Bringing the Nepali Connection to Nishiogi
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of June 2017, there were approximately 74,300 Nepalis living in Japan. In comparison to figures from ten years ago, the Nepali resident population has increased by about six-fold. Nepalis are now the largest group of South Asian migrants in Japan, and among these labor migrants, the majority are now working in the restaurant industry, spreading an Indo-Nepali hybrid cuisine to neighborhoods throughout Japan.
Among this wave of migrant restauranteurs, Ale, a trained of Indian cuisine chef, runs an Indo-Nepali curry restaurant “Jay Ganesha” here in Nishiogikubo. In addition to the story of this Nishiogi Nepali restaurant, we also were able to hear about Ale’s migration history and his involvement with Japan’s vast Nepali and Indian networks.
Ale’s restaurant is nearing its third-year anniversary. He now has three employees and also belongs to a three-person family along with his wife and ten-year-old daughter. His wife occasionally helps at the restaurant, but she primarily takes care of the home life. Ale’s daughter is currently attending the Everest International School in Asagaya, a school founded in 2013 to meet the educational needs of the growing number of Nepali immigrant families in Japan.
Before coming to Japan, Ale lived in India, where he learned Indian cuisine at a hotel in central Delhi. Eventually, his acquaintances, one after another, immigrated to Japan. For the most part, Ale does not know their personal reasons for immigrating. He was able, however, to recount how he followed a friend to Japan, networks play an important role in these decisions. “It was because a lot of my friends came. A lot of the people I work with came, so I also came to Japan.” Subsequently, Ale found work in Japan by means of introduction through an acquaintance. Initially, he worked at a number of Indian curry restaurants. “I don’t know if they are still around now. They were in Nagoya, Osaka, or Tokyo,” said Ale. It appears that he has lost touch with some of these other migrant restaurateurs; however, he maintained connections with Nepali restaurants within the Tokyo area. Ale mentioned, “All my friends have restaurants, in places like Nishiogi, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku.”
Ale himself also opened his first restaurant in Takadanobaba eight years ago. Five years later, in 2015, he opened the second location of his Ganesha brand restaurant here in Nishiogikubo. Ale’s restaurant is only a three-minute walk away from the North Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo Station. Although everyone who works there is Nepali, the restaurant seems pretty much wrapped in the Indian flag. The restaurant sign incorporates the bright horizontal green and saffron bars of the Indian national flag, echoed again in the saffron and green accents of the menus pasted on the walls. The name Jay Ganesha is, of course, taken from the name of the popular Hindu deity, who is also worshipped in Nepal, and there is even a small shrine to the elephant-headed god in an alcove near the entrance.
Ale manages the Nishiogikubo restaurant on Saturdays and Sundays and works at his Takadanobaba location on weekdays. Ale entrusts the operation of both establishments to his staff during the hours when he is not in. According to Ale, his employees also studied the culinary arts in India. He then hired them through the introduction of Nepali acquaintances. In this way, we can see at Ganesha how the Nepali network is utilized to enable the mobility of chefs, from Nepal to Japan. In practice, the Nepali restaurant industry in Japan is as much a migration industry as a culinary one, explaining its rapid expansion in Japan.
Ale’s restaurant offers both Indian and Nepali foods. However, according to him, the Nepali foods on the menu are quite similar to Indian foods: “They’re pretty much the same. We don’t have a lot of [exclusively] Nepali foods, but we have Chow Mein and Momo, [the rest] are all Indian.” In reality, there are apparently around thirty to forty-five variations of Momo that exist in Nepali cuisine, and it would be impractical to try to serve them in Japan. One popular dish that cannot be served at the restaurant is Roti. When we asked why, he explained, “Because you can’t eat it. It’s hard. You have to eat it as soon as you make it. Even after a short while, it becomes [as hard as] a cutting board.”
Aside from designing the menu, Ale must also deal with suppliers. Upon entering the restaurant, the first thing that will catch your eye is probably the abundant number of alcohol bottles lining the walls. Yellow, red, and green lightbulbs illuminate the variety of empty bottles on the kitchen counter. Ale explained, “After ordering from manufacturers, I place [the bottles] here. Once they are done, I put them on the shelves.” Ale told us about a beer imported from Nepal among the vast collection of alcoholic beverages, “This beer comes from Nepal. This is expensive, this ‘Nepal Ice’ beer here. This doesn’t isn’t expensive for businesses in Nepal. This is a hundred—two hundred yen in Nepal. It won’t cost two-hundred yen, probably. This bottle here, this is probably [in Japan] about four hundred fifty yen, including tax.” The profit margins on such imported beverages seem to be taken largely by the middlemen, leaving less for the end-sellers like Ale.
Another imported item is the tandoor oven used to bake the customer-favorite naan. Ale opted to purchase an imported, Indian-made tandoor. “There are [tandoors] in Japan as well, but the Japanese ones are expensive. Probably around 800,000 yen. The Indian ones… If you buy a Japanese tandoor, it’s good for about fifty years. Indian ones [last for] about four or five years,” said Ale.
Ale gets most of the necessary ingredients in Japan through a network of small Indian importers rather than ordering them directly from India. Ale explained, “Everything is [bought] in Japan. Because in Japan, Indian people can give discounts. It’s because it’s easy, it’s cheap.” It seems that the Indian networks rule the supplier side, while Nepalis are often the chefs who become restaurateurs.
It seems that along with the increase in Nepali immigrants, small Nepali communities are forming throughout Japan. For now, the prime movers in this wave migration are Nepali chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs spreading Nepali-Indian cuisine to neighborhoods throughout Japan. This is a competitive market, and many restaurants do not survive very long, but the ones that do are leaving a lasting imprint on the neighborhood foodscape and on the taste buds of Japanese consumers. (James Farrer, Lisa Katsube, Sept. 17, 2018)
(text and interview by James Farrer and Lisa Katsube; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Lisa Katsube; copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)