A Successful Immigrant Entrepreneur in Nishiogi
The Punjabi style restaurant Sital has established itself as a local favorite, even in a Tokyo neighborhood now rich with South Asian fare, including South Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, and even another Punjabi restaurant. Owned by Gaire Puran Prasad, Sital was named after the owner’s second daughter Sital who used to help her father in the restaurant after graduating junior high school. She is currently married and has children, so she no longer has time to work in the restaurant, Gaire said. A successful migrant entrepreneur, Gaire has opened three Sital outlets, one in Mitaka, one in Kichijoji, and the smaller shop in Nishiogi.
Gaire cooks his dishes in a Punjabi style, “It is richer in flavor, unlike in the South, which is more watered down, and salty. And, there are more dishes with potatoes and rice. Punjabi style also has Roti, Naan, and Basmati rice.” he said. In general, the Northern style of cooking is much more prevalent in Japan, most recently because of the increase in Nepali-owned restaurants.
Although an ethnic Nepali, Gaire migrated as a child with his family to India, where he spent his childhood in the capital Delhi, becoming familiar with Northern cuisine. When we asked him why he decided to come to Japan, he said “It just happened. I was always a chef. I worked in the kitchen in India at a hotel for a couple of years and then I was transferred to Hong Kong. I quit my job there, worked at another company for four years and then came to Japan. I first went to Fukuoka.”
He came to Japan in 1992 with his wife after they married. He started his Japanese career as a restaurant chef making Indian cuisines in a hotel in Kumamoto, Okinawa, Nagasaki, and Fukuoka for eleven years. He had long had a dream of opening his own restaurant, but his previous company refused to let him quit. “I told them that I have contributed enough, so I am going to quit anyway,” he said.
Gaire’s experiences abroad changed and challenged him in many ways, and he experienced multiple forms of culture shock, including affronts to deeply held religious taboos. He explained: “I could not eat beef because of my religion. When I was working at a restaurant in Hong Kong, the owner was English. When I made a dish with beef, I would usually have a Filipino, English, or Chinese worker taste the food for me for about a year. Once, a customer had complained about the food that it was too salty, and so the owner told me to taste the food myself. I had never put beef inside my mouth at the time, so I put it in my mouth and spit it out. The owner got angry and asked me why I did that, so I explained that I cannot eat beef because of my religion, and he gave me an ultimatum to choose between work and my religion and told me that I must eat it because this is my job. He told me that I cannot provide customers with food which the chef does not know the taste of. So then I ate it, and it was salty. I fixed it right away. After I tasted it, the taste was fine, and they ate it telling me that it tastes good.”
Despite this type of confrontation with his religious beliefs, the Hong Kong experience was both positive and formative for him, he said: “When I was in China and Hong Kong, it was still British I cooked for hotel parties or parties for Indian consular officials, so many of the customers would tip me. They said my food was good and gave me a lot of tips. I could live off of tips in Hong Kong and didn’t even need to touch my salary.…. Everyone complimented me on the curry that I cooked, and my menu was popular in the restaurant that I had worked for. My boss also liked it, so I thought I want to open my own restaurant in the future if I have the money.”
Still, when we asked Gaire why he chose to open his restaurant in Tokyo, he explained that this was not actually his first choice in a career: “My friend who had originally used to work at a curry restaurant worked at a car company [exporting used cars]. In Niigata. I thought I want to do that too so I went to Niigata for six months to work for the car company. There were some Russians involved. But I really didn’t earn anything. I can drive, but it was difficult for me to reach a balance.”
He decided to quit the used care business and go back to cuisine. “So then I came to Tokyo and find a location. I looked around for a while and I decided to stay here.”
Gaire said that used to man the kitchen alone, but when he began expanding to multiple locations he began to hire other Nepali chefs from India. “I used to think about having people recommend staff for me, but I could not trust them unless I personally see them,” he said.
When we asked why he goes all the way to India to hire new chefs, he explained “There are a lot of Nepalese cooks in India. In Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the Middle East, the pay is low, so I think there are many people who want to work in Japan.”
He still keeps an eye out on every kitchen, he said: “I’m sometimes in the kitchen. I can quickly tell how the food is like just by peeking in. I can tell whether it is dry, or whether it needs more spices. If so, I would go in, and coach the employees on how to make the dishes. Also, when making naan, the bottom sometimes becomes black, so if they do not know what temperature to cook it I would tell them how. I teach my employees often. I’m thinking of a new menu for Mitaka right now.” Gaire currently has fourteen employees in total, with three people in the Nishiogi restaurant.
In Japan one must make some adjustments to the Japanese palate, Gaire said. His Japanese customers have a "sensitive tongue," he said. They will complain if they think the nan in Nishiogi tastes different from the one made in Mitaka.
In Sital, the customers are able to specify how spicy they want their curry. “We can’t adjust the spiciness in India. So we don't ask how spicy the customers want it.” In India children starting eating curry from the age of two, so they are used to it, he explained. This is the system we created for the customers in Japan. It is troublesome, but I can add some spices like masala,” Gaire said. They also reduce the oil to suit the Japanese taste.
Sital uses about 10 kilograms of naan dough per day. “Naan sells better than rice..” he said. In Mitaka there are more Indians, so they also serve roti there, but the local Japanese generally find it too “hard” or chewy, so it is not offered in Nishi-Ogikubo.
The ingredients which Prasad uses for the dishes are all imported from India from a vendor in. “I order 50kg of rice every month, so I ask the vendors to do it for me. There are many vendors. Like in Kobe or Nishikasai.” he said.
The restaurant is decorated with decorations that Prasad had brought from India, including images of Hindu deities, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Shiva. There is a growing Nepalese community in Japan, many of whom run restaurants, but Gaire no longer has much time for them. “My schedule was open when I used to work at a company. I would have a day off once a week. But I cannot get time off from working at my own restaurant.” he said.
As an immigrant entrepreneur with three locations, Gaire remains extremely busy. His restaurants are his true home and through them, he has created a community space in three neighborhoods. (James Farrer and Julia Kawashima, Nov.25, 2019)
(interview by James Farrer and Julia Kawashima Sept. 20, 2018; transcription by Julia Kawashima and Fumiko Kimura; English text by James Farrer and Julia Kawashima, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyright James Farrer all rights reserved).