|(From top) Chefs cook up a sushi feast at Pan Asian; interiors of the restaurant; a dish on display. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
I guess my very first experience of something sushi happened about 25 years ago, purely accidentally. It was late on a Sunday morning and judging by the sounds and smells emanating from the kitchen I figured that the women folk were up to something special.
Walking in, I spotted some small shrimps in a china bowl, in a brown sauce, looking inviting. I promptly popped a few into my mouth. Mmmmm' succulent, juicy, but very different. What was it'
'Hey, you idiot!' said someone. 'That's raw! We haven't cooked it yet! Why don't you get your meddling fingers out of here'
Sure enough, they were raw. Just marinated in soya sauce, a dash of vinegar and sugar, they had been lying there for about 15 minutes, destined to become a dish of Shrimp with Green Peas in a home-made Chinese lunch.
But they were eminently edible, and instead of getting my meddling fingers out of there, I popped a few more before sauntering out, thinking that some of the most important advances in civilisation had happened by accident ' even by mistake.
The next experience was not of something like sushi, but of the genuine item, in 1993 when my friend and host Dr Richik Ghosh, a dedicated gourmet with whom I share birthdays, took me to a sushi bar in Manhattan. Under his guidance I had a proper initiation. New sensations on the taste buds ' some instantly likeable, some recognisable as tastes to be acquired, but all refined and subtle.
Richik also took me to a place serving New Orleans Cajun food where a very average band was playing Walking The Dog as per the Rolling Stones rendition and where we ordered Blackened Tuna, but that is another story'
Last week was another experience of sushi cuisine at Pan Asian, the Oriental restaurant at the ITC Sonar Bangla hotel. This was a pre-planned, well orchestrated meal ' entirely Japanese ' starting with sushi items and then moving on to various courses of other styles of Japanese cooking.
The sushi items came in what is called a Bento Box ' a rectangular open wooden box with six compartments, each with a delectable item in it.
The first was Sashimi ' a fresh cut of raw sea fish ' in this case pink salmon dipping it in a mixture of kikkoman soya sauce sauce and wasabi (Japanese horse radish that sends a zing up your nose like the mustard at Olypub).
It is the dipping mixture that does the trick ' complementing the flavour of the fish, which has a clean yet robust taste ' to a nicety.
The next compartment had in it Gari ' a delicious preparation of pickled Japanese ginger, and in the third slot was again raw salmon, this time attached to a layer of sticky rice as thick as the cut of fish itself, again to be had by dipping it in the soya-wasabi mixture.
The quality and freshness of the fish counts for a lot in such items and this was never in any doubt. Nigiri is the name of this raw fish attached to vinegared sticky rice, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next two items belonged to a category called Maki-zushi (sushi rolls), which are various ingredients rolled in nori (seaweed) with usually a layer of vinegared rice involved as well. In the Bento Box there was sake-maki (raw salmon and other chopped ingredients wrapped in seaweed and sticky rice) and tekka-maki (made with tuna fish).
We had a live demo of how Maki-zushi is made. One of the chefs placed a square of dry seaweed (which looked dark parchment) on a wooden board. Over this he spread a layer of sticky rice uniformly and then turned it around, placed ingredients such as thin strips of salmon, takwan (pickled radish), strips of Japanese sweet egg (beaten egg, saki ' the famous Japanese alcoholic drink made with fermented rice ' and sugar, cooked like a very thin omelette) and cucumber strips over the seaweed ' sticky rice square, and then made it into a roll.
Avocado is a recommended ingredient in this item, but there wasn't any available that day. This roll is cut into sections and the Maki-zushi is ready.
The last compartment in the Bento Box had Japanese Soba Noodles made out of buckwheat flour, boiled and combined with kikkoman soya, saki, mirin (rice wine used in cooking), apple juice and cinnamon.
The Bento Box sounds like a lot of food, but each item was just over bite-sized in quantity and it acted as a starter-platter
The remaining courses of the meal belonged to the Teppanyaki style of Japanese cuisine and I would like to describe them in detail but then this article would have to have a sequel.
These were all cooked live in front of us on a non-stick hot plate, extremely minimalistic in terms of ingredients, seasoning and cooking oil and typical of Japanese food, light, subtle and delicate.
Tiger prawns flambed with saki and tossed with red onions, baby spinach and light garlic soya, Grilled Bekti in Terriyaki sauce, Seasonal Vegetables in Yakinuku Sauce; Teppan Garlic Fried Rice, Misoshiro Soup (yellow beanpaste, stock, saki and seasoning) and for dessert, fresh fruits with home made ice cream (litchi, coconut, green tea or wasabi flavoured).
Anyone going to Pan Asian and asking for a full-scale Japanese meal would have a similar experience, with variations in daily selections of course, especially with Bento Box items. Pure vegetarian options are there too. With Pan Asian, Japanese cuisine in Calcutta is coming of age, and is a must for those who like exploring.