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Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010

Well-traveled chef gives Kamakura the spice of life

Once head cook for India's prime minister and VIPs still serving up authentic tastes


Special to The Japan Times

Krishna Murthy Vijayan, 57, has authentic taste — literally. Cooking in the traditions of southern India as head chef for T-Side, a popular Indian restaurant in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, he makes it a priority to keep his tastes authentic.

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Krishna Murthy Vijayan, head chef of T-Side, an Indian restaurant in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, tries to stay loyal to his culinary roots. KRIS KOSAKA

Although he has lived more than 15 years in Japan, and is appreciative of his adopted home and its own food traditions, Vijayan stays loyal to his culinary roots. He typically takes time out to greet customers from the kitchen, and his lively brown eyes, the color of chai, light up with his smile.

Born into a family of chefs in Villupuram, a coastal town in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, Vijayan naturally started cooking from an early age alongside his two brothers and two sisters.

He developed his taste for whole spices under the guidance of his father, who owned and cooked at his own restaurant. "Southern Indian people use the whole spice, not ground — the spices are always the difference."

Although he was educated at a Sacred Heart Convent school that emphasized internationalism, with students from different nationalities and representing various trades, Vijayan grew up with strong pride in his regional food and cooking. "Basically, since my country is a very old country, 3,000-4,000 years old, from all over India you find all different tastes of food."

Working as a young chef, Vijayan sought out these differences, traveling to various cities in India to learn different styles of cooking, from Delhi to Mumbai. He also worked in Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka, honing his tastes.

In his mid-30s, Vijayan finally settled back near his home town at the restaurant of the famous hotel Taj Coromandel in Chennai. Taj Coromandel also provided a taste of the international — although Vijayan cooked authentic Indian food, the hotel regularly hosts heads of state, royalty and executives from all over the world.

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The restaurant supports education for poor children in Bangladesh.

After five years, Vijayan was appointed head chef, and at the same time, he also became the head chef for India's then prime minister, Narasimha Rao, traveling throughout England and Scotland to accompany Rao on official conferences during his 1991-96 tenure. "We were both vegetarians, both from the South, so communication was very easy for me."

One highlight of his career during this period was preparing a banquet in February 1994 for over 2,000 people, including dignitaries and politicians from Asia and Europe, who were taking part in a special seminar hosted by the British government and the Indian prime minister at St. James Court in London.

It was the same year — while working at Taj Coromandel — that Vijayan's life shifted toward Japan. An 80-year-old Japanese man, who owned an Indian restaurant in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, sat down and ordered "chicken curry, South Indian style" from the hotel restaurant. Before the dishes were cleared away, he had offered Vijayan a job in Japan.

Vijayan, then 41, had been curious about Japan since he was a young man. "They had a big world expo, held for the first time in Japan in 1970, but I could not go, I was too young. But every day, we read about Japan and I dreamed about Japan with the expo."

Set for an exciting change, in a country he had only dreamed about, he and his young wife moved to Fujisawa in late 1994. "I had no problems adjusting, although I was aware of the cultural differences, because I found the people to be very gentle and welcoming from the beginning."

After working for a few years at the man's restaurant, Menon, Vijayan decided to try Tokyo, quickly finding work at the established Indian restaurant Ajanta, dividing his time between branches in Yurakucho and Ebisu. Although the work was enjoyable, life in Tokyo was not easy for Vijayan, and he missed the green of the Shonan Coast.

Sightseeing in Kamakura one weekend, he discovered T-Side. Coincidentally, its owner, Shahjahan Ali, was searching for a head chef. Vijayan took over in 1999, and has lived and worked in Kamakura ever since.

Vijayan appreciates the international feel of Kamakura, with the tourist industry adding spice to the local clientele. The philosophy of T-Side also fits Vijayan: The restaurant offers a range of Indian foods, representing many different regions of India, from Vijayan's specialties in the South — dosa and biriyani, a festive food — to dishes from northern India, famous for butter chicken curry or nan — as well as the cuisine of Bangladesh, with its emphasis on fresh vegetables.

But it's not all about the food. T-Side also supports poor children in Damurhuda, part of Chuadanga in Bangladesh, and Vijayan credits T-side's owner, Ali, for his commitment to philanthropy. Ali donates 8 to 15 percent of the restaurant's profits to enable children of the village to attend elementary school.

Vijayan himself appreciates the chance to stay connected to people in need. "I'd like to help through supporting the people who are helping others." He admits it also helps him feel closer to home.

Vijayan finds others ways to feel close to home, and it comes back to the spices: "We order all our whole spices from India, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper. We never adapt taste, we only adapt to the customer's rhythm."

Vijayan tells how Japanese prefer lunch and dinner hours, but in Chennai, where his family still has a restaurant, they open at 6 a.m. for breakfast, and do not close until after a late dinner, at nearly 11 p.m. "The big meal in Chennai is lunchtime, although we will have people waiting at 6 a.m. for breakfast. Dinner is late, 7 or 8 p.m., and usually very light."

Vijayan is proud of Japan's historical connection with India, mentioning Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the prominent leaders in the Indian independence movement who spent time in Japan during World War II while exiled from India. "Bose served Indian food to the Japanese soldiers, and one of his friends opened the famous Nair Restaurant in Ginza . . . Because of (the Nair founder), Japanese people are very familiar with true Indian food — even Japanese children know nan."

Although Vijayan himself still prefers Indian food, he has found many Japanese foods he loves, including tofu and soba noodles.

Vijayan proudly shows a picture of his 14-year-old son, who lives mostly in India for schooling, on a recent visit to Japan. His son towers over Vijayan in the picture, with his mother flanking his other side. "He loves food, too," Vijayan says proudly, and it is easy to imagine the son taking following his father's culinary path some day.

Vijayan would like to retire to India some day, but he enjoys his work and life, bringing authentic Indian food to Japan, starting with the whole spice.



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