Regional Indian cuisines and glorious local produce come together to create a new gourmet language at The Bombay Canteen. From the need to promote and highlight indigenous wild produce to regional Indian breakfasts recreated to suit the modern palate, The Bombay Canteen is at the forefront of everything contemporary. To top it off, the restaurant is every Instagram influencer’s delight and is the first thing tourists hit when they land in Mumbai. In the current times of extreme clutter, such popularity is hard to come by for any food establishment and it’s all credit to Executive Chef Thomas Zacharias.
A penchant for cooking since his childhood, inspired by his grandmother and her ‘superpower’ of making people happy with food, led Chef Zacharias to the Culinary Institute of America and the Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York. Back home, he worked with the Olive group for a few years before joining The Bombay Canteen in 2014. Over the last five years, Chef Zacharias has ensured that the restaurant serves impeccable fare that’s built on innovation.
Also a travel enthusiast, you can catch him with his hashtag #ChefOnTheRoad on Instagram. Having recently returned from a three-week trip to Japan, where Zacharias combed through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Fukoka, and Rikuzentakata, we got him to share his food guide for the next time you’re headed to the Land of the Rising Sun.
“While this is principally a top-notch butchery located a little out of the way in a residential neighbourhood of Tokyo, I would advise everyone to trek all the way there for their Roast Wagyu Beef Sandwich, a rich brioche stuffed with some of the finest beef in Japan and balanced with sharp, vegetal shiso leaves, and creamy Japanese mayo.”
“Spice Cafe is a fantastic, Japanese-Indian restaurant run by Kazushiro Ito in the Shitamachi neighbourhood of Tokyo. Ito-san took a four year sabbatical at the age of 27 to travel across the world and fell in love with India and its food so much that he came back and decided to open a restaurant that showcased Indian flavours and techniques through Japanese ingredients. The result, as I had tasted, is food that isn’t instantly recognisable as Indian, but still rooted in our traditions. Ito-san’s ways of handling spices and building flavours is better balanced and more restrained than I’ve experienced in most Indian restaurants in India, and that’s a lesson for us all. From a beautiful spring vegetable biryani to a tofu rasam and of course, the Kerala meen pollichathu, every dish sang the tunes of India. And what delicious tunes they are.”
“Obanzai is a wonderful, traditional home cooking style of Japanese cuisine. It’s characterised by simplicity, using local seasonal ingredients, incorporating hospitality and minimising waste by putting every part of the ingredients available to good use. And all of this shone through in our extraordinary meal at Menami in Kyoto. Homemade chicken ‘ham’, fish jelly, pickled cucumber with katsuboshi, homemade yuba tofu ‘spring rolls’, and soy cured eggs are all clear winners here.”
Chao Chao Gyoza
“While the gyoza may have Chinese origins, the Japanese have truly made it their own not just in the precision and technique but also in the fillings. Some of the best in Kyoto can be found at Chao Chao Gyoza, a mom-and-pop restaurant that specialises in the beloved snack. My favourites here include the black pig and the spicy beef.”
“Okonomiyaki, meaning ‘what you like, cooked’ is Osakan soul food, and Keita who runs Moegi does it better than anyone else in the city. Made with cabbage, egg, and a batter flavoured with dashi, this Japanese pancake cooked on a teppan can be topped with whatever you like, some classics being squid and pork. Garnishes include Okonomiyaki sauce (dark sauce made from onions and apples, no soy), mayo, dried nori and katsuboshi. This is Japanese comfort food at its best.”
Takoyaki Doraku Wanaka Namba
“Takoyaki is a classic Osakan street food made in a special Takoyaki pan not too different from our Tamilian paniyarams. A batter of chopped octopus with tempura scraps, ginger, and scallions is cooked together using this very cool technique into tiny soft nearly molten spheres and then topped with mayo, takoyaki sauce, and dried Bonito flakes. And Wanaka Namba, situated amidst the Dotonbori Street Food madness, is one of the best places in Japan to try it. Oishi (delicious)!”
“If death by pork fumes is how you want to go, then visit Hakata Ikkousha. Right from the colourful vending machine at the entrance, which let’s you order the Tonkotsu Ramen combo of your choice, to taking in the intense porcine aroma clouding up the room en route to the seat, this entire meal is devoid of subtlety, unlike other Japanese dining experiences.”
One thing that struck you when you visited Japan?
You can buy hot coffee out of a vending machine!
Which city has the best food scene, according to you?
Osaka hands down. Going out and eating, and street food is a big part of their culture. Their grill restaurant really stood out for me — these are 6-8 seater restaurants, and run by the chef-owner. There are different names, one is Yakitori, which is the grilled chicken restaurant, and then there’s yakiniku — grilled beef, and makiaon — grilled pork; and at some of these restaurants you do the grilling yourself on the table. Their menus have l20 different cuts of chicken, everything from chicken legs to unfertilised embryo to chicken skin. I’ve never seen an entire restaurant dedicated to just one animal, it’s a superlative experience.
What sets Japan’s dining scene apart from the rest of the world?
99 percent of the places are really small, they’re not more than 20 seaters. And are usually run by 1-2 people. Most of it is counter-top dining and you watch your food being prepared — it’s a lot like theatre, and you’re more connected to what you’re eating