Koto Protocol: Dine fine the Japanese way
Sonam and Ranjana Longtu eat at Koto all the time, and she is a fine cook in South East Asian food. Utpal and Caroline Sengupta want to live in Koto. And Utpal opened one of the earliest Japanese restaurants in Katmandu-the Sakura-Ya where the chef and the sake were imported. Kenji Hijikata has been cooking at Koto on Durbar Marg for 19 years and has become a part of owner Sunil Dhakwa’s family and like Hijikata-San the seaweed and the mustard and the Wasabi are imported. We had the cold chicken with jellied soya sauce, dipped into mustard that cleared the sinuses even as the chicken and soya tingled the tastebuds. ‘’The thing about Japanese food is the freshness of ingredients,” said my host, Sunil Dhakwa as we tried Prawn Tempura in very lightly flavoured soya sauce. If the prawns were not fresh or the tempura batter not pristine then the dish would demand instant hara kiri. The simple but delicious Goma Ae, which is spinach with sesame seeds has a sweetish taste to it. “We used a touch of syrup,” said Sunil. The sesame and the sugar are perfectly Yinyanged. Japanese food is about delicate balance.
The Karashi-Ae was a heightened taste sensation made up of seaweed finely chopped with cucumber in a gorgeously piquant lemon and mustard seasoning. ‘’This is an ideal appetiser when you drink sake’’, said Sunil helpfully. He was so articulate one did not realise that this was the first time he had shared his thoughts with a food writer in 19 years. And Koto has been written about everywhere even in Japanese guidebooks.In today’s world you can’t hold up your head if your haven’t eaten Sushi. We had Maki Sushi where the boiled rice seasoned with vinegar and wrapped in seaweed was accented with salmon and cucumber. There were magical ginger flakes seasoned with vinegar that brought another flavor to the table as if the Wasabi mixed in the soya wasn’t enough.”Normally Sushi is good for travelling, it is a complete food,’’ said Sunil. I went for the Yakitori which was barbecued chicken and green onions on a skewer. It was bathed in a sauce that Sunil said took 3 hours to make, reducing soya sauce, green onion, sugar, radish and green garlic. Apparently this is one of the few times that garlic is used in Japanese food. The taste is overwhelming and if the Americans got hold of it, they would bottle it for their Sunday barbecues in the backyard. I could think of no worse fate for a sauce so lovingly cooked. “There are three kinds of cutlets in Japan. Prawn, fish and pork. They are popular as a main course served with rice and soup,’’ said Sunil.
It was a schoolmate of Sunil who married a Japanese girl, settled in Kathmandu, and started a small scale industry making Miso which is as Japanese as the Kimono but far tastier. They make it by taking hold of soyabean and adding salt and letting it ferment which is why the Miso soup we ate had a slight alcoholic after taste. It was arguably the best Miso soup in Kathmandu.“In 19 years I have open three Koto’s in Nepal. I could have done more but I wanted perfection,” said Sunil as our meal ended. In a sense, Sunil and I eating dinner together completed a circle begun 30 years ago when I came to Kathmandu and stayed with my friend Bekha Ratna Dhakwa an old Lahasa Newar with stories and memories which we used to unfurl in the evenings. Bekha Ratna Dhakwa was Sunil Dhakwa’s grandfather, and I like to think he was with us that evening in Koto. Perhaps it was he who wished us sayonara into the night. For a heightened sense of Zen and the secrets of Koto call 4226052.