Chef Adwait Anantwar’s Indo-Japanese Food Takes Pune By Storm
Image Credit: Instagram/INJA

Ask any chef from anywhere in the world, and they’ll tell you achieving a perfect fusion between two cuisines is not an easy feat at all. But meet Chef Adwait Anantwar and talk to him about the food he cooks at his Delhi restaurant, INJA, and you’ll wonder at the ease with which he combines vastly different sensibilities that supposedly exist in Indian and Japanese cuisines. Now before you start imagining that Chef Adwait Anantwar’s idea of Indo-Japanese fusion is Chicken Tikka Sushi, step back and let him help you rethink the idea completely. 

His philosophy behind Indo-Japanese fusion isn’t to mix up popular dishes from Indian and Japanese cuisines to create a plate full of confusion. Instead, what Chef Adwait Anantwar does is to first identify which elements of India’s vast culinary heritage marry well with the clean, minimalistic approach of Japanese cuisine. Once that marriage clicks, he turns it into an incredibly plated piece of art that manages to pay homage to both Indian and Japanese cuisines.  

Recently, Chef Adwait Anantwar brought this impeccable flair for fusion from INJA Delhi to Pune’s popular Asian restaurant, KOJI at Conrad Pune. The tables were packed each night, proving that Punekar’s brought their adventurous palates to KOJI to get a taste of what INJA’s team had to offer—and they were not disappointed. In conversation with Slurrp, Chef Adwait Anantwar explained his journey, food philosophy and coming back to his home state of Maharashtra to wow locals with an amazing food experience. 

Tresind To INJA Via Mohalla: Adwait Anantwar’s Journey 

For a chef whose roots are back in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Chef Adwait Anantwar has managed to traverse the world to gain experience—and it certainly shows on the plates he creates now. “I consider myself fortunate to have begun my culinary journey in Dubai,” he says. “Tresind was truly an eye-opener for me. Starting as a trainee there, I was mesmerised by the innovative techniques Chef Himanshu Saini employed in the kitchen. Additionally, being involved in tableside dishes allowed me to interact with people from various nationalities.” 

Adwait explains that his time at Tresind deepened his understanding of global palates while also showing him how food culture in a cosmopolitan setup generates its own background for more culinary creativity through exposure to a wide variety of cuisines. His first role as the head of a kitchen in Dubai taught him even more. “Transitioning to Mohalla as a head chef, a role I still hold, provided invaluable insights into menu composition,” he explains. “I learned that while a dish may be a personal favourite, it may not necessarily be appreciated by everyone, emphasising the importance of menu balance. This was also the time when I started making culinary trips to different countries, exposing myself to flavours I had never experienced before. This, I believe, added to the flavour library in my brain, so to speak.” 

You might say that INJA in Delhi was the culmination of all these experiences. “As a professionally trained Indian chef, I always wanted to stick to the cuisine I know best,” Adwait says. “I admire the minimalistic approach of Japanese cuisine and the discipline Japanese chefs exhibit in the kitchen. While studying Nikkei cuisine, it made me wonder how these two distinct cuisines (Japanese/Chinese and Peruvian) could come together, which happened organically due to the migrant population in Peru. So, why not Indian and Japanese? However, one major reason was the drive to be "different," which compelled me to create INJA.” 

Understanding INJA: How To Marry Indian And Japanese Cuisines 

Think about Indian cuisine and you immediately imagine bold, happy and even joyous flavours that knock your socks off and make you dance. Think about Japanese cuisine, and you will imagine minimalism, precision and simple, understated flavours that generate contentment and longevity. Is a true marriage between these cuisines even possible? Adwait says yes. “As you would agree, on an exterior level, both cuisines are completely different, but I try to find smaller nuances between both cuisines and cultures to bring together the whole concept of INJA.” 

He clarifies that his attention is primarily on the finer details of both the cuisines, especially in understanding which aspects of India’s vast cuisines fits in best with Japanese flavours and techniques. “INJA is not a fusion restaurant; by that, I mean we don’t simply take Japanese ingredients and apply Indian cooking techniques, or vice versa,” he explains. “For example, we don’t take a piece of tuna, apply some tandoori marinade on it, and call it Tuna Kebab. What we do has a much deeper essence to it.” 

One step is to identify the points of similarity and departure. “In my opinion, not only Indian and Japanese, but every cuisine in the world shares some similarities. There are very basic cooking techniques—boiling, steaming, roasting, frying, etc.—that are common, but what makes the difference is the produce, understanding of the ingredients, and eating habits,” he explains. And this is a point he proves amply (and yes, deliciously) through his tasting menu at KOJI, Conrad Pune. 

The seven-course meal starts off with his take on Banarasi Chaat: Shisho leaves are fried in tempura, topped with cherry tomatoes, pomelo, a tamarind ponzu and some puffed wild rice and jakhiya seeds for an extra crunch. Next up is a Japanese Sarada or salad with a Palak Paneer twist so refined that it will leave your palate more refreshed rather than bogged down by a curry that’s just too rich. With the next two courses, Adwait proves that he has deep understanding of various Indian cuisines and delivers two masterpieces that this author will recommend to every non-vegetarian. 

Panta Bhaat is a light, fermented rice dish that Bengalis eat as a summer staple with chopped onions, chillies, fried fish and more. Chef Adwait Anantwar adds Natto, the Japanese fermented soybeans to the simple Panta Bhaat base, elevating the pungence and umami nature of the entire bowl. Torched scallops, pickled cucumbers and a bit of kombu oil makes this a true representation of Bengali Indian and Japanese fusion. 

Rasam, once again, is that ever-popular South Indian staple that is made for every season. Chef Adwait Anantwar recreates the flavours of Rasam with a Chawanmushi or egg custard that is not at all eggy. Instead, it sings with the flavours of curry leaf oil, rasam masala and just the marrow of drumsticks to a dash of crunch. The addition of lobster tails makes this dish a textural genius. 

One can continue singing praises of the Koji Chicken Wings—which are glazed with a tamarind and jaggery teriyaki sauce that is just yum—and the Kake Udon Khasi Curry, which boasts of the flavours of black sesame seeds used widely in Northeast India as well as Japan. The Bael Tart, which combines the sharpness of Indian basil or tulsi with a mellow wood apple sabayon, is simply divine and inspired by a Bael Sharbat Adwait’s father used to make when he was a kid. 

Homecoming And Nostalgia With Flavours 

But while his incredible food can evoke nostalgia among Indians from many regions, it does even more than that by titillating the palate with promises of future creations that must be just as thought provoking. But is this kind of food going to pick up in India, especially beyond cosmopolitan cities? Chef Adwait Anantwar says yes, thanks to the quickly changing world we live in now. 

“I believe that consumers in both tier-1 and tier-2 cities are very familiar with international cuisine. Travelling the world has become easier, and the internet and food shows have contributed significantly,” he says. “There's a wealth of information available that allows curious consumers to explore different cuisines and styles, which undoubtedly aids in their appreciation. As much as I hate to admit it, I think tier-3 cities may not be ready for concepts like ours. While there may be individuals willing to dine, sustaining a restaurant with our concept or something similar might not be the best choice.” 

And while his palate has travelled the world and the food he now cooks pleases many, there are a few Maharashtrian staples that this Nagpur boy craves even today. “I grew up in a vegetarian household, where the cuisine was very basic Marathi food, which I didn't enjoy much at the time,” he explains. “But if you were to ask me now, I would say that a simple meal consisting of Varan Bhaat, Bhaji, Poli, Toop, Kadhi with Dal Vadis on top hits the spot perfectly. I would finish it all off with either Shrikhand or Amrakhand, followed by a three-hour nap,” he laughs.