and other events. The Matta rice that is usually eaten locally is fine, but it is too expensive in absolute terms. As for the basmati rice, it is too aromatic, so it is not suitable for our lunch. The aroma of the vegetables will not be enhanced.”


The lunch meal served at Toraya is vegetarian, Noriko explained. “We do use yogurt. If you replace the yogurt with a soy milk-based product, it's already vegan. We have quite a few vegan customers. Not only vegetarians but also people who think, 'I'll go vegan at least when I come here.’ They usually eat a lot of meat, so they think they should eat a lot of vegetables. But some people order one more dish of meat because they feel unsatisfied somehow without meat.”

Toraya also serves meals at night. “The evening meals are served with basmati rice,” she explained. “We serve side dishes to go with basmati rice. The taste is a little rich. The side dishes are also rich. If five or six people gather, we can charter the place and arrange it as they like. The largest number of people we can accommodate is about 16 but we've had parties of up to 19 people. That party was held before the pandemic.”


Their alcoholic beverages also involve novel ingredients. “Our best recommendation is cardamom shochu," Noriko said. "It has spices in it. Some people buy a bottle of it and keep it here. We make them in the restaurant and serve them to our customers six months later. We have a set of three kinds of shochu to compare: barley shochu-based, rice shochu-based, and rice shochu ginjo-shu. Many of our customers choose their favorite and keep a bottle of sake after comparing those three. Over the summer we started trying a little experiment called ‘Izakaya Tora’. We don't serve meals, but snacks. We welcome people who don't drink alcohol as well. This kind of thing is also fun. Of course, we want the customers to enjoy themselves, but it's fun for us too.”


“This ‘cardamom shochu No. 1’ is delicious and it is tasty when you mix it with something else. It is good with soda or water, but it is even more fun to mix it with various things. We have a party to test which one fits best with cardamom shochu. We have people bring things they think would go well with it, and Tora-san makes the snacks. The all-time most popular mixer is 50% Passionfruit from [the discount import chain] Kaldi. The winner the other day was the Beard Tea. It is made from Korean corn. One of the customers said that Passionfruit tastes so strong that he can't keep drinking it. Unlike the Passionfruit, I think we can drink it forever with Beard Tea. We plan to do it again next month."




The Japanese "South Indian Cuisine" Community

The Sakakis entered the South Indian restaurant business by joining a broad community of Japanese people who serve South Indian cuisine in Japan. While there is interaction with people from Kerala, this community is a community consisting of Japanese people who love South Indian cuisine.


After being attracted to South Indian cuisine at the aforementioned "100 People Meals" event, they joined an event called ‘Meals Ready’. “‘Meals Ready’ was an event organized by Numajiri-san. Six young teams rented the place of Kerala-no-Kaze every week to serve meals, and all of these people were Japanese, and many of them entered this industry because of Numajiri-san’s influence.”


Numajiri's very popular restaurant, Kerara-no-Kaze, was about 1.5 times the size of Toraya. However, since the restaurant became too prosperous for his business, Numajiri reopened his restaurant under the name ‘Kerala-no-Kaze Morning’, serving a light meal called Tiffin, which is not a meal. ‘Meals Ready’ was the event that started after Numajiri closed Kerara-no-Kaze.

“Numajiri-san did not tell his customers that he was closing because if he had announced in advance, the number of customers could have been more than double the usual number. The evening of the day he closed the store, he announced it and said, ‘I am quitting, but our good friend, the chef, will be serving food, so please come and eat with us’, then organized ‘Meals Ready’.”


“At Toraya, we have at most 30 customers a day, but at this event (Meals Ready), a hundred people came a day. Of course, Not only Mr. and Mrs. Numajiri but also their part-time workers helped us. It was an unprecedented experience. There was no time to rest during the event. But thanks to this experience, I came back here (Nishiogi) and things have changed a lot.”

Although they have not held this event anymore, the Sakakis are still good friends with the chefs who exhibited at the event. “The location where each chef is working is different,” she said. “For instance, Arakawa, Suginami-ku, Gunma, Nagano, and Chiba prefectures. They are also chefs who have been traveling all over the country for events.”


Interestingly, the chefs who participated in the events were all originally from completely different industries. “Some of them were engineers, and most of them were from different fields. Many of them were attracted to Numajiri-san."


Likewise, the Sakakis also have taken a new path into cuisine from completely different industries. Completing this event with the support of many different people was a big step forward for them as chefs and restaurateurs. The community of South Indian chefs across the country has been an integral part of their culinary careers. Even today, they maintain a community with these people. “The social networking community is on X [formerly Twitter] and Facebook,” Noriko said. “We look at each other's Twitter feeds and see what each other is doing, and we receive supportive retweets and reposts. Whenever I thought, ‘It looks like (management) is tough,’ they would always come to Toraya to eat when we were in a difficult time. Are you all right? They would ask, ‘Are you all right?’ They would say, ‘It happens sometimes.’ That kind of thing happens a lot. We don't do anything together now, but we keep in touch with each other. I think we're all working very hard.


“Not only the South Indian chefs’ community but also there is another community consisting of three South Indian restaurants in Nishiogi, Oiwa Shokudo, Tarikaro, and Toraya. We exchange information like, ‘How are you doing lately?’”


Interestingly, all of these South Indian cuisine restaurants, including the other two in Nishiogi, are owned and managed by Japanese, forming a very distinct network from the South Asian migrants – mostly Nepalese – who run the majority of Indian restaurants in the Tokyo region. Possibly because the Nepalese specialize in heavier North Indian dishes, South Indian cuisine is a niche filled by many Japanese coming from outside of the restaurant business.



Special Events

In addition to regular meals, the restaurant regularly holds events related to South Indian culture. One of the biggest events is "Onam Sadhya," a big annual festival meal in Kerala in which 24-28 dishes are served together on a single plate, traditionally a banana leaf. We asked Noriko to tell us more about this event, which was held in August this year and was fully booked. “Onam is the name of the festival,” she explained. “Sadhya is a kind of celebratory dish, a special dish. So it means a special dish for the festival of Onam. Onam is the biggest festival in Kerala. We had it there once, and we enjoyed it. It's a meal that everyone prepares for the king [the divine king Mahabali]. The whole town was covered in flowers, and there were replicas of the king, posters, and people dressed up in the king’s costume. We had delicious food there and it was fun.  and we always prepared something extravagant at home, and of course at the restaurants. On that weekend, restaurants run by people from Kerala will prepare Onam Sadhya with a full banana leaf. We want to serve food with a single piece of full banana leaves, to be honest, but we cannot do that because our store is small. We will do this event again next year.”

Toraya serves a total of twenty-nine different dishes at the Onam Sadhya. “We don't use any special ingredients, but we have two desserts for the special occasion."


The Onam Sadhya is an event that has been going on since Toraya opened. “We've wanted to do it since we started renting out the space.” Noriko said, “I wanted to do it. But I don't think any restaurants do this with just two people working. There must be at least five or six staff members. Every year at around 5 am, I regret, like ‘Why did we decide to do this? Oh, I was the one who wanted to do it.’  I ask Tora-san (Masahiro), and if he says it's okay, I do it. I want to hold events and festivals like this. I would like to have an event, a festival. If there is such a wonderful festival in India, I would like to imitate it.”


Toraya sometimes holds festivals (events) based on customers' requests. “We have an all-meat festival,” she said. “The other day, there was a request for beef tongue. We also had an oyster festival. Lamb is very popular. Furthermore, we have vegan dinners as well.”


Almost all these requests are from regular customers. “It doesn't matter if it's from the regulars,” she said. “We gather requests through SNS, such as X (Twitter) and Instagram, and people who follow us on those sites see the request form and contact us. We also have an official LINE account.”




The Nishiogi Community and Toraya

For every restaurant, the key to survival is connecting to a group of customers. The Sakakis are from Saitama, so they had to start from scratch with their business in Nishiogi.

We asked Noriko whether it was difficult to attract customers when they first opened. “No, it wasn’t,” she said. “When a restaurant has just opened for the first time, customers come. The hardest part was after three months. Many curry gourmet bloggers helped us. They wrote a lot of articles about curry. We didn't spend a lot of money on advertising, but there were a lot of people who read the blogger’s article and came.”


While many customers came from far away as well as from their neighbors in Nishiogi, three months after opening, the business was struggling, she said.


 “We rented this property in February and did well for about three months until the Golden Week holidays. However, we were featured in a magazine called "Dancyu" when they featured the restaurants that are subletting a place. I was honored because we were featured next to Spicy Curry Roka, one of the famous restaurants. Thanks to the magazine, we were able to survive during the hardest time. If we hadn't been featured in Dancyu at that time, we might have quit.”

The current customers are half regulars and half new ones. Noriko told us that many of the new customers live near Nishiogi. “Yes, but it was different before COVID-19,” she said. “Before that, there were many people from far away. We had people who wanted to eat something a little unusual, like so-called curry lovers, or people who saw us in a magazine. Recently, people from nearby areas stopped by our restaurant to explore the neighborhood.”


Women seem particularly attracted to the light and healthy meals. “Our customer ratio of men to women is about 60-70% of women and 30% men,” Noriko said. “Some male customers are regulars, but they are very quiet. Women are probably more active in conversation.”

Customers have influenced the interior design and even the name of the restaurant. The name of the restaurant is derived from Masahiro's nickname "Tora-san," which was not originally intended to be the name of the restaurant but was chosen by a customer.


“The ‘Tora’ does not mean tiger (Japanese), but the ‘Tora’ of a Honda motorcycle called Transalp. Tora-san wanted to change the name of the restaurant to ‘Meals Restaurant,’ but everyone had been calling it Toraya since we were having dinner parties. I thought there was no need to change it. The official name is ‘Meals Restaurant Toraya Shokudo,’ The name was given to us by our customers.”


“Also, the tenugui (Japanese hand towel) that are displayed on the wall were originally drawn by an illustrator who is a regular customer of ours. Then people who work for a tenugui brand called Kamawanu-san happened to have dinner here and came to our cooking class. They all brought their beautiful tenugui, and that's when I first realized that they were from a tenugui shop. I asked them to make our original tenugui and they made them for our restaurant’s second anniversary. It is made by hand using a traditional method called Chu-sen. The colors and other details were decided based on the customers' opinions. As of now, it is probably the only one of tenugui in the world.


The lively interactions among customers can be said to be one of the characteristics of Toraya. Even while we were interviewing the Sakakis, there was never a break in the conversation among the customers.


“The other day, we happened to have completely different groups in our restaurant, and they were talking about where to go for Golden Week. They started exchanging information and sharing Google Maps. So I suggested, ‘Let's talk about what happened over Golden Week again with these regulars.’ After their trip, everyone brought their souvenirs, such as oils and spices from Taiwan and other places. They would give them to Tora and ask him to make something for them. I think that kind of thing is what makes our restaurant unique," she said.





Coping with COVID-19

Toraya celebrated its second anniversary in 2020, the year of the pandemic. The restaurant was closed when a state of emergency was declared.


“It was tough,” she said. “We had already taken a quick break and had retreated to Niigata for a long time. Whenever we were told to take a break, we took a break. We were subsidized, but we didn't have any children, so as long as we don't starve to death, we can manage.”


By the time the state of emergency was declared and business resumed, Noriko said certain activities helped them in Nishiogi. “During COVID-19, there was a movement in the Nishiogi area to bring business to restaurants in Nishiogi,” explained Noriko. “The activities were about encouraging people to spend money on takeout at the stores. There was a Facebook group called the Nishiogi Takeouts. They produced posters that we could print out, so I immediately put them at our restaurant. People who wanted to spend money at restaurants in Nishiogi helped us. We are in a hard-to-see location, so they saw our posters. That was pretty good. We were grateful for that. We had customers who had never been to our place before, and they still come back from time to time I felt that because it was in Nishiogi, we were able to do what we did, and that it was warm and welcoming. I don't think it would have happened if we were in a different area. Some neighbors came to our shop every day.”


Nowadays, the number of customers is returning. “The month of July (2023) was very bad, but in August, it got better,” she said. “If it keeps going like this, I think we'll be okay. We won't make a lot of money, but we'll be able to live on our own.”


“One day in July, there was a day when there had no customers, so in August, we offered a one-month trial offer: 10,000 yen for one month of subscriptions, no matter how many times you come. Three women paid us 10,000 yen to have the subscription during the month of July. Actually, I was surprised that there were no visitors on that day in July. I thought it was tough, so Tora-san and I thought, 'If there are no visitors today, maybe we should think of something for August. First time, Tora-san claimed, saying,  'No one will come’. A lunch meal costs 1500 yen, so if you come seven times, you get your money's worth. That means they would come once every three days. I wondered if that many people would come, but eventually, three people signed up.”

“I know that subscriptions are not supposed to be paid for, but they always order something extra. I really appreciate that.”



Commitment to Improving

It must be quite difficult to make food that is not the same as what we have been eating for a long time. However, the Sakakis have been studying the ingredients, techniques, and cooking methods unique to South Indian cuisine.


Noriko says, "I think there is a difference in the number of steps we have to take because we don't have to do it all at once. Many dishes have to be prepared and served all at once. And if you start preparing them the day before, they don't taste as good as they should. It's simple, so it really comes out. So with vegetables, for example, it doesn't mean that they have to be high-end or organic, but if you use vegetables that you don't think are good anymore, they will taste bad. So the place of production is important, and freshness is also very important. So, sometimes I go to the local area and help out at events where the local people cook with the vegetables they have grown. It's so delicious. Because they bring the vegetables that were in the field just a few minutes ago. The participants cut them, and Tora-san (Masahiro) cooks them on the spot. How could it not be delicious? I think the difference comes down to the taste of South Indian food. You can't cheat. You may be able to cheat a little if you put a lot of food in and boil or bake it, but basically, you fry it quickly or boil it quickly.”


The Sakaki's commitment to providing delicious food to their customers is also evident in the wadas, and Indian doughnuts that accompany the meal. Wadas can be deep-fried in advance and served right away," says Noriko. “But if you are going to go to all that trouble, I thought it would be better if they tasted good. We make and fry them after customers arrive, so it takes a certain amount of time, but we want people to come to our restaurant who want to eat good food. It is one of our specialties.”


About 95% of customers are Japanese, but recently when we visited Toraya while producing this article, a customer from South India happened to sit next to us for dinner. He spoke Japanese fluently, and we assumed he was a long-term resident of the country. He told us that this was his fourth visit to Toraya. He said he likes the delicate flavors of the food here. For him, Toraya is one of the best South Indian restaurants in Tokyo. It was also impossible to miss his great enjoyment of the cardamom shochu. He even has ordered a bottle to be kept for his use at Toraya, which is a very Japanese style of drinking.


It might be surprising to find a whole group of Japanese cooks and restaurateurs have embraced Kerala cuisine not only as a hobby but as a career and life work. As restaurant owners, the Sakaki’s have not only connected to a broader community of like-minded chefs and restaurant owners, but they also have connected with a customer base of curious and health-conscious diners living in Nishi-Ogikubo. (James Farrer and Sakura Yajima April 19, 2024).


(Interview conducted by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima Aug. 30, 2023; transcription and translation by Sakura Yajima; text by James Farrer and Sakura Yajima; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved.)


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