When I was fourteen the head of my school year decided to crack down on kids skipping class. This display of authoritarianism had quite an impact in my life. You see, Mr Rutt’s clamping down on skiving inadvertently led me to a life long love of chilli con carne.
I’ll explain. Prior to the hooky injunction not once had I turned up in the home ec kitchen (pointless lesson). However, Mr Rutt’s new hard line meant that I was forced into attendance, where my first assignment was chilli con carne, at this time my least favoured food. So, for a laugh I increased the paprika, doubled the garlic, and trebled the chilli powder, all for my parents’ consumption. Oh, what larks. However, as my folks tucked in to their second helping that evening, waxing lyrical with superlative abandon, I decided to try it for myself. It was a spicy revelation. I fucking loved chilli con carne.
Since then, wherever in the world I have been, I have searched out great chilli. Japan, so far, has been something of a nadir in the chilli stakes, but the opening of Om Nom Nom in Tsurumai has changed all that.
The restaurant itself is stylish, putting me in mind of artisan café bars in London’s fashionable London Fields area, but it lacks the complication of such places. There are no fusion confusions and no bearded hipsters. There is just good food, great chilli and a committal to the halal roots that owner and former ALT Raj Ali was brought up with.
As I sit at the counter Raj recommends I choose one of the set menus: the mutton chilli in pita bread, the smoked chicken chilli dog, or the mutton chilli and rice. Being particularly hungry I go for the latter with extra rice, plus accompaniments of guacamole and jalapeno peppers.
While he fixes up my starter – nachos with salsa, jalapenos and sour cream – Raj tells me about some of the challenges he has faced since breaking into the restaurant trade.
“I suppose one of the biggest difficulties is explaining to the Japanese customers what we are about,” he says, pouring my glass of guava juice. “Just because we do chilli, we aren’t a Mexican restaurant. And just because we are called Om Nom Nom,” he laughs, “we don’t serve omrice!”
Raj has hit on something here. In Japan restaurants are pigeonholed– Italian, French, sushi, ramen – and the flexibility of Om Nom Nom’s concept can be disarming, but Raj is excited.
“We are looking to diversify even now, fighting through the familiarity. We have weekly specials, coronation chicken sandwiches, Caribbean chickpeas with chappathi ruti, and we’ll be doing even more. We aren’t just about chilli.”
But today, that’s what I’m after. The chilli itself brings with it another challenge: namely the Japanese perception of mutton as an intensely scented meat. But, as other customers have found, there is nothing overpowering as I delve into mine. The meat is juicy and the flavour gorgeously rich. It is by far the best chilli I have had in Japan, an opinion also held by Texan customers of Raj’s who exclaimed, expertly, ‘THIS IS CHILLI!!’ (Possibly while yee-hawing and shooting pistols into the air.)
Cooked with the Japanese palette in mind the chilli is mild for my tastebuds, but fortunately Om Nom Nom has three types of hot sauce, including the infamous Sudden Death Sauce which I sprinkled liberally over my plate – as liberally as one can with a pipette. It was bloody spicy!
While Om Nom Nom’s culinary concept is flexible, something that isn’t is its dedication to Halal. Having been in Japan for 7 years, Raj knows how difficult it is to find completely halal food; even in places that claimed to be halal he found discrepancies.
“Nagoya’s growing Muslim community have it tough when eating out, but they can be assured that at Om Nom Nom we are 100% halal. Have you spent much time reading what actually goes into food? In Japan they use alcohol in ice cream, so we have to make everything ourselves to be totally sure.”
And of that homemade ice cream I chose the bitter caramel flavour, and while I have to take Raj’s word for it on the lack of alcohol, what I can confirm is that it is bloody lovely.
In fact everything I had at Om Nom Nom was bloody lovely, and with all the challenges involved, I have decided upon a challenge of my own: I want to bring as many of my Japanese friends here as I can to show them that (a) mutton is not stinky (b) pigeonholes can be flaunted and (c) chilli con carne with death sauce is awesome. If I can manage these three tasks I will be happy, and it will be thanks to Raj at Om Nom Nom. And Mr Rutt.
Om Nom Nom
1 Chome-16-18 Chiyoda, Naka-ku
Tel: (052) 241-8818