Japanese For The Novice: Why Wakai In Mumbai Should Be Your Next Meal
As someone who isn’t particularly invested in the food of Japan, or very keen on raw fish, I was a little hesitant when I was invited to try out Fort’s latest offering. Wakai, representing Tokyo’s upbeat vibe, launched in Mumbai about a week back. In one of South Mumbai’s old mansions stands a stark neon pink sign that also tells you their cuisine is Contemporary Japanese, so there’s something for everyone. I take the chance.
The vibe of the restaurant takes its inspiration from hole-in-the-wall ramen shops, a peppy, colourful set up that connects to pop culture, a sea of umbrellas adorning the ceiling l, and Manga imagery on the walls, all visualised and smartly executed by designer Rupin Suchak. A two-storeyed restaurant, Wakai’s ground floor is more of your dining space, while the mezzanine is for a boozy night out, not to mention their live sushi bar is on the mezzanine floor as well. Balanced in terms of the mood, not too loud but uplifting is what the restaurant clearly goes for.
While they call themselves contemporary Japanese, I think the most authentic part about Wakai is Chef Parvez Khan. The 34-year-old helmed the kitchen at Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, and honed his skills under chef Masaharu Morimoto himself. Everyone who is anyone knows that Wasabi is the last word when it comes to Japanese in the city, so when you’re eating at Wakai, you know you’re in the right hands.
We start off with what turns out to be my favourite from the menu: Wasabi Cornettos. Swirled wasabi cream and spiced avocado in a charcoaled, tiny waffle cone, these cones are a mix of headiness, spice, and sweet, and leave a pleasant flavour in the mouth. Pair this with the wasabi infused gin cocktail, and the meal has kickstarted on the right note. Their sushi bar churns out some classic sashimi and maki sushis, and the innovative ones for the sushi lovers to try will be the nori less sushi rolls, or the avocado and eel sushi. We try some shiro kuro ninniku maki sushi roll, a vegetarian one with black garlic, and with wasabi wasabi that is freshly grated at our table, the meal is made.
We try the classic black cod miso, and it’s everything a seafood lover (like myself) could’ve asked for. Wakai uses ingredients sourced from Japan’s Toyosu market, especially their seafood, which includes this fresh black cod. It’s cured in salt, marinated well, apparently it takes four days to cook. It’s sweet and salty, or rather, umami, flavours deeply entrenched in a well cooked piece of fish. Next comes comfort food for one and all — a bowl of ramen, complete with chunks of fried chicken that make you want to get into your jammies and switch on a fun show immediately. For dessert, we indulge in the coconut tortino, with tender coconut ice cream, drizzles of yuzu, topped with fruits, and a bird eye chilli chocolate, with chunks of sweet and spicy dense chocolate. I am a chocolate person so I definitely like the latter more, but the former, even if you don’t exactly like coconut in dessert, can be a refreshing change.
So if like me, you’re not entirely sure about how you feel about Japanese food, Wakai is the perfect introduction — not intimidating, a little bit of everything, and the right place to kickstart your Japanese journey. If my experience doesn’t count for enough, chef Parvez Khan busts five myths about Japanese food. Check it out.
Five Myths About Japanese Cuisine That We Need To Break
- Japanese cuisine is just raw fish: It is much more. It includes robatayaki, tempura, kushiyaki, teppanyaki, Ramen, and okonomiyaki, among other dishes.
- The sushi roll does not have wasabi or gari on top of it: It’s not necessary to have it that way.
- Non-vegetarian food is the sole focus of Japanese cuisine: Japanese food in India has evolved, and in current times, we have equal or more vegetarian options as non vegetarian.
- Nigiri can only be eaten with chopsticks: The term nigiri, which means to compress or compact, describes how the rice nugget is formed. It is finger food, to be eaten with your hands rather than chopsticks. You flip your wrist so that the topping (usually a slice of raw fish) is briefly dipped in soy sauce before being transported to your mouth and eaten. People usually eat nigiri at the counter bar when we go to sushi restaurants.
- In comparison to dark soy, light soy contains less sodium: Light soy sauce (usukuchi shoyu, in Japanese) is light coloured, but actually saltier (higher sodium level) than “regular” soy sauce. The reason why we use light color shoyu is to make the color of the prepared dishes lighter in color. That’s it. Usukuchi [shoyu] is very popular in Kyoto, and Kyoto is the center of Japanese food, where the finest quality of meals were developed. Even the colour of the dishes shouldn’t be masked by the colour of shoyu.