This article forms part of the Conversation with Chefs, a series of articles featuring chefs in Colombia.
Two chefs from India work at the newly opened Taj Mahal restaurant in Usaquen, Bogota. Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma come from different parts of India (Rajasthan and Punjab) and have united their culinary efforts here in Colombia.
Amid the decorations, music, and aromas of the Taj Mahal restaurant, I recently sat down with Harsh to talk about where he’s been, what he’s doing now and what his future plans are.
After studying at a culinary school in India, he was later recruited to work in five star hotels around India, which brought him the enjoyable challenge of working with chefs from diverse areas of the country and their different culinary traditions.
He arrived in Bogota in June 2013, right before the opening of Taj Mahal.
Taj Mahal focuses on food cooked in a tandoor, which is often a clay oven with charcoal or wood placed at the bottom as fuel. The food is exposed to the fire at temperatures that can get pretty extreme. Harsh explains to me that tandoors were originally a hole dug in the ground that was then coated in clay and used for cooking. In time they evolved and now take on many different forms.
I was pleased to visit the kitchen at Taj Mahal; modern, yet with traditions, techniques and flavors reaching back thousands of years. Small bowls of spices, all lined up neatly in a row, were ready to impart flavors to the food.
The tandoor, shiny and new, sits in a corner. This tandoor is fueled with charcoal at the bottom, giving the food a smoky flavor as the fat from the food drips onto the hot coals. The top opens up and naan or other breads are placed on the walls of the hot tandoor, and those burning coals provide the heat to bake the bread. Peeking in, I saw the coals burning red hot and the naan clinging to the sides, delightfully puffing up and browning. Other types of food are skewered and placed in or near the coals to cook.
In India Harsh usually cooked with two tandoors, one always full of naan and the second one with other dishes. At the hotels he worked at in India he was used to cooking for events of up to 200 people, and those events and the frenetic pace of the kitchen in general keeps, as he says, his mind sharp as he works to impart the same taste to every single dish.
What he thinks of Colombia: Harsh loves the permanently cool weather in Bogota. In India he cooked in very hot places, and comments that it’s a challenge to work over two very hot tandoors in that climate. And since Colombians are kind and helpful, he’s found it easy to adapt to life in Bogota.
Keeping Colombians happy: At Taj Mahal, the menu is crafted keeping in mind the likes and dislikes of Colombians. They try to balance the menu to appeal to those unfamiliar with Indian cooking as well as those who love the spicy heat. For the many Colombians not used to eating hot food, they tone down the heat.
Future: Harsh plans to teach cooking classes in the near future, but first has to work on his Spanish language skills.
Chef’s recommendation: His favorite meal at Taj Mahal is butter chicken served with butter naan.
To find out more about the Taj Mahal restaurant, read this article published in The City Paper.