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Reflections of Punjab in a Japanese Window

Travel is a theme of many restaurants that introduce new cuisines, with the staff acting as gustatory tour guides. However, as with actual journeys, such culinary “travel” produces pleasurable cultural encounters that are carefully curated by local guides. The Pakistani-owned Rahi Punjabi Kitchen is a tiny hidden space that brings customers on a culinary trip to Pakistan, while also seeking to be, in some respects, thoroughly Japanese. It shows the immigrant entrepreneur’s delicate task in creating a successful Japanese eatery based on imported culinary culture.


Rahi is on a narrow short street that features a few quaint cafes and chic hair salons. The ample foliage from the carefully managed plants and imposing brick walls lends the narrow passage a quiet almost village-like charm. Despite its remoteness to the city center, many customers actually travel from quite far away to find this travel-themed small restaurant. Rahi is on the building’s second floor. When going up the stairs, the customer encounters a climactic change from the European aesthetics of the alleyway. Urdu and Hindi music, the smell of sweet pungent spices, and small trinkets and statues make one feel like he or she has left quiet Nishiogi and is traveling to a mysterious warm and fragrant land. Upon opening the door, customers are greeted by the big welcoming smile of the restaurant’s owner, Rahi.     

Despite its obscure location and small size (it seats only 10 people), Rahi has attained great popularity since it opened in November 2005. The owner’s full name is Rahimu Mubasil Hanada, and the restaurant is named after him.


“Since I opened the restaurant, everyone calls me Rahi, meaning traveler in Urdu. My theme for this restaurant is traveling. I try to create an atmosphere that makes customers feel like they are traveling somewhere else. I want customers to feel like they are traveling by eating our foods and enjoying the restaurant’s atmosphere.”


Rahi explains that he wants customers to feel like they are visiting his hometown in Lahore Pakistan. The reason why Rahi opened this restaurant in Japan is also related to traveling. In fluent Japanese, he relayed his Japan migration story:


“It was a coincidence, coming to Japan. You know how there is a diplomatic agreement. At that time, we did not need a visa in order to enter Japan. On the plane when I was coming back from Singapore to visit my aunt, I befriended a Pakistani man who sat next to me. We talked for the whole seven-hour plane ride. And he asked me to stop by Japan where he lives. Since he said that, I hung around Japan for almost a week and stayed with him. From that experience, I came to like Japan.”


Rahi’s desire to bring authentic Pakistani dishes to Japan grew out of his later experiences living here. After moving to Japan, Rahi worked at suburban Mitaka City’s International Association. There, he would participate in an event called, “Traveling the World,” where he taught cooking and made food for event participants.


“For that event, people from a particular country were invited to give a talk, teach cooking to local residents, and eat the foods they prepared together with them. I taught and made Pakistan dishes two or three times a year to mothers of students who attended Mitaka City’s elementary and middle schools. I would make the type of foods that are served at my restaurant right now. Many mothers came. After that experience, I wanted to open a restaurant.”


All of the foods served in Rahi are authentic Punjabi dishes, he said, contrasting it with the Indian fusion cuisine which is popular in Japan—especially now with the spread of Nepali restauranteurs throughout the country. Rahi pointed out that Punjabi cuisine transcends the India-Pakistan border, but differs greatly from food in other parts of the subcontinent. “In my place, there are only Pakistani dishes.” As he explained, Southern Indian food comprises many vegetarian dishes, often based on beans; Punjabi Pakistani dishes, however, allow for many meats, other than pork, so there is a greater variety of dishes that use meat. Therefore, Rahi offers dishes with mutton, chicken, and beef tendon. Through these dishes, Rahi expresses his taste memories of life in Pakistan. In Japan, there is a common phrase, “the taste of mother’s home cooking,” which expresses the nostalgic feelings most people have for childhood flavors. Using this phrase, Rahi said that he, tries to recreate the taste of his mother’s cooking, a concept appreciated by his customers.


“The rice we use is special. It is called Basmati rice. This is my mother’s cooking trick. She would use brown rice instead of white rice because it adds a delicious aroma to the meal. At first, I used white rice but I realized brown rice is better. This is a special dish in our restaurant.”


One of Rahi’s favorites is gizzard curry. “Gizzard curry is Punjab’s special dish. I have been eating this since I was an elementary school student. I don't know about the current situation in Pakistan, but in those days, it was not easy to get gizzard. You know how you could only get a small amount of gizzard from one bird? So, in order to get pounds of gizzard, you needed to know a store that sells a lot of chicken. After work, my dad would call in an order to those stores and ask, ‘Can I have this amount of gizzard for this week?’ My dad would take that home, and my mom would cook it. My dad really liked this meal. Now, I am recreating her dish”


Rahi tries to recreate the experience of Pakistan not only through flavors but also through images. “I have two tactics. First, I painted the wall imaging Pakistan’s sunset. The sunset in Pakistan is a little different from European countries; it is a darker yellow. I painted the wall that color. Another tactic is, since I am from Punjab, I brought these plates that represent Punjab.”


Inside Rahi, plates hang on the wall and the pillows customers use for their seats are souvenirs Rahi brought back from his hometown. The photos Rahi took in Pakistan give customers the feel of looking at a view of Pakistan from a window. The music is from South Asian movies, pulling the customers’ imaginations into the foreign region.


The numerous decorations inside the store not only create a Pakistani atmosphere but also reflect the bonds between Rahi and his customers. Illustrator and manga artist, Mizumaru Anzai  (1942-2014), was a long-time customer who enjoyed the curry. Rahi was very close with him and hangs many of Mr. Anzai’s pieces in his restaurant.


He also hangs drawings of the restaurant made by the children of customers. “Kids who come and eat here drew those for me. Kids around four or five years old tend to want to draw something. So, the little customers will see me and say they want to draw me. So, I tell them to go ahead and draw me and they do their best. Their heartwarming kindness is important to me.”


Through this decor, one can see both Rahi’s memories of his childhood in Pakistan and those he shares with his Nishiogi customers. Before Rahi opened his own place, he trained himself by working at his friend’s business to learn the feel and flow of a restaurant. He came to know the atmosphere Japanese customers feel comfortable in, and aims to create this atmosphere in Rahi. Long married to a Japanese woman, he is now more comfortable speaking Japanese than English.


Being a migrant restaurant owner in Japan can create some tension between one’s identity as a foreign entrepreneur and the desire to become part of a Japanese community. As Rahi explained:


“I am sorry to say this but when I started this place, I did not go out of my way to ask non-Japanese to stop by the restaurant. The reason is that inside a small restaurant like this, I felt like the way foreigners sit and their etiquette was completely different from the Japanese. Especially South Asian people like me, we will be throwing our belongings all over the restaurant and start running around the place. I did not restrict them from coming here but I did not ask them to come either. Foreigners that come here today are people with polite etiquette. When my friends come here, they will be talking in a loud voice while sitting very close to me. In a small place like this, if there are Japanese ladies eating here and if they see four foreigners talking loudly, I think they will get very mad. Since all of my friends are loud and overreact to things, I tell them to be quiet since there are other customers. If I do not say that, they will be like ‘Bring me that! Give me this!’ and I feel like that does not match with the atmosphere I am trying to create in Japan.”


Rahi’s goal is for the customers to experience Pakistan in Japan. Though as his comments make clear, he feels that he must do so in a “Japanese” way that excludes some elements of his home society. At a personal level, Rahi also struggles to balance business and family values. In Pakistan, family events are a top priority. Due to this notion, Rahi always attends his nephew and nieces’ weddings. Even though Rahi has one Indian worker working for him, he closes the restaurant for around five days when he travels to Pakistan. He explains his reasons for this:


“I do not know how long my Indian worker will be working here. That is why I am doing most of the work here. And if I ask this guy to do the cooking while I am gone, the taste will change. I actually taught him many things. But since he is from Bihar, India, he will make foods from his area of the country, and I don’t think that is a Punjab dish. So, reluctantly I close the restaurant while I am gone”.


Rahi aims to serve authentic Punjabi tastes in a space that evokes the sounds and sights of Punjab. However, the imaginary travel experienced in the restaurant requires the restaurateur to make some subtle adjustments. Rahi wants his customers to experience genuine Pakistani dishes, though he actually adjusts the “heat” to the customer’s palate. He also adjusts the social environment to match Japanese sensibilities. Nowadays, Rahi is one of the most highly rated eateries in Nishiogi according to online dining websites. Japanese and foreign customers alike travel from quite far away for his tasty dishes and the charming neighborhood atmosphere. (James Farrer, Mariya Yoshiyama, Dec. 15, 2017)

(text and interview by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Mariya Yoshiyama; copyright James Farrer 2017)

Hana Nishi-Ogikubo
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