“My Road” to South India
Southern Indian food is rare in Tokyo, and the humble “My Road“ shopping mall squeezed beneath the tracks of the busy Chuo Line is not a place one would expect to find it. But, if you enter My Road from Nishi-Ogi station, pass the Toyoda shoe store, say hello to the friendly skeleton dressed in seasonal garb in front of the Nishi Ogikubo Chiropractor, and continue past the Rusty ladies clothing shop advertising in English “Sweet Camel: Jeans for the Aggressive Woman,” then skipping down some stairs, finally on the right hand side you will find a nondescript storefront that is the Indian restaurant Oiwa Shokudo (Oiwa Kitchen). With its mix of everyday shops and services, the pedestrian My Road is similar to a strip mall in the USA, and Oiwa Shokudo, like some of the Indian restaurants in such malls in the USA, is surprisingly tasty.
The second surprising thing about Oiwa Shokudo is that unlike most Indian curry shops in the neighborhood, it is not run by a Nepali, Bangladeshi or other South Asian migrant, but rather native Japanese Shunsuke Oiwa, a long-term resident of Nishiogi. Oiwa explained, as a youth he was not a very focused student, and spent a few years working odd jobs before settling on a career in gastronomy. After having studied at a Western-focused culinary school, Oiwa thought that becoming an independent Italian, or French restaurant owner would be difficult and decided to study Sri Lankan food culture, which is still rare in Japan. So he flew over to Sri Lanka for some hands-on training and tasting experience. When he came back to Tokyo he ended up working in a well-known Southern Indian-style restaurant where he learned Southern Indian techniques. He explained to us the difference between the well-known Northern Indian curry and the Southern Indian curry he makes.
The Oiwa Shokudo is a Southern Indian curry restaurant, Oiwa says, and there are not so many of them in Tokyo yet. In particular, “nan,” flatbread, which is universally loved in Japan’s Indian restaurants, is a Northern Indian style dish. The curries themselves, compared to Southern Indian curries, are much more oily. Oiwa goal is to produce a healthy, less oiled up curry using local vegetables and beans that could be eaten “every night” by many of the people coming home to Nishiogi late at night. He doesn’t, however, produce the Southern Indian breakfast and lunch snacks, such as dosa. Rather his emphasis is on rice “meals,” like those served traditionally on banana leaves in Southern India. All the vegetables he uses are from local stores in Nishiogi. Rice is "all you can eat."
“First off," Oiwa continued, "Northern Indian food is very greasy, and India does not have the culture of adding broth to the cuisine, so sometimes there are dishes that you would think [from the Japanese culinary perspective], they only put spices in boiled water. And it does not work well, so for people like us who are used to broth, the taste of the food might be too shallow and not so good sometimes. But a lot of the curries from Southern India are vegetarian, and I would always think, ‘How can they make such tasty food with only vegetables?’ Back then I was influenced by my wife, who barely ate meat or fish, so I thought I could do it like this.” One of the key points he emphasizes to us is using exactly the right amount of salt.
He also adds, “You know, there are many people who come back from work to Nishi-Ogikubo. There are more residences than companies. Coming back home at 10 pm and eating a tonkatsu (pork cutlet rice bowl) every night would be too heavy. So a healthy curry with many vegetables is great for people who want to eat with worrying about the time of night. They will not feel guilty and they will actually be full since it has a lot of beans in it too. Of course, maybe they will not get the psychological satisfaction of having eaten a piece of meat, but I think it is pretty satisfying and well, I hope people who like that could come to my restaurant.”
Oiwa himself is also a resident of Nishiogi, and he told us that he often goes drinking after his work at the restaurant. He was inspired to open the restaurant by one of the bars to which he goes, called “Soba and Wine Kichi.” Back when Oiwa and his wife were looking for a new place to start a business, they decided to walk around his old Nishiogi neighborhood after having lunch there with a friend. His wife really liked it. They ended up going to the bar, and the owner talked him into having a curry event at the bar. From that encounter, the idea of a restaurant in the neighborhood emerged.
Oiwa described a friendly community of restaurant owners in Nishiogi. “I will go during lunchtime too to say hi to the neighboring restaurant owners. If I see a nice place, I will go and talk to the owner of that place to tell them that I have a curry place. But yeah, most of the time, I meet people in bars (short laugh).” Oiwa seemed happy to share his daily life as a restaurant owner in Nishiogi, however, the pressures are great and the hours are long. So, lately, his drinking nights have been fewer. (James Farrer, Arisa Matsumura. July 28, 2016, edited March 14, 2017)