Three weeks ago, I went to the opening of Jairam Banan’s new Rajasthani restaurant, Shraman, at Delhi’s Ashok Hotel. These days, Rajasthani food has come to mean the cuisine of the Rajputs: Laal maans, various kinds of game dishes, etc. But there is also an entirely separate Rajasthani bania cuisine which is completely vegetarian.
Jairam has hired Maharajs from all over Rajasthan and serves the kind of vegetarian food that I have previously only tasted in the homes of Marwari friends. I asked him why he had ventured so far from the south Indian food that is the mainstay of his Sagar-Swagath empire.
Jairam’s response was interesting. He said that a high proportion of the guests at his Sagar restaurants were vegetarians. Usually, when non-vegetarian guests asked him to recommend somewhere else they could go, he sent them to Swagath for crab butter garlic and sookha mutton. But he had nowhere to send the vegetarians. So, he’d said to himself: Why not open a vegetarian restaurant that is fancier than Sagar or Sagar Ratna and serves a different kind of cuisine? That led to the foray into Rajasthani food.
Few restaurateurs understand the taste of the Indian consumer as well as Jairam does. His view is that more and more vegetarians are joining the restaurant-going classes. Many of them are conservative and do not like sitting in restaurants where the guests at the next table are eating tandoori chicken. Some of them are apprehensive about eating food cooked in kitchens where meat dishes are also being prepared. And all vegetarians resent the fact that there are so few options open to them on many restaurant menus.
There will be more purely vegetarian Rajasthani restaurants if the Delhi venture succeeds. But Jairam is also betting big on south Indian vegetarian food. His family is starting a second chain of Sagar-like restaurants and the first phase should see the roll-out of 40 or more outlets. These restaurants will serve the same sort of menu as Sagar. But they will be located in areas, markets and towns where the clientele may not want to pay Sagar prices. So, the average check will be between 25 per cent to 50 per cent lower than Sagar. Jairam says that the restaurants will still be profitable because the locations he has chosen are slightly more down-market and therefore low-rent.
Jairam is not the only one betting big on the emergence of the vegetarian diner. At the top end of the market, ITC is rolling out several pure vegetarian restaurants to be called Royal Vega. The first one will open in Madras at the new ITC hotel. And the chain will clone the concept at its other properties.
The Taj Group is less keen on the pure vegetarian concept but the success of many of its restaurants depends on its ability to cater to vegetarians. For instance, the menu at Wasabi by Morimoto draws its inspiration from the great Japanese chef's recipes. But around 50 per cent of the menu consists of vegetarian dishes that have nothing to do with Morimoto or his recipes. Instead, they have been invented in Bombay by the Taj’s Hemant Oberoi. Similarly, the Souk restaurant in Bombay aims to serve food of the Middle-East but makes its money by offering vegetarian options to Bombay’s Gujaratis. A second Souk does the same thing for Calcutta’s Marwaris.
In fact, the more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that one sure-fire route to success in the food business in India is to aim for the vegetarians. The most successful fast-food chains in India are those that cater to vegetarians by serving pizza. Even McDonald’s survives on the basis of vegetarian dishes invented for the Indian market because there is no call for Big Macs or Chicken McNuggets in this market. When McDonald’s first came to India, it put its faith in a mutton burger which it hoped would replicate the global success of the original beef hamburger. As it turned out, Indians had no interest in a goat burger. We were much happier with the channa tikki burger.
The next big wave in Indian fast food and quick service restaurants will be places like Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. The appeal of these brands will lie in the vegetarian nature of their offerings. Places that depend on non-vegetarian items may do okay but they will never match the penetration of chains that are essentially vegetarian.
Why are vegetarian restaurants going to be the growth area in the coming years? I can see three broad reasons. The first one is self-evident: A high proportion of Indians are vegetarians. Secondly, as the economy grows many vegetarians whose conservative parents rarely went to restaurants are now eating out more often. They want places that cater to their needs.
But there is also a third reason. In my view, most Hindus (and Hindus constitute the vast majority of restaurant goers in India) are non-vegetarian only up to a point. At some deep and primal level, even those Hindus who have been brought up as non-vegetarians are not entirely comfortable with the idea of eating animals. Let’s take some instances. Whenever I have told Hindu diners that a kakori kebab owes its tenderness to the kidney fat that is added to the mince, there has always been a slight revulsion in the responses that follow. I don’t think the fat is the problem – they would be fine if I said that the kebab was made from fat from the hind leg – but it is the kidney that causes the squeamishness. Similarly, whenever I have told people who are enjoying a plate of mixed charcuterie that along with the salami, speck and ham, there are also slices of tongue, the first reaction has been to steer clear of the tongue. This applies even to people who had previously enjoyed the tongue when they thought it was just another kind of ham or mortadella.
So it is with most kinds of offal. Even confirmed non-vegetarians will think twice about eating goat liver. Only in a few parts of India will they consume brain. The idea of a whole pigs head, complete with brawn, so trendy in England and America these days, is more likely to cause Indians to vomit than to be overcome by curiosity about its taste. Worse still is the reaction that follows the consumption of a misleadingly titled dish. In most parts of Europe, they eat a dark sausage that the English call black pudding (it is known by different names in other European countries). The sausage is slightly strong tasting but there is nothing particularly offensive about it. But the moment many Hindus discover that it gets its colour from the large quantities of animal blood used in its preparation, they start to feel sick. The same is true of sweetbreads, often used in stews in Europe. These are not especially nasty tasting but I don’t know of very many people who will order them when they realise that ‘sweetbread’ actually means the pancreas and other animal glands.
We think that these are normal responses. But in fact, non-vegetarians in other countries are quite happy to eat all of these things. Forget about the Chinese who love chewing on pig intestines and treat chicken feet as a delicacy or Koreans who buy caterpillar cocoons as a roadside snack in the way that we would buy samosas or kachoris. Even in the West, most non-vegetarians would display no squeamishness about eating the things that revolt so many Indian Hindus.
We may be put off by the idea of kidney fat but it has long been a vital ingredient in the Western bakery tradition. It is called suet and used along with butter to give a flakiness to pies and flans in Europe. (Why are French croissants and pies so much flakier than ours? Partly, it is about baking skill. But it is also about the European tendency to use lots of animal fat in the recipe.) When you tell Westerners that Indians turn pale at the thought of jelly being extracted from the hooves of dead animals, they look incredulous. And though no Westerner is shocked by this, Indians are always horrified to discover that most French cheeses are made by a process that involves the use of rennet, an enzyme extracted from the stomachs of dead cats.
What makes us so squeamish? I concede that it is partly a Hindu thing. But I suspect that it might be a phenomenon restricted to Indian Hindus. In Nepal, the world’s only fully Hindu country, they have no hesitation in consuming a papad that is made from goat’s blood. Nor are they horrified when the drains run red at the Pashupati Nath temple with the blood of animals slaughtered as ritual sacrifices.
So, I guess it’s just an Indian thing. Many, if not most, of us are vegetarians. And even those of us who do eat meat do not like to be reminded that it came from an animal which had a tongue, kidneys, a pancreas and other organs.
It is an insight that the restaurant industry is now coming to terms with. In the pursuit of vegetarianism and vegetarian guests lies the future. And great profit.
From HT Brunch, August 19
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