There’s nothing quite like wandering the city hungry, only to realise you’re near an Indian place you’ve been meaning to try. This is just what happened to me yesterday as I walked by Tokyo station and remembered Erick South. I'd heard buzz about Erick South from a number of friends and acquaintances, as it’s rather unique among Tokyo Indian restaurants. Most notable is the fact that it’s run by Japanese staff, but instead of offering bland “butter chicken” or “keema” clones like other faux Indian establishments, Erick South serves surprisingly authentic South Indian Thali meals.
Another thing that sets Erick South apart is the location. Sat at the far end of the “Yaechika” underground shopping mall on Tokyo station’s Yaesu side, the restaurant is mostly made up of counters with just a few tables on the side. This represents its first major weakness as an Indian restaurant, as it would be impossible to enjoy their food in a large group at dinner – something that we at JIMC have found to be the best way to experience the food of the gods. It’s an inoffensive but underwhelming environment, with pictures of India on the wall and Indian music playing, neither of which do much to make the place feel more authentic. But now to the real question: how is the food?
I ordered the “Erick Meals”, which for approximately 1,500 yen comes with three curries, sambar, rassam, and an unsweetened yogurt (not exactly raita), a papad, idli and vada. Normally the meals come with both basmati and Japanese rice, but they accepted my request for all basmati. I tucked into the papad, cracking it over the rice while munching on a bit as an appetiser, and though it was oilier than I like it tasted fine. Before dumping any sauces on my rice I went around to taste them all individually.
The sambar and rassam were tamer than I’d have hoped, but tasty and well flavoured. There was a daikon radish and carrot curry, clearly a Japanese concoction, that had a nice hint of coconut but was ultimately too bland for my taste. A drier potato and eggplant dish also lacked that Indian flavour-magic but was wholesome and enjoyable. Finally I had selected a mutton curry because it was labeled “spicy”, and though it lacked heat it packed good flavour and tender meat. Though it was all far from the quality we’ve seen at other South Indian favourites around town, I found myself greedily and gleefully shovelling away at my mound of basmati and curry, and soon worked my way through the idli, vada and yogurt leaving a clean plate and a satisfied belly.
Upon further reflection, Erick South’s “meal” was the tastiest and most authentic Indian meal prepared by Japanese people I’d had to date. It was somewhat reminiscent of the curries we had at the Love India festival – made with skill but clearly tempered for Japanese tastes. As I looked around me, almost all of the other customers were younger Japanese women – doubtless their best and most lucrative demographic. If places like Erick South were as ubiquitous as the boring “butter chicken” and naan joints, Japan’s Indian Cuisine landscape would be much brighter. I hope this is the start of a trend for more authentic Japanese-Indian restaurants – if I had an Erick South inside my local station you can bet I’d be in there once a week at least. They may not be on a par with Nirvanam or Andrha, but this quick and easy Indian-style fix is definitely worth popping into.
In the back streets of Naka-Okachimachi is a small restaurant that has been recommended to JIMC a few times and one which is definitely worth seeking out: Harsh. After a quick OTM review, I promised our readers that I would go go back at some stage for the works. In the middle of the week at around 8pm, the restaurant was already busy, and I grabbed myself a small table next to a party of ten. Harsh has a bevy of choices on its menu, but the sets were calling out to me, and especially so as you could choose any two curries off the menu as part of the deal. As a quick warm-up, and to help jolt my brain into action, I went for some dry papad, which came roasted and crispy and went down nicely with a cold beer.
After a bit of umming and erring, I finally managed to choose one of the sets: Harsh Dinner Set. Apart from the two curries – I settled on Chicken Vindaloo and Paneer Sagwala, extra hot – the set came with sheesh kebab, garlic chicken, and a tanoori prawn. Added to this was a decent-sized salad and a sesame naan (I asked to change this to chapati and they duly obliged), and a free drink: “Lassi, chai or beer, sir?” “Beer, please.”
The food took a little while to come – some more customers had come in by that stage and the floor staff was doing his best to juggle everything – but when it came, it was a real feast. First came the tandoori prawn and the meat on a sizzling metal plate. The staff forgot to give me a regular plate so I just went to it without mind for airs and graces. The chicken was smoky and soft and was accompanied perfectly by the mixed bed of cabbage and onion. The kebab was a long and chunky and the mild marinade made the soft chicken come alive with every bite. The king-sized prawn was thick and juicy and I could've just binged on a plate of those all night if there weren't more treats on the way.
The curries and chapati came soon after. The sizable potions of both the Vindaloo and Sagwala were a full-on meal in themselves, and I didn't hesitate scooping a couple of loads with the chapati. I was so into it that I didn't realise that the set hadn't come with rice, so I ordered a plate of basmati on the side too. The curries were hot – the staff had given me a chance to change my mind after I went for the hottest they do, but if the option is there, I just can't help but going for it – and as I started up a conversation with a couple of businessmen from Delhi on the table next to me, I was finding it increasing hard to form words. This didn't stop me from plowing into some more molten lava, and with the steaming rice now making an appearance, I launched into this feast with abandon, having to excuse myself from the engaging conversation several times. The paneer in the Sagwala was thick and full of flavour, and combined with the potatoes in the vindaloo, gave a heavy and hearty sustenance to the whole meal.
Harsh offers a fantastic north Indian meal, with thick gravied curries that have a deep flavour and a real bite if you want it. It's a little difficult to find as it's downstairs in a back street, but it's well worth searching out for. Just come out of Naka-Okachimachi station and look over to the busier and more lively area of the street (easy once you get your bearings). See the Starbucks and the UFJ. It's down the side road there, a few paces down on the right. And when you get close, just follow your nose to find this hidden gem.
Despite there being something like 2,000 Indian and Nepalese restaurants in Tokyo, fans of the cuisine here often mention similar names when you ask for their favourites. We’ve covered many of them – Dhaba India, Andrha Kitchen, Moti – but until now we’ve overlooked one of the best loved groups in town: Nirvanam.
Nirvanam’s owner, Anil Raj, kindly invited us to come try each of their three Tokyo locations, and here we begin with their Ariake branch. If you don’t recognise that station name (as I didn’t) Ariake is on the Yurikamome monorail; a mass of giant office spaces and exhibition halls, the area feels like a strange Orwellian ghost town, futuristic and clean and yet strangely unpopulated. When we made our way to the 3rd Floor of the TOC building, however, we were greeted by an instantly welcoming atmosphere, grinning faces, and the greatest smell in the world – Indian cooking.
Anil is a congenial host – full of ideas and enthusiasm about Indian cuisine and his approach to it as a business. He’s an entrepreneur with varied skills, and having been brought up in many different parts of India, from Hyderabad to Bangalore, he claims to have an inherent feel for the varied food of his country’s diverse regions as well. Though he’s not a chef, he’s an enthusiastic eater with an expert palate, which he kindly offered to exemplify by choosing us exciting dishes from both on and off their regular menu. We gratefully accepted, and began one of our best Tokyo meals yet.
First out came the popular Indian street snack Pani Puri. Made from crispy rice, the bite-sized ball-shaped bowls contain a tasty potato and spice filling, into which you then ladle the accompanying spicy sour soup. Pop it into your mouth and you get a burst of lovely flavours and crunchy rice. We’ve yet to find this dish anywhere else in Tokyo, but it’s a thing of beauty.
Next up came something we’d never even heard of: Vada Pav. Another popular fast food snack in India, it’s like a small burger with a flavourful fried potato patty sandwiched between a soft and sweet brioche-like bun. Accompanied by a papad-bowl of pickles and a hot green chilli, this made me consider moving to Mumbai where this dish is gaining massive popularity.
As we chatted away about Indian cuisine and its varied delights, a sizzling plate of Hariyali Chicken Tikka arrived and shut us up quick smart. Hands down the most tender Tikka either of us had yet experienced (Phall called it "a forkful of butter"), the bright green chicken is flavoured with dhania (coriander) and is mouth-wateringly fragrant. Both of us are still having flashbacks and having to clear up the drool.
After this truly beautiful (and informative) round of starters we didn’t think Anil could blow us away any more, then out came the curries. Despite our charming and enlightening host, Phall and I proceeded to make animals of ourselves and wolf down two bowls of wonderful Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower) and a fiery and delicious Kadai Chicken. On top of it all was a favourite of ours - Mutton Biryani. The surprisingly tender mutton (it comes tough many places) and spicy dry rice, with Raita yogurt sauce on the side of course, didn’t last long despite our increasingly expanding waistlines. In the end not a grain of Basmati or a shred of lovely Chapati were left behind.
After fond farewells with Anil and his cordial staff (we didn’t want to leave), that familiar full-body high that comes after great Indian food enveloped us. Nirvanam is best known for its hugely popular lunch buffet, which is one reason we took so long getting ‘round to it – as fans of fresh curry from the dinner menu we weren’t so excited for the buffet. Now that we’ve experienced unforeseen levels of pure joy at Ariake’s branch, however, you can bet we’ll be heading to their Kamiyacho and Toranomon shops in the very near future with heightened enthusiasm. Many thanks to Anil and the wonderful chefs and servers at the Ariake branch. We will see you again very soon.
Better late than never.
To be continued…
We have been trying our best to make it through the ever-increasing list of fantastic Indian restaurants in Tokyo, some of which have been recommended, and some that we have just had the luck to stumble upon. We have been invited to some great places, where the food is just out of this world if you are a lover of Indian cuisine (or food in general), and we have been doing our best to experience the range of delicious food on offer, whether it is high class or straight from the home cooking stove.
I was reminded again that Nishi-Kasai has a plethora of amazing Indian restaurants, and the only regret I have is taking so long to try them all – finding the time for all the joys in life is still beyond me. So, with determination and a couple of hours to spare, I headed down to the Edogawa with my family in tow. We were heading for Delhi Dhaba, which offers a great lunchtime deal: an ‘all you can eat’ lunch, with paratha and basmati as part of the deal. I simply couldn’t wait. The only problem was time was running short, as is the case many times when you have a young kid with you. We finally got to Nishi-Kasai station around 2:15 – I’d called ahead and found out that they closed for lunch at 3pm. So, still a decent chance of a proper feast.
We set off for what I thought was Dhaba (I was on map duty). Only problem was I had been researching so many places in Nishi-Kasai that I ended up outside Reka instead. Clock ticking. So, we re-programmed the map and the short (7 min) walk would take us to Dhaba. On the way, we saw Amudhasurabhi, which, with time running down, we thought we should give a go. The lunch buffet, from the image on the shop front, seemed to only provide naan, so we decided to carry on to our destination at 2:30. We got back to the station with still a decent amonut of time remaining, when my baby cart-riding son eloquently informed me in his 3 y/o language that he had kicked off his shoes on route. Great. So we stormed back, tracking as we went – it was a crazy windy day so all this heightened the sense of chaos. We split up and checked our tracks. Nothing. At 2:45, hungry, tired and stressed, we ended up back at Amudhasurabhi. Closed. At that point we were pointed to the shoes by another couple with a young kid – they definitely had a look of sympathy in their knowing eyes. So, the final option was to head to Reka and see if it was still open.
Thankfully, just before 3pm, Reka’s staff allowed us to come in and shelter from the swirling winds. Looking around the shop, it is a no bells and whistles establishment – welcoming but basic. I went straight for the detailed menu and ordered the biggest thing I could: Special set, which came with 4 curries (chicken, egg, bean, and potato and eggplant), chapatti, mixed biryani, and balfi. And a beer (necessary at that point). My dining partner went for a mixed biryani, which came with raita and salad. We added some Kanda bhajis to this too – thought it would make a nice starter.
The sets came after a short while, and the anticipation we had made the whole thing go down a treat. There was something extremely warming about the curries, and it was nothing to do with how they were spiced. The dishes tasted wholesome and prepared, it felt, with love and care. Though there was a decent amount of food, it wasn’t over heavy, and I felt the best way to eat it was slowly and with enjoyment in every bite. In fact, the whole experience had us both relaxed by the time we were into our meals, though my son was having a great time rolling toys over the table, coming close to knocking over drinks and generally enjoying himself like he was in the comfort of his own home.
At the end of the mains we remembered that we had ordered the bhajis, so I popped my head around the kitchen door: “Sumimasen, bhajis ii desuka?”. The owner gave me a warm smile and reassured me they would be arriving soon. I had to remind myself to reset my head, and to calm down and not expect everything in an instant – has become a bit of a habit living in Tokyo. It was if from the way the place was set up, that laid back and welcoming format, that is wasn't coincidental that it had the feel of a dining room, with the overall atmosphere really giving a sense of ‘homestyle’ cooking. The owner was kind and gentle, and very much in the vain of ‘mi casa es su casa’ – I felt like we were being cooked for by a loving aunt or someone we’d known for years. After the meal, we chatted with the owner for a while. She told us she had been manager for 10 years, with her son there even longer: 16 years, and that they are planning to open a new restaurant in Kasai soon (another one to add to the list!), where there will be several stories of shops, not just the restaurant – there’ll be a halal store, a place to play tabla, and a room for taking computer classes too. She also mentioned that they put an emphasis on creating healthy, low-cholesterol dishes, cooked in a home style at Reka (the front sign basically says it all). I must admit, I felt uplifted by the experience and not bloated in the slightest, and thoroughly charmef by Reka's whole approach.
We left soon after, despite my son’s protest that he had to put the (his) toys back, and after paying 4k for the whole experience. All in all a great meal at a nice little venue. I’m glad we tried Reka in the end because the buffet at Delhi Dhaba would almost not have been worth it with only 30 minutes to spare, and it would’ve been even more chaos as I whirlwinded my way around the buffet several times. Anyway, it’s going in the diary for one day very soon. Can't wait! Note to self: remove shoes of child first and get there early, and don't forget to slow down once in a while...right, where's that list of places still to visit?
The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a treat for the JIMC crew. First, we were invited to Mumbai Maru's tabla event, where we were served up an evening of fine food and uplifting entertainment. Next, we headed over to Chiyoda for the Love India 2016 event, where a collection of some of Japan's top Indian cuisine chefs had gathered to serve up a thali treat for a limited crowd of 500 curry lovers. Both events promised to be a fantastic celebration of food and culture.
First, we hit Mumbai Maru's event, which turned out to be a full-on party. The food laid on was brilliant as usual, and with Mumbai's CEO and friend of the blog, Popi Kuroda, coordinating the whole thing, we were treated to a flow of delicacies that Chris and I agreed we could have had at all night. The music was presented in a few sets, and provided a wonderful backdrop to the evening's event. I was wrapped up in food and conversation, but I could quite easily have just sat and listened the swirl of the carnatic sounds created by the expert combination of tabla and electric guitar. This will be happening again, no doubt. Already looking forward to the next event!
The second event was held in Chiyoda last Sunday. Love India 2016 looked, from the eye-catching poster, a dream come true for JIMC: there were two thail sets being prepared by 10 chefs, separated into two teams of five. To attend the event you had to book online and the price was a slightly eyebrow-raising ¥3300 plus booking fee. Sadly, it didn't quite meet up to expectations, with the food, though a tasty selection of curries, offered only as a single serving as part of a set meal handed out on a cardboard platter. The curry portions, served in plastic pots and small in size, didn't do much to warm our spirits from the outset, but we made the most of it in the open-aired roof venue on top of an old junior high school.
We arrived with much anticipation and joined the long queue of people waiting to collect their boxes. We made it there by 1pm and the event was well and truly underway. We joined another queue and waited to pick up our food -- there were several stalls set up in a line, dishing out 'vat style'. First, a plate of basmati (check) and a plain papad. Then a couple of curries, rasam and sambar. No bread? Nope. Anyway, we tried to find a seat, but didn't have any luck -- pretty much the full quota of people had arrived by the time we got there and all the seats we're taken. So we went 'festival style' and sat on a couple of used thail boxes.
The food was good, but had obviously been sitting around for a while, so a little on the lukewarm side, and the meat a was little tough (especially the beef and the mutton). One highlight was the beet-based curry presented by Shiba from Inage (you could also buy some of their products at one of the small stalls near the entrance, set up to advertise the participating stores). The sambar and rasam went down quite well too. The other curries did the job, but the whole thing was crying out for some bread to scoop it all up with. There were a few other snack options available, but you had to pay extra, so we just chose a couple of those.
The basmati and papad were gone relatively quickly, so I went up to grab some more. There was a ¥100 charge for extra rice, which I didn't mind paying, though I thought after paying over ¥3k for what we'd already had was a bit of a liberty. I asked for another papad from the large bagful the guy was serving from, and was given a polite "suimansen" -- I wasn't allowed to pay for an extra, either, which seemed a bit odd seeing as, by the time I was asking, anyone who was going to the event would already have received theirs, and the fact that some people were even packing up and leaving at that stage. The same went for the curries: your lot was your lot. If you have an event like this, it would seem like a fantastic opportunity to have people coming back for seconds (they could charge for refills, of course), but it was all dished out in such a deliberately precise way. Seems like they may have missed a trick here.
The other thing that stood out about Love India 2016 was the lack of anything that actively encouraged you to stay beyond finishing your food. The only thing going on was a discussion on stage with each of the thali chefs, which was getting a fair bit of attention, but provided little in the way of entertainment to anyone there mainly for the food. Of course, there was probably a good reason for this -- it was pointed out to me that the main reason people were there was because they were fans of the chefs -- the food was just a "present", of sorts -- but if you are going to do a celebration of Indian food and culture, you might as well crank it up a bit. Maybe even throw in a little bit of music. Just an idea.
There are a couple more events coming up this year. Namaste India being one of the biggest, as well as a few others popping up from time to time. We are in discussions to set up our own thali event in Tokyo. Promise there will be music, breads, and refills. Many, many refills. Watch this space.