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Posted: Thursday, 06 February 2020 11:30

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Chef Hirotoshi Ogawa: Sushi Masterchef on Global Mission promoting Japanese Cuisine

Feb 06: The embassy of Japan organised a commendable evening with a Lec-dem by Chef Hirotoshi Ogawa, the Sushi Masterchef who is currently the global goodwill ambassador for Japanese Cuisine, along with Masterchef Pankaj Bhadouria (2010) followed by an evening of delicious Japanese dishes complemented by Sake and Gin based cocktails, writes Subhash Arora who had an exclusive interview with both the Chefs earlier and was totally impressed by his passion and dexterity

If Chef Hirotoshi Ogawa had not been a Master Sushi Chef in Japan, he would have perhaps been an artist or a magician. With his nimble fingers, he churns out different Sushi dishes in front of you as you watch- bewildered and mesmerized, he curls the meat onto the vinegared rice in 3 different ways and Sushi platter is ready in front of you in a seemingly the blink of an eye. And all this while, he can chat with you, talk about sports or politics, even have a glass of wine with you and also tell you that colour on the platter is very important in Japanese cuisine- red and yellow accentuate appetite, Green is for Security, White is for cleanliness and hygiene while black is to tighten the flavours.

Hirotoshi Ogawa has been the Director General of the World Sushi Skills Institute (WSSI), a Director and a full-time lecturer of All Japan Sushi Association. But he was also appointed the Goodwill Ambassador to spread Japanese Culture through its cuisine in 2017. In this assignment he travels to 60 countries and has already traveled 23 countries during the last one year; it was his fifth trip to India.

It was magnanimous of Chef Ogawa to spare 20 minutes for an exclusive chat with me through an India interpreter who was perfect; he was also accompanied by Masterchef Pankaj Bhadouria (the first Indian Master Chef in 2010) who had been to Japan recently for a 3-day culinary experience where Chef Ogawa had been her guide.  

Sushi with Sake or Wine

My first question to him was if Sushi paired better with wine or the all-time favourite Japanese beverage Sake. Interestingly, he prefers wine over Sake and candidly admitted it was perhaps because of his travels to Europe where people drink wine with Sushi, he has been tempted to try wine more often.

He prefers Shiraz from Margaret River when it is a non-vegetarian Sushi and otherwise Riesling. What does he think of Japanese wines? Like most of us in India would say, ‘the industry is coming up quite well but we have to get better;’ he has been tasting the finest of Bordeaux, Burgundy and other European wines.

I did not think it would make sense even to ask him if he had tried Indian wine with Sushi (I am sure he would find Sula Riesling a tad too sweet) but I did mention that I had tasted several Japanese wines at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition and found some of them interesting, especially from Chateau Mercian which wins many medals. He agreed and hoped that in future Japanese wines would become as popular as Sake

Eat with hands

The next was a preliminary question the answer to which was never unanimous. ‘Should we eat Sushi with chop sticks or we can use hands. ‘The traditional system is to eat most Japanese food with hands. It is prepared by hands (Sushi and Sashimi are perfect examples), so it is best to eat it with hands. In any case it is not considered uncouth or clumsy to use hands,’ he said, adding, ‘I eat using hands too. But these days, the younger people and generally foreigners prefer using hands-and it is perfect all right either way.’ It reminded me of eating pakoras with hands or a fork!

What about wasabi and soya sauce? Should one mix it in the sauce or take separately. ‘ I suggest not  to mix the two-just keep the wasabi and ginger on top and pour a touch of soya sauce. Be careful with the rice part of Nigiri Sushi (where the slice of raw fish is pressed over vinegared rice.); do not let it touch the rice part or it will crumble.’

Promotion of Japanese Cuisine

According to the Agricultural Ministry in Japan, there has been an increase in the interest shown by the global consumers since it started promoting Japanese cuisine in the world. As Ogawa mentioned, this started in 2012. There were 55,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan in 2013. But the number jumped up to more than double- 120,000 in 2019.

The latest one to jump on the bandwagon is the Japanese Curry Restaurant Chain CoCo Ichibanya which has over 1200 outlets in Japan and around 180 stores in Asia. Brought by Mitsui, it will start the operations in March at Cyber Hub, Gurgaon. If the popularity today was any indication, the restaurant will do well for the Delhi-NCR people CoCoICHY brand will be franchised out throughout India.

Chef Pankaj is well aware of the fondness of Indians for Indigenisation of foreign cuisine, be it Italian or Chinese and is focusing on using Japanese spices to re-construct some of the Indian dishes- khandvi and phirni being served to the lucky few who started the evening rather than the delicious Miso soup (Chef Pankaj told us she had learnt in Japan that there were 70 different varieties of Miso paste).

One of the reasons why consumers are attracted to Japanese cuisines is that it is well-balanced, healthy and hygienic. UNESCO recognised washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013. As one noticed in his Sushi making at his Lec-dem, his table was neat and clean at all times. Fish was absolutely fresh-imported chilled (not frozen) from Japan after the recent treaty with the government.

Sushi as the Starter

I have always maintained that for a first- time wine drinker, a glass of fruity and fresh white wine is perhaps the best starting point and that could be a German Riesling or a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. Similarly, the first introduction to the Japanese food can be Sushi-well prepared as was seen at the demo given by Chef Ogawa. With freshest possible ingredients and the dexterity with which he cut the meats in front of our eyes and made rolls after sushi rolls, with the hands of an expert with over 20 years’ experience was felt on the palate.

Cutting (raw meats) is one of the five techniques of Japanese cooking; Simmering, Grilling, Deep Frying and Steaming being the other four. Chef Ogawa who always carries the three special knives with him said cutting properly was a very important technique in Japanese cooking, and helped make very interesting plate presentations too. His slicing fish to cucumber in micro thin slices was like watching an artist at work.

Sushi made from salmon and freshly imported blue fin tuna was the center of attraction and the two were delicious appetisers- not only for the evening but also the Japanese cuisine. The short presentation by the Ambassador H.E. Satoshi Suzuki, Chef Ogawa and Masterchef Ms. Pankaj and the CEO of CoCoICHY were a good start for an evening of various Japanese dishes served with doses of Sake (I was told that a table somewhere had a bottle or two of wines but it seemed to have been lost in the Din of Sake and Gin).

Compliments to the Embassy of Japan and H.E. Satoshi Suzuki for organising and event of substance, that created a lot of positive vibes and made the denizens appreciate the fine nuances of Japanese cuisine, accentuated by the brilliance of Chef Ogawa who has been the pursuing the task of promoting Japanese cuisine with the dexterity of his knives in 60 countries since 2017. Presence of Ms. Bhadouria added the Indian emotional connect and the practicality of tasting Indian food with Japanese spices.

One could see several Indian novices of Japanese Cuisines and many speaking in Japanese at various counters. One hopes that with several Indian chefs of Japanese cuisine including the chef of OKO Restaurant and Chef Vaibhav Bhargava, and the import of fresh (chilled) fish from Japan allowed, the standard of Japanese cuisine will go up a few notches.   

Subhash Arora


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