Umami restaurant at Taj Vivanta Guwahati has become a hot-spot for local foodies to indulge in Japanese and Asian flavours. I have had Korean food before but I had never had the chance to try out Japanese cuisine. Now since I am a manga (Japanese comics) fan, I have read all about sushi, sashimi and what not. I have also seen my favourite manga characters relish raw seafood served with cooked vinegar rice, but I was still a little worried about how my taste buds and my stomach would react to the same. Nonetheless, I felt that it was unjust to judge the food before I had tried it and so we headed to Umami to taste their Japanese fare.
The Key is the Freshness
We met with Anirban Dasgupta, head chef, who spoke at length about the cuisine. ‘In India, if you talk about metro cities, Japanese cuisine is already quite popular. In Delhi and Bombay, people are going on and on about how it is the next big thing in the world. What is great about the cuisine is its freshness and the quality of ingredients. I think a lot of it comes from the country and their culture, they are very particular about precision. Japanese food is very simple. It is as less tampered as possible, pretty similar to the food in Northeast India. The only difference is the raw food culture, which is predominantly Japanese.’
Interestingly enough, ‘umami’ in Japanese means ‘pleasant savoury taste’. Currently, the restaurant’s menu is not completely Japanese, mostly it features Chinese dishes with a few Japanese classics thrown in. Anirban shared that they included Japanese delicacies in the menu because they wanted offer people something different from other Chinese restaurants in the Northeast. ‘We are bringing in the biggest elements of Japanese cuisine like sushi along with a little bit of the street food like tempura and teriyaki. Chinese food is the predominant cuisine at Umami but I have introduced about 25% of Japanese as well. And in future, we will try to take it forward.’
While trying Japanese cuisine, the main concern that most foodies have is the freshness. But Anirban informed us that the seafood at Taj Vivanta is the fresh frozen kind. This means that the day the fish is caught, it is frozen down to -80 degree Celsius so that the risk of the fish losing its freshness is minimalized. It is transported and stored at a similar temperature. Umami restocks their seafood supplies twice a month. For all their other ingredients, they directly collaborate with the supplier from Japan who also sends supplies to Wasabi, a famous Japanese restaurant at Taj Mahal Bombay.
Savouring The Meal
Since we were unfamiliar with the ingredients and preparations, junior sous shef Ashish Choudhury patiently explained each dish that we tasted. Our first appetizer was Prawn and Tofu Tempura. Crispy on the outside and lightly seasoned, the tempura was served in a large bowl on a black slate like tray. The condiments like wasabi paste, daikon paste, ginger paste and pickled Japanese ginger were arranged in a neat row along with pink and white flowers next to it. The prawn was fresh, and the tofu silky and creamy like it should be. We also tried a miso soup with seaweed and small chunks of tofu. The soup has a distinct pungent smell and so it is not for everyone, but I felt it complemented the crispy tempura well.
Next, we tried the Chicken and Leek Teriyaki. It was served on skewer sticks placed on top of a small black charcoal smoker with Japanese inscriptions running along the side. The smoke rising from the smoker got us quite a few looks from the customers sitting on a table nearby. The dish came with a side of Iceberg Lettuce Salad. The charcoal gave the chicken a smoky flavour and the teriyaki sauce added a touch of sweetness, the combination of both made for a tasty mouthful.
The Main Highlight
The sushi, the main highlight of the meal, was served on a banana leaf atop a wooden board that served like a tray. The first thing you notice is the myriad of colours from the flower garnishing (there was even an orchid), dark soy dipping sauce, orange and white condiments in paste form and the sushi itself. It was as pretty as a picture. We tried three varieties namely Nigiri, Makizushi and Uramaki. Nigiri is a rice ball with a thin slice of seafood on top. Makizushi is rice stuffed with fish rolled in nori (seaweed) topped with fish eggs. Uramaki is seafood surrounded by nori and then a layer of rice. Although all three of them were delicious, I preferred the makizushi since it reminded me of my favourite Korean dish – kimbap.
Throughout our meal, we realized that Japanese cuisine is not only about the fresh flavours but also about the presentation. Chef Anirban shared, ‘They have a saying in Japan that ‘people eat with their eyes’ and that is why we give a lot of importance to the plating.’
Before, I felt that Japanese cuisine was a bit over-hyped, but all that it took to change my mind was one meal. Yes, it can get expensive but it is the price you have to pay to enjoy a food experience like no other. Also, don’t make the mistake of underestimating its simplicity, its fresh and subtle flavours are enough to bowl you over, any day of the week.
Vivanta By Taj, Nikita Complex , GS Road, Khanapara, Guwahati
Meal for Two: Rs 4000 (approx)
Opening Hours: 7:30 PM to 11 PM
By Meeta Borah