Ghaas-phoos. Surely you’re familiar with the term. It’s what India’s carnivores call that side of the menu that’s priced at a lower rate, and often treated as second-rate. Think ghastly gravies called pasanda or lajawaab; hara bhara kebabs, pasta minus the meat, and paneer. Always paneer. No one looking at it would believe India has a vast and wonderful repertoire of vegetarian food.
Meat eaters will probably choke on their disdain at India’s new green revolution. The country’s 20 to 30 per cent vegetarians are finally breaking the taboo of eating out. Of the rest, an increasing number is cutting back on meat for health reasons. And with allergies on the rise, many are switching to safer foods when eating out with the kids – they’re going veg.
"Menus are getting greener," says Varun Mohan, the chef at the vegetarian Royal Vega restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. "But the big change is that veg customers are demanding better food."
Art teacher and vegetarian caterer Urvi Sanghvi says she grew up watching people admitting to being vegetarian almost as an apology at restaurants. "Now we think it’s the restaurants who should be sorry about missing our business," she says.
You’ll see it clearly at top-end restaurants, where patrons are likely to be not just vegetarian but stricter (often richer) Jains. While chefs the world over balk at modifying their masterpieces, any foreign brand with eyes on India knows its Japanese or European menu must be 50 per cent veggie if they want to succeed.
No ghaas-phoos here. Cooks are developing menus sourced from the farm, not the freezer (sometimes a farm halfway across the world to justify a fine-dine price). Tony restaurants are ensuring that vessels, crockery, even entire kitchens are vegetarian-approved. And local-born foreign-trained vegetarian chefs are localising global gastronomic trends – minus the meat.
But beetroots don’t swim in the Atlantic like salmon. You can’t dry-cure cauliflower into Parma ham. Restaurants have a unique conundrum: How to make food luxurious, sophisticated and memorable when all your diner sees is subzi?
Here’s how they try...
Make subzi the star
Cauliflower flan at Le Cirque.
Vegetables were always part of the plan when New York restaurant Le Cirque set up at The Leela in Delhi in 2009. Their sandwich stuffed with cow stomach was a roaring success in America, but “we knew we needed vegetarian options here or there would be a problem,” says Le Cirque’s chef Matteo Boglione.
So they got to work, sourcing vegetables locally, partnering with Indian suppliers for creamy burrata cheese, and importing exotic greens such as white and green asparagus from Peru at Rs 2,000 a kilo. Dishes were developed especially for India – a cauliflower flan among several meatless mains.
Boglione prices his five-course vegetarian set meal at Rs 4,500 (non-vegetarians pay Rs 6,500, but for six courses) and here’s why. “Our lemons are flown in from America, we have yellow, green and black tomatoes, the Kashmiri morels at Rs 3,000 a kilo cost almost as much as Italian porcini at Rs 3,900, plus portions are larger,” says the chef.
Diners seem happy to pay. Le Cirque opened in Mumbai last year (with 16 vegetarian picks in a 35-item menu) and opens one in Bangalore this month.
Wasabi, the Taj’s Japanese restaurant in Delhi and Mumbai has similar solutions so vegetarian patrons are neither hungry nor disappointed. The set menus cost roughly the same: non-vegetarian, Rs 6,750; vegetarian Rs 6,500. You can eat yellowtail, cod and sea bass, or fresh rhubarb, soramame and edamame beans, which cost roughly as much to import.
Mimic the Maharaj
If a big-spending community considers non-vegetarian food contaminating, offering purity is only good business sense. In Mumbai, the Oberoi hotels have separate vegetarian menus (patrons need never see the items they’d never eat).
Sofitel’s Tuskers, Mumbai’s only five-star vegetarian restaurant, has its own kitchen, staff, utensils, even supply sources. Some regulars eat out nowhere else in the city. “People only return if they trust you as much as their cook back home,” says Tuskers’ chef Jankidas Vaishnav.
In India’s vegetarian capital, Ahmedabad, Mrudang Jambusaria knows a thing or two about trust. Jain families arrive in groups of 20 at his The Cooking Culture restaurants, and none eat meat, fish, eggs, seaweed, onion, garlic, potato, beetroot, cauliflower, mushrooms, roots, eggplant or yam. Some months, they’ll even abstain from leafy greens.
How then to secure their patronage? “We have a fully open kitchen where every member of the staff is visible, even the dishwashers,” he says. “Guests can tour the cooking area with the chef himself. It shows we have nothing to hide.”
Gujarat’s largest city probably has the most food-obsessed people in the country. They love going out to dinner – often in groups of 20, which include mummy, daddy, assorted uncles, kids, a family friend and octogenarian grandparents.
Their packed theplas can feed an entire tour bus on a 6-night-7day tour of Europe. They feast on mangoes (and pretty much nothing else) in summer. And in winter, they’ll get together to make undhiyu or have a ponkh picnic.
Anjali Jain, the former city editor of the website Burrp, recounts what happened when one street crossing there was fitted with CCTV cameras. “Phone calls to the local police station went up dramatically,” she says. “People kept calling the police to ask them to check their footage and find out if the local fafda shop was open.”
Much of the population will eat no onion garlic, potato, beetroot, cauliflower, root vegetables, eggplant, no yams and no greens, but it doesn’t stop them from living large. Vada paos can cost Rs 200, eggless cake shops are all over the place.
“Groups of 20 make a booking and will order their entire menu over the phone,” says Mrudang Jambusaria who runs The Cooking Culture restaurants. “it takes the hassle out of ordering for each person.”
Another way to avoid hassle? Fake names when making reservations. Don’t be surprised if there’s a waitlist at a popular restaurant and half the people on it are called Dineshbhai. “People often supply common names,” Jain says. “So in case the real Dineshbhai disappears they can take his place.”
If you’re planning to visit, make a pit stop at IM Panipuriwala, where the proprietor Vishnubhai serves seemingly hundreds of sandwich combinations. Cheese, biscuits, noodles, bhel, chocolate, dry-fruit, coconut and pasta.
It call fits between two slices of bread. By December, he’ll also create something that will make any big-eating Gujju family (and their whole neighbourhood) happy: a 100 flavour sandwich that will serve 100 people. The cost: Rs 9,000.
At Royal Vega, at Chennai’s ITC Grand Chola, the food is inspired by kings but is neither meaty nor rich. A good part of the menu is seasonal (they’ll only serve cauliflower in winter), changes every two months and respects ayurvedic principles (it’s all pH-balanced). Chef Varun Mohan says this makes his staff work harder than Peshawri, the ITC’s iconic restaurant serving fleshy North-West Frontier food.
Royal Vega’s Roti Angaar Kadi, for instance, is made by pinching each roti 101 times before cooking to create the chain link pattern that gives it its name. Staff takes turns to make it every day, and each vegetable has its own recipe. It might explain why dinner here can cost Rs 3,000 per person.
Or why at Rs 725, Tuskers’ Sankre Ke Kofte is their costliest and also bestselling dish. Vaishnav’s recipe for the Rajasthani wild beans comes from his mother and takes two days – three hours to clean, six to soak, then a few more to boil, strain and decant before cooking starts. “You can’t make this on a whim,” he says.
Play with your food
“When so much food is off limits to a vegetarian, chefs can’t help but get creative,” says Sujit Mehta who runs Ahmedabad’s swanky 650 -The Global Kitchen. This means dressing up the few ingredients they can use. Croquettes come in shot glasses and a single wonton is served opened up like a flower as an individual portion.
Taking dressing up to haute levels is Mumbai’s six-month-old SpiceKlub. It serves molecular-inspired Indian cuisine without the meat – deconstructed vada pao (buns, liquefied vada, boondi, edible packets of masala on a platter), coriander foams, and kulfi chips frozen with liquid nitrogen.
This is where the waiters bridge the gap between familiar and unfamiliar. They’re as unpretentious as the cuisine is avant-garde. They’ll guide you through the ordering, tell you how to eat it and check back after the first few morsels with, “Mazaa aa raha hai na?”
Bubbling kulfi at SpiceKlub.
Low prices (dishes are between Rs 200 and Rs 400) encourage diners to try everything they fancy. No wonder it’s been packed since it opened, with a waiting time of as much as an hour even on weekdays.
Focus on flavour
Getting a table at Burma Burma in the weeks leading up to Diwali was just as hard. It’s probably because the tiny Mumbai restaurant serving a tinier menu of Burmese vegetarian dishes is the only one of its kind in India.
Owner Ankit Gupta, whose Indian mother spent 25 years in the eastern nation, grew up eating Burmese food and felt Indians were ready for its familiar-yet-exotic taste. “But Indians won’t like the non-vegetarian food, there’s too much fish sauce and shrimp powder,” Gupta explains. Instead there are flavourful soups with tiny samosas dunked in, a tart tea-leaf salad with imported leaves, stuffed steam buns and, of course, khowsuey. “A few dishes contain mushroom and browned onion, ingredients that coat your mouth and mimic the lingering taste of chicken. So even non-vegetarians don’t miss meat.”
By his own admission, Mrudang Jambusaria’s new venture is “ahead of its time for Ahmedabad” and possibly India. The Cooking Culture Classe offers 15- and 21-course dinners. In a country of big sharing portions, this calls for prior warning.
A salad and an Oriental entree at the The Cooking Culture Classe
"Your stomach can hold only 350 to 400 grams at a time, so we inform people the meal will take long – even three-and-a-half hours for 21 courses." All vegetarian, of course, from South Indian Gazpacho (a cold rasam) to gnocchi. People love the idea. "Last month we sold 75 of the 21-course meals," Jambusaria says proudly.
Let them choose
Variety is the name of the game for Narendra Somani, who owns The Grand Bhagwati, India’s largest chain of vegetarian luxury hotels in Gujarat. His restaurants offer vegetarian versions of several cuisines so travellers feel at home: Parsi-style paneer patra, Persian cheese kebabs, Lebanese paneer shawarmas, Israeli mezze and Mandarin singadas.
“For a lot of people, luxury is the ability to choose,” Somani explains. “We give them more to choose from, without the worry that it may be something they cannot eat.”
You don’t have to cross national borders for choice. India has enough vegetarian dishes that remain unknown outside their community. Drumstick leaves, purple yam, and stinging nettle are as exotic to most Indian diners as New Zealand lamb or Chilean sea bass and can be as hard to procure.
The menu at Masala Art at Delhi’s Taj finds a way to turn the unusual into the extravagant: kebabs made from lotus stem, water chestnut and whole milk fudge. Royal Vega works with millet and banana flowers. They source from far and wide too: potatoes from Talegaon, black pepper from Kerala, hing from Afghanistan, yellow turmeric from Guntur.
Give it time
“Things are changing,” observes Ankit Gupta of Burma Burma. “If you saw someone with six-pack abs one generation ago you’d wonder ‘What are those things coming out of his stomach?’ Today everyone’s more health conscious.”
Jambusaria believes that vegetarian food should be made more expensive today, securing its status in a country where meat consumption is rising. "A veg restaurant is not cheap," he says. "Chicken costs Rs 130 a kilo but good paneer is Rs 240 here. People are realising that."
Know when to stop
Even five-star hotels sometimes need to curb their enthusiasm. Tuskers has to stop making an aloe vera subzi as people weren’t ready for it yet. Burma Burma’s menu is also predominantly vegan but Gupta keeps mum about it: “India is still where indulgent food sells but healthy fare doesn’t”.
Sujit Mehta knows that his molecular experiments with sodium alginate to create savoury yolks will work, but no hearty Gujarati will want an insubstantial flavoured foam. “They’ll ask ‘Ama su karvanu?’” he says, his tone indicating diners actually mean, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
From the author's diary...
* Kashmiri morels taste better than chicken. I will happily give up chicken for the rest of my life for them.
* Hipster types who brag about tasting deer, octopus, grasshoppers and snails on trips abroad probably haven’t tried drumstick leaves, banana flowers, millet rotis and stinging nettle in India.
* I hate aubergine. But I like baingan. And I love vaangi.
* Amdavadis have the biggest appetites in India, and judging from Kunal Kavi, my informal guide to the city, they also have the biggest hearts. My sincerest thanks, good sir!
* There is such a thing as Jain Chicken. It contains no onion and no garlic, but it does contain chicken – great for errant Jains who don’t want tell-tale breath when they return home from dinner.
* When chefs say “every cuisine in the world tastes as good as vegetarian” they mean Mediterranean, Mexican and some Asian. Not South America, East Europe, Central Asia and North Africa. Or Bohri, Goan Christian or Naga cuisine.
* Pasta with paneer tastes like death.
* You can do vegetarian food well and non-vegetarian food badly. A good meal is a good meal, regardless of its contents.
* But at least six dishes I sampled could have done with a bit of pork. Ah, well…
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From HT Brunch, November 9
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