Thrice a week, Executive Chef Nariyoshi Nakamura waits with butterflies in his stomach for the JAL flight from Tokyo to bring his supply of fresh frozen yellowtail, a prized sushi ingredient.
When the yellowtail, caught off the sea on the day of the flight, arrives at Sakura's stainless-steel kitchen, the premier Japanese restaurant at The Metropolitan Hotel Nikko, New Delhi, Nakamura takes out his aluminium box packed with carving knifes worth US$1,000 with the respect that it deserves. A yellowtail isn't something he'd let his lieutenants handle.
The slab of the frozen fish, weighing 3.75 kilos, costs Rs 8,000. It has be cut by an expert so that not even a gram of its succulent flesh is wasted. Even its bones are used to make stock. But yellowtail pales in comparison with bluefin tuna, whose o-toro, which yields the priciest sashimi, carries a pricetag of Rs 10,000 a kilo; it's belly (chu-toro) costs less, just Rs 5,500 a kilo. Not surprisingly, one piece of nigiri zushi with 20 gm of chu-toro in it comes for Rs 450. Of course, that doesn't stop Delhi's gourmands from living it up. At Sakura, 4 kilos of tuna get consumed every day; 3-4 yellowtails meet their maker every week.
Some of the most humble-looking food ingredients come with the most lofty pricetags, but there are enough takers for them in God's green earth to justify their existence. Take truffles.
These spindly fungal growths on the roots of elm trees -- which, for some reason known only to the Creator, appear nowhere else but France and Italy -- command such a dedicated fan following that Ritu Dalmia of Diva, the fashionable South Delhi restaurant, pays £250 for 250 gms of white truffles that she hand-carries from Alba, Piedmont, during the growing season.
Fortunately for Dalmia's bottomline, she hasn't had to cough up £3,000, which is the highest recorded price (adjusted according to present price levels) ever paid for these fungi that are reputed to smell like sex (to me, they smell more like garlic, so I can't figure out what the fuss is all about). That was back in 1951 for the biggest truffle, weighing over 2 kilos, to be ever dug out of the earth at Alba.
Dalmia never puts truffles on the menu, for there are connoisseurs in Delhi who are ready to pay the price for what Oxford Companion to Food calls "the most expensive, subtle and mysterious of the foods known to man." The chef-restaurateur doesn't have to tell her prized clients that her supply of truffles is in; their trained noses can smell their presence in Diva. When the season is on (mid-November to mid-March), they ask for their share of shavings of fresh truffles. "The clientele may be small, but they never fail to ask," says Dalmia.
Many chefs find this obsession for exotic, expensive ingredients rather funny. Bill Marchetti of West View, the rooftop restaurant at the ITC Maurya Sheraton, is one of those few mortals who can tell the tale of attending a 16-course truffle dinner (even the ice-cream arrived spiked with truffles). "Price has nothing to do with real quality," Marchetti says. "Exotic, expensive ingredients are a lazy chef's props to jazz up a jaded menu." The closest he gets to a truffle dish is the platter of Bruschetta with Mushrooms and Truffle Paté. And a 450-gm jar of truffle paté is priced at a princely Rs 1,000. At Diva, Dalmia occasionally dazzles her guests with a drizzle of pure truffle oil (not the industrial version that passes off as olio tartufo in duty-free shops) on their pasta -- the indulgence costs her Rs 5,500 for a 200 ml bottle, but the wow factor makes her investment look good.
It's this thinking that motivates chefs like Vikas Pant of TK's at the Hyatt Regency, New Delhi, to invest in fancy items like chrysanthemum leaves, a Japanese seasonal delicacy that can also double as a garnish, priced at Rs 180 for a pack of 10. At Sakura, Chef Nakamura is extremely possessive about the occasional wasabi root (as opposed to the wasabi powder that produces the green paste) that comes into his kitchen.
The root -- just one comes with a Rs 1,000 tag -- is used to produce a fresh paste on a special shark-skin grater that the chef keeps under lock and key. You'll cease to wonder what the fuss is all about once you've tasted fresh wasabi -- its tanginess will make you fall in love with the unpretentious root. To the outsider, these may appear to be snobbish extravagances, but for the restaurant looking the for seal of authenticity, these make good business sense.
Pant of TK's may be paying Rs 150-180 for a pack of 10 sheets of nori (and he consumes 40-50 sheets on any good day), which is the toasted seaweed used to wrap sushi , but he manages to rake in an average of Rs 12,000-15,000 daily from sushi sales alone. And if Pant stocks morinaga ('silicon') tofu, wakame seaweed, sour plums and udon noodles (Rs 210 for a 150-gm pack), it's because it's an investment in an image.
But Marchetti can't understand why sliced Parma ham, from the hills near the historic town of Parma in North-Central Italy, midway between Milan and Bologna in the fertile Po valley, should be priced outrageously at Rs 2,500 a kilo. The Italians call it Prosciutto di Parma and you have to dish up a lot of money to have it with slices of melon. Rationalises Marchetti: "A pig is the easiest animal to grow. It's the fastest-growing edible animal and it needs the least amount of space. Why would anyone want to pay Rs 2,500 for a kilo of this animal?"
Nonetheless, gourmands are prepared to pay for the experience. What's debatable, though, is whether they're paying for the snob value or for an unusual treat for their tastebuds.
The pigs, say the market-savvy Italians, are reared on a diet of chestnuts and the whey drained away from the curds in the cheese-making process by Parmesan factories. Thanks to all that love and care, these pigs grow into mammoth creatures -- "if you see one of them on the streets," advises Marchetti, "it may be sensible on your part to just move aside with a polite 'pehle aap'." Then, in a year-long process governed by a set of complex rules, their legs are cured with sea salt and air-dried but not smoked. The final link in the value chain is the slicing process -- the paper-thin slices of firm, chewy, salted flesh justify the pricetag they come with.
To complicate matters, connoisseurs insist that just any Parma ham isn't good enough, for the best comes from Langhirano, a village to the south of the Romanesque city. There are others who swear by Prosciutto di San Daniele, which is made in the hills of Friuli on a smaller scale and often from smaller pigs.
Parma is also the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, or the parmesan cheese, which is made using a technique that hasn't changed in the last 700 years. Marchetti pays Rs 1,200 a kilo for the standard 35-kilo wheel, which, he insists (as any good Italian would), should be eaten and not grated on top of your pasta. Napoleon loved it and the playwright Moliere, believing in its health-sustaining properties, insisted on eating so much Parmesan that he spilled most of it on his deathbed.
Parmesan, the Real McCoy, that is, has had its share of historical brand ambassadors, but maybe it deserves its high pricetag. Each 35-kilo wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano takes 500 litres of milk (produced, ironically, by Sikhs who first came to Italy as illegal immigrants from Punjab or political asylum-seekers from Afghanistan) and 30 months of back-breaking work, which is evident from the muscle mass of the dudish beefcakes employed at Parmesan factories.
Like Marchetti, Dalmia also uses Parmigiano-Reggiano not as a topping for pasta, but as an accompaniment to Barolos, punchy red wines from Piedmont. Her pasta toppings are unusual -- like king-size scallops from Scotland (Rs 2,900 a kilo), lobster from Australia (Rs 3,800 a kilo; yield per kilo, 400 gms), and caviar (Iranian beluga, to be precise), which she buys for Rs 25 a gram -- with a 15-gm topping, the pasta doesn't yield anything for Dalmia to take back home. But she still insists on serving dishes with a twist -- "we have to keep the excitement alive," she says, "otherwise boredom is bound to creep in."
And people seem to like it. A year ago, Dalmia had tentatively introduced smoked swordfish (Rs 2,800 for a kilo) and tuna carpaccio from Italy (Rs Rs 1,900 for a kilo) to be included in a smoked fish platter priced at Rs 480. The platter has moved so fast that Dalmia hasn't even considered taking the pricey smoked fish off the menu. And it has also given her the confidence to insist on getting duck meat from Tuscany (Rs 2,600 for a kilo) for her smoked duck carpaccio.
For new-generation restaurateurs, no price is big enough for an ingredient that'll wow the tastebuds of the jet-set Indian and the expat who isn't prepared to make any allowances for India.