One approaches the menu at INJA—a portmanteau for Indian and Japanese— with curiosity. It’s rare to see the two cuisines come together and the restaurant, which opened recently at The Manor—the former home of Indian Accent—in Delhi, doesn’t disappoint. The bold tapestry of Indian cuisine, backed by Japanese techniques and clean flavours, flows quite seamlessly on the palate.
Take the Lobster Rasam “Chawmaushi”. “Chawanmushi, a classic Japanese savoury egg custard, is prepared with a base of dashi, a seafood-flavoured broth. So, we replaced the dashi with flavours more relatable to the Indian palate. We make a clear lobster rasam as the base of the chawanmushi,” says Adwait Anantwar, chef-partner at INJA, the debut venture of Dubai-based Atelier House Hospitality. For the extra “rasam flavour”, he poaches a lobster tail in rasam-spiced butter and adds it on top of the steamed custard.
While INJA is, perhaps, the first restaurant to proclaim this merging of Indian and Japanese cuisines, a very small set of chefs have been bringing together their love for Indian food and Japanese techniques over the past couple of years. The idea is to create dishes that make sense to the Indian palate, while using refined techniques such as yakitori (skewering) and lacto fermentation. It would be wrong to describe this as fusion, for that can take gimmicky turns; rather, it is an elegant rendezvous of two very refined culinary repertoires.
At Ahara, in Singapore, chef Vikramjit Roy has created a menu that is modern Indian at the core, backed by Japanese techniques. As part of his older menu, he used to make a wagyu shami, using the emulsification process similar to a Japanese tartare. Instead of chopping or mincing, he would scrape the meat to get that creaminess and mix 18 spices. This would be topped occasionally with pickled shallots and Japanese radish and served at times on roomali roti tartlet. His new menu takes forward this idea in dishes like poached parsnip with kala khatta ice and kombu oil.
For Roy, having “grown up professionally” in Japanese and South-East Asian kitchens, this cooking style comes naturally. “If I have to grill, I know no other process than the yakitori, or the Japanese nimono for braising,” he says. That comes together with a childhood spent in Kolkata in a middle-class family, followed by travels and stays in Indian cities.
Roy became an entrepreneur four years ago, after cooking professionally for 25 years . The project came along in Singapore, where the population is diverse. “I felt nothing would be better than showcasing my kind of food, which suits the lifestyle of today. At Ahara, even after eating an 11-course meal, you will not feel heavy as we have used techniques like lacto fermentation that aid digestion,” he says.
Are there natural affinities between Indian and Japanese cuisines? Harry Hakuei Kosato— representative of Kikkoman India (known for its soy sauce) and founder of Sushi And More, a multi-city Japanese delivery and takeaway restaurant—believes so. He says Japan owes a lot to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. For, in Japan, Zen Buddhism gave birth to a refined version of soy sauce, which has become an essential ingredient of the cuisine.
At the Michelin-starred restaurant Amaya in London last week, Kosato was stunned to see a Japanese kaiseki-style Indian meal. “It was amazing. However, there are certain differences as well. Indian food is about addition and Japanese about subtraction,” he adds. They balance each other.
Panchali Mahendra, president, Atelier House Hospitality, concurs. She says it has been challenging to combine Japanese food, with its clean and subtle flavour profiles and emphasis on techniques, with Indian cuisine to create complex flavour profiles. It has taken time and effort to ensure a harmony of textures and flavours that enhance one another rather than overpower or dominate. “This concept piqued our interest when chef-partner Adwait Anantwar proposed a tandoor omakase (chef’s choice) concept he wanted to develop. The idea progressed through rigorous research and experimentation. That captivated us and INJA came into existence,” she says.
For Anantwar, creating such concepts is part of his natural creative process. His general approach is to break down a dish’s elements to see how flavours and components can be altered. “Another approach is to apply a completely different technique to known ingredients. This helps me create a base and the rest is worked upon based on the research and flavours gathered in the kitchen or during my travels,” he says. This approach has resulted in dishes such as Gobhi 65 Maki, Udon Khasi Curry and Vindaloo Katsu Sando.
The ambience of the restaurant adds to its innovative culinary concept. Designed by Samar Zakhem, it brings together artefacts and curios that reflect a harmonious blend of colours. The interiors incorporate Japanese elements of clean wooden surfaces, natural stone, wood colours, and more. Pops of colour are added in the form of Mughal trinkets, peacock-coloured fabric and lime wash materials. “Other notable features include the Itajime Shibori framework in 100 percent Indian silk. The overall design showcases a seamless integration of Indian and Japanese cultures,” adds Mahendra.
Today, you also have artisanal products that use Japanese fermentation techniques and local Indian produce. Take Goa-based Brown Koji Boy, a “no-preservative, no-additive” food and beverage brand from Prachet Sancheti which creates its own range of miso, amino sauces and seasonings. So, you have soy sauce made from chana dal, miso from cashews and beverages out of poe (Goan bread). The brand launched during the lockdown in 2020 when the founder, Prachet Sancheti, found enough time to experiment with fermentation, and understand its applications within an Indian environment.
“I didn’t want to work in a kitchen full-time, but wanted to be part of the food industry by creating products. I had been working with fermentation for a few months earlier, and the lockdown allowed me to take those principles and adapt them to our immediate environment,” he says. Sancheti was aware that soybean was not a big part of the Indian diet, the way pulses or legumes were. He tested various combinations that could work for the local palate. Today, his products are being used by restaurants like Roboto, Izumi and chefs like Pablo Luis de Miranda (Makutsu), all in Goa. “Most chefs, who are open to exploring, and focused on creativity, ask for these products. It’s interesting to see the flavours and complexities that chefs are creating with our product range,” says Sancheti.