A couple of months ago, I made a YouTube video in which I argued that most vegetarians who piously announced that they did not eat eggs were fooling themselves. This was because they did eat eggs – they just did not realise that they were eating them. The egg is one of the key ingredients in any European kitchen.
So if you have eaten a pastry, a cake, a cookie, a salad with a mayonnaise dressing or even a scoop of ice-cream abroad, you’ve probably eaten an egg, no matter how strictly vegetarian you are.
But, I also said, this did not really matter. Most eggs used in cookery are unfertilised, which means that even if a hen sat on them for six months, they would not hatch. So no vegetarian who unknowingly ate an egg need stay up all night worrying. There was no loss of life involved; not even the loss of potential life. Eggs were as vegetarian as milk. They may have an animal/poultry origin. But eating them did not lead to any harm to any creature, living or about-to-be-living.
Though I’ve said much of this before, the video provoked so much shock and horror from vegetarians that I thought I needed to take a more constructive approach. Suppose you are a vegetarian and the thought of eating an egg makes you uncomfortable, then no matter how illogical your discomfort is, you should be able to find solutions and alternatives. So I looked around for eggless options.
I started with ice-cream. You can’t really make ice-cream without eggs. The recipe calls for you to make a custard (milk and eggs with sugar) and to then pour that into an ice-cream machine. Without the egg, there can be no real custard.
Except of course that hardly anybody in India (including chefs) bothers to make a real Crème Anglaise (the technical name for custard). We use custard powder, which yields a ‘custard’ that is as close to the real thing as a tandoori chicken is to a Peking Duck.
But I knew that custard powder had an interesting origin. Legend has it that a Mr Bird who loved custard but was allergic to eggs searched for a way in which he could enjoy his favourite dish without activating his allergies. Mr Bird invented a cornflour-based mix, sold it under his own name and created the so-called custard that Brits brought to India in the days of the Raj.
So if you could make an eggless custard, then why can’t you make an eggless ice-cream? Well, the truth is we do, sort of. The cheap, commercial ice-cream available in the shops here is either made from congealed vegetable fat (in which case they have to call it ‘frozen dessert’), which needs no eggs, or from milk that has been pumped full of chemical stabilisers, emulsifiers and lots and lots of air. This tastes disgusting for the most part so there is a move towards artisanal ice-creams.
But all good quality ice-cream needs eggs. And abroad, everyone takes it for granted that ice-cream will contain eggs (the Baskin-Robbins website in the UK warns that the French vanilla ice-cream, the classic Banana Split and even the waffle cone has eggs; not sure what they do in India).
Häagen-Dazs even brags on its website: "In keeping with our philosophy of using only the purest ingredients, we use only eggs to stabilize Häagen-Dazs". Some strict vegetarians may be horrified by this statement but in the West, the tonnes of chemicals that commercial Indian ice-cream manufacturers use are considered undesirable, while eggs are always preferred!
At nearly every hotel in India where the chef brags about the quality of his home-made ice-cream, it will contain eggs. In fact, the higher the quantity of egg yolks, the richer (and better!) the ice-cream.
Pastry chefs don’t believe they have an obligation to warn guests about the egg content because nearly everything the pastry chef makes, from cakes to pastries, has eggs in it anyway. Even if the chef makes his custard from Mr Bird’s powder – and a distressingly large number do – it is not possible to make ice-cream from this phoney custard. You need a real Crème Anglaise, made with eggs.
Delhi’s best-kept secret, scooped! Preah Narang reduces fresh milk and uses only natural ingredients for her eggless ice-creams (left). It is wholesome, tasty, natural and artisanal; India hardly bothers making a custard with eggs. We use custard powder. It is as close to the real thing as a tandoori chicken is to a Peking Duck. But I’ve found somebody who makes very good eggless ice-cream. Preah Narang is a private chef who has worked with Anton Mosimann in London and who has been making ice-cream at home for her kids for over a decade.
Preah reduces fresh milk and uses only natural ingredients (cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, fresh fruit) before putting the mixture into a domestic ice-cream machine. Because there are no eggs, the ice-cream melts a little quicker once you serve it. And because there are no chemicals, it only has a shelf-life of three weeks or so (in your freezer).
But it is wholesome, tasty, natural and artisanal – if Preah does not make it herself in her own kitchen because she is travelling, then her daughters take over.
At present, Preah’s ice-cream is a Delhi secret. You need to go on the Facebook page to order Delhi’s best eggless ice-cream or call 9910308097. (It’s called Minus 30).
Then, there’s the problem of bakery products. If you don’t eat eggs, give up on cake. You can get eggless cakes but they are not very nice and have a strange texture.
But be warned, even pastry products that don’t require eggs usually end up containing them. For instance, the pastry for patties does not need eggs. But chefs give the patties an egg-wash to ensure that they have an appealing brown sheen. So it is with naans. Have you ever wondered why they come to the table looking brown and delicious? It’s the same reason: an egg wash.
Naan-vegetarian: Manjit Gill admits that ITC would use eggs in naan. But they stopped doing so out of respect for vegetarians many years ago.
I asked my guru on Indian food, ITC’s Manjit Gill, what his chain does. Manjit was honest enough to admit that there was a time when ITC, like every other Indian chain and restaurant, used eggs in naan.
But many, many years ago ITC stopped doing it out of respect for the sensibilities of strict vegetarians. As for other restaurant kitchens, I’m willing to bet that most still use eggs. So, if you are a strict vegetarian, order a paratha instead.
That leaves the one food group that vegetarians never even consider. I’ve known vegetarians who will go to restaurant buffets or wedding feats and load up on the salad, claiming that it is the only really vegetarian dish on offer.
Many salads have mayonnaise and as any foodie will tell you, mayonnaise is an egg dish. It is usually made by slowly adding oil to egg yolks. So the egg is the basis of the sauce. Moreover, even if you avoid salads with a mayo dressing, be warned that mayonnaise is a popular sandwich spread. Order a vegetarian sandwich or burger at a fast-food place abroad and you’ll probably find the bread smeared with mayo.
When the big fast-food chains came to India, they looked for an eggless mayo to avoid offending vegetarian customers. They found a supplier called Rajiv Bahl who solved their problem. Bahl realised that mayonnaise is an emulsion – oil+water – and that the egg acts as the binder in keeping the two components together. His idea was to replace the egg with milk protein and use it to bind the oil and water together.
It worked at a scientific level and more importantly, it tasted good. So Bahl’s company became an important source of eggless mayo for the fast-food giants. (Only in India, by the way; eat a mayo spread abroad and you are probably eating eggs).
I met Bahl’s son, Viraj, who has just launched a range of sauces, picking up from his father’s pioneering work. He says that the main reason why no food scientist had bothered with eggless mayo before his dad came up with a formula was because there was simply no demand for it.
Westerners had no problem with eggs and Indians did not realise they were eating them. So it is with many other sauces that normally contain egg: thousand island dressing, Caesar dressing (abroad it also has anchovies) or ranch dressing.
No need to scramble: Viraj Bahl’s company has vegetarian sauces and dressings priced at about a fourth of their imported counterparts.
So Viraj’s company, Veeba, has just launched a range of sauces and dressings that are completely vegetarian with not even a trace of egg. We use them a lot at home and I marvel at how he manages to get this quality without eggs and at such low prices (about a fourth of their imported equivalents).
So the moral is that even if you stick with the view that eggs are non-vegetarian (ha!) you needn’t worry. The days when people made fools of you by putting eggs in all kinds of sauces, dishes and ice-creams are coming to an end. Indian ingenuity has ensured that you can buy locally-made, high-quality, eggless ingredients and never have to worry about being fooled again.
As Viraj says, "I strongly believe that all of this is not rocket science and the least we can do as Indians is make the best possible products, both in terms of taste and respect for people’s sensibilities."
Sure. But frankly, everything, from pastries to ice-cream to mayonnaise, tastes a lot better when it has egg in it! But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
From HT Brunch, August 16
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