Post-WWII Fusion Itameshi Cuisine Makes An Entry In India
Image Credit: NUVO, Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel

Over the last decade, the Indian food industry has seen the arrival of many cuisines from around the world—from Korean food to Mexican, these global cuisines are now pretty easily available across Tier I cities through food chains and speciality restaurants. Now, another cuisine born from the fusion of two global cuisines is finally making its way to India, and chances are that it will be lapped up and enjoyed just as much as other foods from around the world have. We are talking here about Itameshi cuisine, and if you don’t know what that is, then read on. 

Imagine the best lasagne out there, a layered epitome of Italian flavours of minced meat, basil, oregano, tomato sauce, pasta and cheese. Imagine the nuanced and umami flavours of miso in Japanese cuisine and how much depth it lends to any dish from that nation. Now imagine both of these flavour bombs coming together in a lasagne that is flavoured with miso, and you have an umami dish that Indians—who really know what umami defines even when unfamiliar with the word itself—are bound to fall in love with. 

That, in the simplest terms, is precisely what Itameshi cuisine is all about. "Itameshi is a term that refers to Italian cuisine in Japanese,” says Supreet Roy, the GM of Sheraton Grand Pune Bund Garden Hotel, who has restructured the property’s celebrated NUVO restaurant into one that now focuses entirely on Itameshi cuisine. If bridging cultures and their cuisines is an effort pursued by most Indian restaurateurs today, then Roy insists that the market for Itameshi cuisine in India is huge thanks to the appeal of both Italian and Japanese cuisines individually. 

How Itameshi Was Born In Post-World War II Japan 

Roy explains that the history of Itameshi cuisine in Japan can be traced back to the World War II era in Japan. The integration of Western food in Japan was nothing new by then. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Japanese started an entire movement of Japanese-European food fusion in a bid to increase trade, and this led to the integration of many Western ingredients and food concepts into Japanese cuisine. By the end of the Meiji period in 1910, Japan already had many fusion dishes ranging from kare- and raisu to tonkatsu.  

When spaghetti was finally introduced into the Japanese market in the 1920s, it finally paved the way for the specific fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines. And when Italian-American soldiers and officers entered post-WW II Japan, they brought with them the concept of eating spaghetti doused in tomato sauce among other Italian favourites. “The first Italian restaurants in Japan started to appear in the 1960s, and the cuisine gradually became more widespread and integrated into Japanese dining culture,” Roy explains.  

“However, Itameshi truly began to flourish in the 1980s and 1990s, with an increasing number of Italian-inspired dishes appearing on menus across Japan,” Roy adds. Many believe this fusion cuisine was also born due to the economic crisis Japan faced during these decades, where Italian ingredients were more affordable than traditional Japanese ones, leading to the high popularity of Itameshi beginning in that period. Now, Itameshi is a global cuisine, where restaurants like Nolita in New York City are most well-known for dedicating entire menus to it. And India, in a similar vein, now has NUVO in Pune. 

The Umami Balance Between Italian & Japanese Food 

While it certainly has a storied history, what lies at the crux of Itameshi’s success is a chef’s ability to create the perfect balance between two cuisines that are known for very different ingredients that are simple, yet maximised to create bold flavours. “Achieving balance in Itameshi dishes involves a thoughtful and skillful integration of diverse culinary elements,” Roy says. “It's a dynamic process that requires creativity, an understanding of flavour profiles, and a respect for the traditions being fused. For example, the combination of Matcha (green tea powder) and Mascarpone creates a delightful fusion of Japanese and Italian flavours in Itameshi cuisine.” 

He explains that Matcha, known for its vibrant green colour and earthy, slightly bitter taste, is a staple in Japanese tea ceremonies and a popular ingredient in various desserts. Mascarpone, on the other hand, is a creamy Italian cheese with a mild and buttery flavour, often used in desserts like Tiramisu. “When these two ingredients are combined, the result is a harmonious blend of rich, velvety textures and contrasting yet complementary flavours,” Roy says. “This pairing can be used to create a variety of delicious treats. A popular dessert from the Itameshi cuisine is the Matcha Mascarpone Tiramisu: Replace the traditional coffee-soaked ladyfingers in Tiramisu with a layer of matcha-flavoured mascarpone. The earthy notes of matcha will add a unique twist to this classic Italian dessert.”  

Roy adds that another interesting pairing is that of Miso paste and Olive oil. Miso paste, a fermented soybean paste that adds rich umami flavour to dishes when paired with olive oil brings out a beautiful fusion of savoury and fruity notes. “This combination can be used as a marinade for grilled vegetables, a dressing for salads, or a flavour enhancer for roasted meats”, he explains, adding that both Italian and Japanese cuisine also share a love for short-grained rice and products derived from them. “Sake, a Japanese rice wine, can be used to deglaze a pan when making risotto,” he says. “The subtle sweetness of sake complements the creamy texture of risotto, creating a sophisticated and well-balanced dish.” 

Itameshi Cuisine In India: A New Path To Pave 

Roy believes that Itameshi cuisine really stands a chance of achieving popularity and success in india. “In terms of its popularity in India, the culinary landscape in the country is diverse and continually evolving,” he explains. “While Italian cuisine has been well-received in India for many years, the fusion of Italian and Japanese flavours may not be as widespread as more traditional Italian or other fusion cuisines.” Given how affordable and easily accessible Japanese food has also become in recent years, the market for Itameshi in India can certainly be tapped.  

“India is a young market where people are eager to discover and experiment,” he says. “It is a huge pool of people aspiring for a taste of the fine things, eager to adapt and adopt it. And so I feel, the time is just right to introduce something like this and in time it will be taken out of the fine-dine set ups and shared more widely. Besides the flavours are all there, the subtle, the punchy, the everyday, the more refined and the audience here have a taste palate that matches all these profiles to make it a widely accepted cuisine.” 

In parting, Roy suggests that any Indian foodie or chef approaching Itameshi cuisine for the first time should remember these three things: 

1) Itameshi cuisine can be adapted to suit local tastes, and Indian chefs may incorporate regional flavours and ingredients into Itameshi dishes. 

2) We should approach Itameshi with an open mind, a willingness to explore unique flavour combinations. 

3) Expect innovative combinations, such as pasta with soy-based sauces, sushi-inspired pizzas, or desserts incorporating Japanese ingredients like matcha.