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Chowk - A Crossroad in Asia

Drumstick found! The vegetarian meals at Chowk

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about” – W. H. Auden.

“It is so hard to remain authentic,” the chef at Chowk sighed. His words would come back from time to time whenever another inspired but insipid meal comes to pass.

The Vegetarian Meals at Chowk - with Malaysian sambar egg

There is authenticity; and there is originality. Where does one draw the line between the two? Is one inclusive of the other, or is it exclusive?

Take Japan's thriving “spice curry” scene, whose defining feature is the blending of the traditional Japanese ingredients – i.e., kombu kelp, bonito flakes, miso paste – with the traditional Indian spices into an original curry. However, the result is, more often than not, an insult to the heritage of both culinary cultures by mismatching and misusing the spices and ingredients. Some spices simply do not go together, salubriously or satisfactorily, and the forced conjunction will be immediately apparent to any local tongue, yet completely missed and misunderstood by the immature and amateurish “spice curry” aficionados, who claim to have acquired their craft after a mere few weeks of backpacking. Ironically, often when the roles are reversed – the foreigners learning Japanese food – the Japanese will scoff and snort that their art could not possibly be learned in such a short time.

On the other hand, take the “California roll”: the originality of this undeniably inauthentic “sushi” is in the ingenuous combination of fake-crab and avocado, whose flavor profile mimics, serendipitously, that of fatty fish – fishiness from the fish paste (fake crabs are fake) + fat from the avocado – so that it would not only appeal to the less adventurous but also to the ardent foodies, once they overcome their bias enough to taste it. No, not “authentic by any means, but it is surely “original” in a good way; and as a matter of fact, the humble roll – formerly suspended in the limbo of “fusion” – has become quite “authentic” in the arguably inauthentic “California cuisine.” In any case, this localized, single instance of mutation – whether from the U.S. or Canada (depending on who the inventor is, Mr. Mashita or Mr. Tojo) – has spilled over the borders into other countries, in some of which, it is even passed off as the genuine article.

Chefs, who set out to adopt a cuisine in another country, must continue to remind themselves that they are treading on the very thin line between authenticity and adaptability; they must fight against the locality – its people, its ingredients, its climate and even its air and water – otherwise, they will be tamed by the inescapable force of inertia.

However, what exactly makes a dish “authentic”? Is it the ingredients? Many firmly and blindly think so, particularly the sushi chefs outside of Japan, who, instead of investing in learning the craft, shell out money to procure fish from the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. And yet, a true “Edo-mae” style of sushi is a bilateral creation, which is as much procuring as processing. To prove it, a celebrated sushi chef has recently relocated to Hawaii from Tokyo, in order to create “authentic” Hawaii-mae” sushi, by applying traditional methodology to the seafood on the other side of the Pacific.

Authenticity is unmistakable; it is the Polaris which guides the chefs across a wide and wild expanse of the world. Its shine is bright and the direction is clear, but the journey is far and far from clear. How does a dish become authentic, when the person cooking is not “authentic” in the genealogical or geographical sense? In pursuit of authenticity, we travel and learn, and learn and travel, since human ability to learn is one of the myths our society is built on. Pick and choose a few dishes, copy down the recipes and imitate the techniques (which may just become unnecessary once the 3D printing takes over). We order the thickest cookbook on Amazon and watch the food channel. With the advance of technology and availability of information, authenticity seems as reachable as ever, and yet, all the experience – authentic or virtual – does not equate aptitude, as Oscar Wilde had summed it up: “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

There is a restaurant in Osaka – Sawadee Xinchao – that does a superb rendition of Thai green curry, which was taught by chef Vichit Mukura (currently at Khao) in private cooking classes. The bright green color of the curry from the fresh herbs – not your typical paste out of the can! – explodes into a bright green fire in the mouth. The aromatic curry and the psychedelic décor instantly transport you from Shinsaibashi, Osaka, to Sukhumvit, Bangkok. However, that is the good days when the sun and the moon are properly lined up; on other days, the green herbs are lost and drowned in the murky coconut milk. Alas, the phantom of authenticity is as hard to capture as the Phantom of the Opera.

One dish is hard enough, but one dish is still doable. But, a knack for one does not necessarily extend to the entire repertoire. For instance, other Thai curries at Sawadee Xinchao – also taught by chef Mukura – are acceptable, however, at lesser degrees (although doubt remains that perhaps it is the recipes not the replication). Nevertheless, as long as Sawadee Xinchao stayed reasonably within the Thai borders with only the occasional trip to Vietnam (i.e., the pho is particularly praiseworthy), the food is still quite adequate. Yet, the human folly has to go on, and the menu forays into the jungles of Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and makes pit stops in just about any other country, which has made even a fleeting appearance on the chef’s travel itinerary – past or dreamed. The further the chef delves into cookbooks in search of authenticity; the farther it slips away. The result is a “Nyonya” stew, which no nyonya would be caught serving.

Sawadee Xinchao is not alone in the food “over”-packing, however. Truth be told, it may be the most authentic within the category of restaurants called “mu-kokuseki ryori” in Japan – literally, a cuisine without nationality or “ta-kokuseki ryori” – a cuisine with many nationalities. The former tends to label as many dishes “tapas” as possible and cover the others in melted cheese; while the latter goes for the skewers and, when piercing is not possible, hide them under a carpet of coriander leaves. Whether fearless, shameless or simply clueless, “without borders” and “too many borders” are, in effect, disclaimers to warn that anything goes and everything goes – in other words, “do not expect anything authentic here.”

Sadly, these borderless restaurants do survive, or even to certain extent thrive, for it is all about supply and demand: the reason that these establishments continue to exist is because there is a foolhardy and foolish clientele that pays them to serve such falsity. Just as most folks in Japan cannot point out Vietnam and Thailand correctly on the world map, they cannot tell the difference between those two cuisines, let alone those of the other South-East Asian countries. For them, all those countries “down there” (ex-Australia) are conveniently bundled together into an “ethnic cuisine.”

Nonetheless, at last, after years of poor imitation, the borderless/border-ful restaurants are emerging out of the murky confusion, that is, in Tokyo, where grassroots movement toward authenticity has finally made heretofore unacceptably odorous mutton and inadmissibly healthy vegetarian meals rather fashionable.

Not happening, though, in Osaka. Three and half hours removed from the capital, Osaka takes a proprietary pride in its own culture of mixology. (See “Nostalgic for the Exotic.”) Borderless, ethnic, multi-national – no problem at all. In Osaka, Vietnamese and Thai are virtually synonyms; and a limited vocabulary of curry and phak chee (coriander leaves in Thai) will get you through from China to India and every other country in-between and loop you right through Okinawa as a bonus. Authenticity yields to audacity, and ultimately, to originality.

And, yet, there exists a place in Osaka, where Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, and even Indian and Bengali cross their paths without losing their identities. It is a junction where weary travelers tread by on their way to new destinations; it is an intersection where worldly travelers return to take a rest before going home. Each that passes by leaves a piece of authenticity behind at this crossroad, and that crossroad is Chowk.

Chowk is nondescript in the way of a canteen in Singapore or a backpacker’s hostel in Penang is – you see one and you have seen them all – with a lime green and egg yellow color scheme and tiled store front. Even in the dead of winter in Osaka, the ghost of the scorching sun seems to lurk just beyond the wooden window frame. A hungry traveler is simultaneously greeted by an Indian actor smiling glossily from the wall and blessed by a Japanese deity and a tiny Ganesha sitting on the same pedestal. Mrs. Chowk, after gaging correctly in one glance the newness of the latest arrival, proceeds to explain the menu with unfailing and undying patience, whose pale face is starting to resemble the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.

The menu at Chowk does need a bit of explaining for the uninitiated. For lunch, there are two options: the South Indian vegetarian meals or the daily special. The daily special changes according to the day of the week: Tuesday is a Thai day with khao rat kaeng – a quintessential Thai fast food of rice-and-curry, plated with a stewed egg and side dishes. The meal is completed by a murmur of Thai radio and a sweet Milo. Wednesday is a Singaporean day, offering a white bak kut teh (the Teochew style), whose garlicky and peppery flavor is to be washed away with Chinese tea. Thursday is a Malaysian day, and you can get a nasi kandar with a choice of curry, along with a side of bean sprouts and vegetables, topped with a shrimp cracker. Friday is back to Thai, serving a khao man gai with its own chicken soup as it should be. And, on Saturdays, Malaysian and Thai take turns for those hard-working souls, who could not make it to the safe harbor during the week.

Regardless of the revolving South-East Asian half, the other half of the menu is fixedly South Indian. The vegetarian meals, served daily, generally follows the traditional banana leaf meals in Kerala, and is consisted of sambar, dal, poriyal, raita, achar and a piece of banana, served on, not a banana leaf, but a banana-leaf shaped plate. If you so desire, a non-vegetarian curry of the day can be ordered per custom of Kerala restaurants – such as fish molly, beef curry (yes, they eat beef), etc.

thakkali (tomato) rasam @ Chowk

The subcontinent intersects South-East Asia and Japan at Chowk. On the one hand, there are the traditional katoris: a faithfully authentic thakkali (tomato) rasam; a validly plain mung dal and cubes of pungent and vinegary carrot achar. While the use of fennel seeds in the sambar – the inalienable part of a vegetarian meals – is less commonly found, it still manages to stay within the orbit of authenticity. But soon enough, the Indian tradition is taken over by Asian adaptation. Instead of pachadi, a raita – charged with pungent vinegar as opposed to the natural sourness of the yogurt – comes with the meals, although it is normally a condiment for biriyani or pulao, and therefore, not for plain rice. More blatantly, however, the meals at Chowk deviates from the traditional in the choice of rice: instead of South Indian rice – be it the matta rice, ponni rice, samba rice or sona masoori rice, Chowk serves Thai jasmine rice with the meals.

Fennel-scented sambar with drumstick and pumpkin, eggplant, carrots


Let us pause the head shaking for a minute and consider this: is any kind of adaptation sacrilegious? How far is one allowed to stray from the righteous path of tradition before one loses the sacred badge of authenticity? Or is there a grey area where encroachment is permissible and should even be applauded? Take a look at the red invasion of Italy by the tomatoes. Today, Italian cuisine without tomatoes is as unimaginable as an Italian flag with just two colors; nonetheless, when the tomatoes first got off the boat in Italy, they were also suspiciously foreign (in fact, it only became “food” in the 17th century). Not only for the Italians, but tomato is also indispensable for the Indians, as it is widely used in sambar, rasam and curries from the North to the South. Yet, even as recently as fifty years ago, thakkali (tomato) rasam did not exist in Chennai and the tamarind was the sole source of sourness.

Hence, there must be a process of ablution at some point so that the outsider is initiated into the higher echelon of authenticity. Is it the time that washes away all sins of fusion? Or perhaps, it is a numbers game as in “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god” – John Rostand – so that one instance is an aberration but one million becomes the mainstream.

In the case of the raita, the addition of vinegar is, in effect, to make the flavor more authentically sour as the yogurt in Japan is tamed to have less acidity to suit the local palate. Although, ideally, lemon juice would have been a better choice, the Japanese climate is not congenial to this variety of citrus, thus, the cost of souring the yogurt with fresh lemon juice all year around is not exactly a viable business solution. As for the rice, the reason is both economic and political: in order to protect the domestic rice production, the import duty on rice in Japan is 778%. Given the limited demand for samba rice, for example, the cost of importing will be prohibitive for small restaurants. Furthermore, the clientele has been sadly brainwashed by Indian restaurants into worshipping the basmati rice so that they would rather pay the surcharge to exchange the Japanese rice for the basmati rice as a show of their own imagined authenticity; for in truth, basmati rice is never served as a part of a South Indian meals (it is used for biriyanis and pulaos) as the renowned fragrance is too overpowering.

No, nothing in a meal should be overpowering. Despite the fiery image of “Kali” – the Goddess of Chaos (and Curry), a meals is all about balance: the sweet, the sour, the spicy, the salty, the bitter, the astringent and the pungent. Therefore, instead of thoughtlessly replicating what is impossible in the name of authenticity, Chowk strives to be true in heart to the Ayurvedic tradition in aiming for that authentic balance of flavors: it has the sweetness from the coconuts in the poriyal and the vegetables in the sambar, where the fennel seeds enhance the naturally sweet pumpkins and carrots (and a drumstick if you are lucky). The addition of vinegar increases the missing acidity in Japanese yogurt, and thus stimulates the saliva and digestion. Plus the traditional spiciness from the black peppers in the rasam; the bitterness from the fenugreek seeds in the achar; the astringency from the chai and the pungency from the red and green chili peppers, Chowk’s meal on a banana-leaf shaped plate is authentic in essence, if not in form.

Chowk – the word comes from Hindi and it means the open area at an intersection. It is typically a busy, noisy roundabout, dotted with chaiwallahs, snackwallas, sugarcane juice stands and various stalls selling iPhone covers to rubber hoses. It is a place where people from different backgrounds, cultures, professions, religions, nationalities, ages and genders gather for one single purpose, that is to cross the street. United thus for the brief moment, people wait and eye and haggle and pay and drink and chew in an easy camaraderie, protected by a hazy bubble of traffic noise and car exhaust. At Chowk in Osaka, the same comfortable coexistence is found; and fortunately, this chowk is safely and sanely tucked away in an alley, off the crazy major roads and the labyrinthine Osaka/Umeda Station.

Chow’s meals nourishes the body and restores the well-being of weary wanderers. But the fennel scented sambar goes down deeper as it goes straight to the wary heart and rekindles the desire for adventures; while the spicy rasam renews the worn sense of wonder, which we had forgotten in the daily toil through the jungle of Osaka.

Real banana-leaf meals is a rare treat!

Much more than a whiff of fried onions or the smoke of burning charcoal, Chowk gives you the feeling of being in a chowk. And, isn’t that feeling what authenticity comes down to?

A sweet finish - chai @ Chowk

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