Chef Aditya Kumar Jha on the fine line between pushing the creative boundaries of food

Pooja Pillai
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Chef Aditya Kumar jha's unusual "Achaari Gobhi" dish. (Express photo)

The best feedback that Aditya Kumar Jha got after he began his stint as Executive Chef at The Manor, New Delhi, was, oddly enough, a complaint. “A table which ordered the vegetarian tasting menu said that the yam steak in sorisa curry with mustard oil powder tasted like fish. I asked them whether the taste was that of fish or whether it was the texture. They said that it was the texture. I agreed to replace the dish for them and picked it up and walked into the kitchen. As soon as I got in, I yelled, ‘We did it, guys’.”

Jha’s exultation at that moment was natural; for weeks he and his staff had been trying to recreate the flavour and texture of his mother’s Bihari-style fish in mustard curry. The catch was that Jha and his staff were trying to do it with yam, struggling to get the flakiness of a well-cooked fish in a piece of the vegetable. “My mother would sometimes use yam in place of the fish and I knew that whenever I decided to create a vegetarian replacement for a fish curry, this is what I would try,” he says. He realised that he had finally nailed it when, that day, a table decided to send the dish back. Mostly, though, customers at In-Q, the progressive Indian restaurant that has come up where the iconic Indian Accent was once located, are happy with what they get.

“I want to make food that is easy to understand, says Chef Atul Kumar Jha.

Over the last two months, when the restaurants fully opened for business with an operational liquor license, there’s been positive feedback for the 14-course tasting menu. “I want to make food that is easy to understand,” he says, “My mother doesn’t go out much to eat, but she should be able to understand and enjoy the food that I serve here. That’s my benchmark,” he adds. What he wants, he says, is to keep the “DNA” — the flavour — of the food intact, even as he experiments with the form. It’s a distinction he has learned to appreciate since the time he spent working alongside Gaggan Anand in Gaggan, Bangkok, as well as his work experience in the kitchens of the Oberoi, New Delhi and Tamba, Abu Dhabi. “I’ve seen many chefs completely change the DNA of a dish under the pretext of making ‘progressive’ Indian food. It hurts me personally, as a chef myself. So I challenged myself to get creative with Indian food, but without changing it beyond recognition,” he says.

The tasting menu at In-Q is a good way to understand exactly where Jha draws that fine line. The sambar is served as a clarified broth, poured out of a french press onto idli and medu vada globules: a dish that would be unrecognisable to most, until the first surprising spoonful. Or take the achari gobhi, which arrives as a panna cotta-like cube, coated in a ginger and coriander glaze and surrounded by yogurt dust.

“People have told me that it tastes exactly like the achaari gobhi that they have grown up eating. That tells me that I have achieved what I set out to do,” says Jha.