Trying to explain the growth of vegetarian cuisine with the predictable narrative of health, religious, cultural beliefs, is only scratching the surface of a complex phenomenon.
Kalyani Shah, a schoolteacher from Mumbai, remembers eating out during her school and college years as a dull, drab and fumbling affair. “There we were, in our neighborhood joint, ordering from a selection of pav bhaji, cheese pav bhaaji, rawa dosa or paapri chaat. And there was Schezwan paneer or Kashmiri pulao whenever we wanted to splurge. Eating out had nothing to do with the food. We just wanted to give my mother a break from her kitchen duties,” she says as she dig into a bowl of Kele ke phool.
The raw banana flower curry cooked with tomato, green chilies and deftly flavored with hing (asafetida) and other spices is a unique preparation at Tuskers, Sofitel Mumbai’s plush all-vegetarian restaurant.
Specializing in traditional Rajasthani, Gujarati and Marwari food, this stylish fine dining place is a far cry from Shah’s childhood haunts. And it is only one of the several new age eateries to coax maximum juice out of humdrum vegetables, pushing vegetarian culinary into the realm of “haute cuisine.”
Spinach, beetroot, kale, snow peas — ingredients that were once used to merely embellish the meat on your plate — are now at the center of pricey meals, served a la mode by top chefs.
The table turns
Pinki Dixit, owner of popular Mumbai eatery Soam, attributes the rise of quality vegetarian dining options to increasing awareness and a changing lifestyle. “People are much more food-smart than they were a few years back. They are more open to new tastes and more tolerant towards extrinsic ingredients. The winning formula is to offer a strange-yet-similar taste that appeases maximum palates,” she says.
Her restaurant is known for carrying the tradition of vegetarian cooking forward, albeit with some modern twists. The Jain Paanki (rice pancakes steamed in banana leaves) is a fitting starter to an enticing meal of Maharshtrian, Parsi and Gujarati vegetarian specialties. Whether it’s the graceful Shrikhand Puri or the regal Veg Dhansaak with kebabs, every meal at Soam is a celebration of pure ingredients enfolded in fascinating flavors.
“People eating out more frequently has also worked to the advantage of restaurateurs like us, who want to break the mold, create new tastes and push the envelope,” Dixit says with pride.
While a strong culture of vegetarian cuisine (regional street food, thaalis, et al) has always existed in India, it is only recently that Shudh Shakahari is finding its mojo.
One of the first restaurants to start the trend of fashionable vegetarian dining was Little Italy serving authentic Italian fare. What started, as a small Pizzeria in Pune is now a strong culinary brand of over 25 restaurants, present in several Indian cities, Dubai and Kathmandu. With its professed aim to open “at least 75 restaurants over the next four to five years,” there is no doubt which way the future of vegetarianism is headed in India.
“Although vegetarian cuisine has a very strong hold in India, owing to religious and cultural beliefs, the bar has been raised in the last couple of years. Not only are people more health conscious but are genuinely curious about food,” says Naveen Shetty, CEO of Little Italy.
Innovation is the secret ingredient
“Trying to explain the growth of vegetarian cuisine with the predictable narrative of health, religious, cultural beliefs, is only scratching the surface of a complex phenomenon,” says Baidik Sarkar, a chartered accountant and food enthusiast from Chennai, a city that is rapidly shedding its inward looking dining culture. “Demography plays a critical role in culinary innovations. Gone are the days of the indiscriminate consumer, be it in food, fashion or art,” he says, citing the example of Chennai’s Khader Nawaz Khan Road — a breeding ground of global fashion and high street labels that is also a culinary melting pot. “One can find everything from vegetarian Greek and contemporary Indian to avant-garde Asian cuisine,” he says.
Modern fine dining leans heavily on the principle of mélange, or assimilation, leading to gastronomic diversity. Mix-n-match obscure ingredients like banana stem and pumpkin flower, combine odds-and-ends such as Zucchini blossoms and fresh fennel, discover the joy of cooking with Ash gourd and pea shoots — the possibilities of vegetarian cooking are endless.
If you are partial towards fusion Asian food, head to Mamagoto (restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore) for their ingenious crispy lotus stem or coal fired eggplant that can give the ubiquitous crispy lamb a good run for its money. Or enjoy an enchanting meal at Moshe’s, a restaurant chain specializing in Turkish, Moroccan and Jewish delicacies, where the Egyptian Fondue and crisp potato skins are as delightful as their meat and seafood preparations.
“Vegetable based cuisine is well respected the world over, wherever chefs believe that ingredients should be the star of the meal. It is not so much about the number of vegetarian preparations you create but how creatively you can employ the ingredients,” says Alex Sanchez, executive chef at Mumbai’s exclusive eatery The Table. Sanchez, with culinary roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, honed his skills in some of America’s finest kitchens before moving to Mumbai four years ago. The Table offers high-end international food, everything from grills to tacos, decadent pastas to Risottos. The piece de resistance however, is Sanchez’s Zucchini Spaghetti, where the vegetable is cut lengthwise to create the spaghetti shape, cooked with almonds and topped with some Parmesan. Wonderfully simple and a best-seller at the restaurant.
According to food entrepreneurs Ankit Gupta and Chirag Chajjer, the growth in the number of vegetarian restaurants coincides with an explosion in the interest in food. Together they spearhead the culinary innovations at Burma Burma, introducing the heady flavors of Burmese cuisine to the city of Mumbai. But how does this all-vegetarian restaurant entice its guests with a culinary legacy that is generally believed to be dominated by meat, shrimp paste, seafood, etc.? “Yes. Creating a vegetarian Burmese menu can be quite challenging, as the food has to be exciting even for non-vegetarians, who are familiar with traditional Burmese recipes. This is where food innovation comes in,” they say.
There is a lot of emphasis on being creative in terms of flavor, colors and shapes, when making a dish for children or young guests as their tastes are very different from adults’. “The Budhi Kyaw Thoke has a bottle gourd fritter salad, so the children can have the humble lauki with a fun twist,” they explains.
Healthy can be indulging too
Although healthy eating is still one of the main guiding forces of vegetarian gourmet, there is also a flourish of concept-restaurants, where meals are more than a bunch of vegetables thrown into the pot. Ayurvedic restaurant chain Cholayil Sanjeevanam has a menu based on the Ayurvedic principle of detoxification and harmonizing the body and soul with the right diet. The Rajakeeyam Thali is a multicourse meal that starts with fruits and shot glasses of various juices and vegetable extracts, followed by raw, semi-cooked and fully cooked vegetable preparations, to be consumed in a particular order.
If that sounds too much like the doctor’s prescription disguised as gourmet meal, enjoy a delectable spread of vegetarian comfort food accompanied by live jazz events, magic shows or stand up comedy at The Piano Man Art Café in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar.
If you are someone who believes in the power of yoga, combine this ancient tradition with some modern macrobiotic recipes at Mumbai’s one of a kind wellness café The Yoga House, a modern citadel of holistic food. Enjoy Quinoa Taboule after a session of Iyengar yoga or pamper the taste buds with a slice of carrot cake prepared with wholesome, pollutant free ingredients.
How difficult is it to create decadent meals out of grains and vegetables? “Not very,” says Ajit Bangera, senior executive chef, ITC Hotels who is leading a gastronomic revolution at the opulent vegetarian restaurant The Royal Vega at Chennai ITC. “Vegetarianism is very deep-rooted in our culture and honed to perfection through many millennia,” he adds.
The Royal Vega dives deep into India’s rich culinary art to produce a menu, overwhelming in its scope and repertoire. The recipes are inspired by the royal kitchens of India and adjusted to flatter modern sensibilities. The flavorsome Krishna Til Alu and the sophisticated Shvet Paneer are as awe-inspiring as the Chandragupta Malpua, whose recipe dates back to 300 BC.
One of the problems in setting up an all-vegetarian menu is the availability of ingredients that change according to the seasons. Restaurants in the luxury hotel chain The Leela Palace, Chennaim confront the conundrum by revising the vegetarian part of the menu frequently, introducing variations with food festivals.
“The demand for vegetarian gourmet is always high in this part of the country, given the religious and cultural practices: the demand shoots up during special banquets,” says Executive Chef Dharmen Makawana.
What about pairing vegetarian food with a glass of wine? It may look like a daunting task but G.Subbaraman, assistant food & beverages manager of the hotel says the same principle of matching the food’s taste with the wine’s character applies to the vegetarian world too. “It may be difficult to pair specific vegetables with particular wine, unlike meat but one can pair a vegetarian dish according to the spices, herbs and sauces that are incorporated,” he says. “The creaminess of a mushroom risotto for instance, can be beautifully enhanced with a young Chardonnay.”
In what could be the best homage to vegetarian cooking in India, MasterChef, a world-renowned culinary brand and an inspiration for cooking fanatics, decided to make the fourth season of MasterChef India an all-vegetarian show. “Season 4 will give a chance to the vegetarian cooking enthusiasts to display their skills, who could not participate earlier,” says celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor who hosts and judges the season, which is currently airing.
Fellow judge and celebrity chef Vikas Khanna is equally ecstatic. “The contest will be tougher, but it will also be the best season,” says this ardent admirer of vegetarian cooking.
But won’t cutting out meat and fish restrict the culinary skills of the participants? Khanna scoffs at the idea: “India is the land of vegetarian cooking. There are hundreds of vegetables, each with a different flavor, texture, zest and essence. So that’s hundreds of different approaches to cooking. Restrictive, did you say?”
BUDHI KYAW THOKE
Bottlegourd (lauki) – 200 gm
Rice flour – 100 gm
Besan – 20 gm
Ginger paste – 1 tsp
Baking soda – a pinch
Salt – as required
Onion – 1 medium (fried)
Tomato – 1 medium
Lettuce – 1 cup
Cabbage – 1 cup
Spring onion – chopped
Tamarind pulp – 1 tbsp.
Roasted besan – 1 tbsp
Roasted chili powder – 1 tsp
Oil for frying
Soya Bean – 100 gm.
Bengal Gram Dal – 150 gm.
Ginger Paste – 10 gm
Garlic Paste – 10 gm
Bread – 4 slices
Black Cardamom – 5 gm
Chaat Masala – 5 gm
Brown Onion – 100 gm
Cashew Nut – 25 gm
Yellow Chili Powder – 20 gm
Salt – 5 gm
Refined Oil – 100 ml