“I love avocados. Aren’t those things amazing?” asks actor Ayesha Takia. We are at the soon-to-launch Café Basilico in Pali Hill, Bandra. Takia and her husband Farhan Azmi (whose hospitality company runs Café Basilico) are in the middle of décor and menu checks at the space, which will open its doors in the second week of March.
As this old favourite returns to the neighbourhood after little less than a year, it will don a new identity and introduce a greener menu. “Along with our regular offerings, we plan to launch a vegan and an organic menu,” informs Azmi.
Takia, who has been following a vegan lifestyle for the past six years, promises “fun vegan dishes” like black bean burgers, tofu in peanut sauce and barbecued tofu. “There’ll be lots of vegan desserts, coffee, tea… you name it,” adds Azmi. Fresh, organic and seasonal vegetables will be sourced from his farm in Bhiwandi and the restaurant will sport a 53x12 ft ‘bio wall’, where tomatoes, chillis and lemons will be grown.
A stone’s throw away from Café Basilico is Ray’s Pizzeria, which offers rustic vegan pizzas topped with fresh spinach, artichokes and grilled eggplants, but without cheese. At Le Pain Quotidien, its vegan breakfast called the botanist (which includes home-made carrot muffin, quinoa-kale scramble, eggplant caviar, red bean hummus and granola parfait with chia seeds) is one of the fastest-selling items on the menu. And at The Pantry in Colaba, vegans can choose from beetroot cake (served with beetroot reduction and candied beetroot), tofu scramble and salted caramel chocolate shake made with almond milk, among other dishes.
Gone are the days when vegans in the city had to be content with boiled vegetables or a bowl of salad while eating out. Taking a cue from international trends, restaurants are working harder to provide innovative, creative and most importantly, tasty meals to vegans. “These dishes have become so popular that we have started pushing them in our daily specials, especially almond milk,” says Sumit Gambhir, co-owner, The Pantry.
What do vegans eat?
A community driven by love for animals, veganism is “…a philosophy and a way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose …” This pledge was defined by The Vegan Society, formed in 1944 in the UK. In short, they stay away from all kinds of meat, dairy products (includes milk, curd, cheese, butter), leather, honey, silk and pearls.
“People ask me ‘Oh my god, you can order vegan food?’ as if I’m eating something drastically weird. The point is that we don’t realise how many options are available,” says 25-year-old copywriter Shasvathi Siva. It is true. Almost all of Indian vegetarian food can be made vegan by avoiding milk and milk-based products.
Earlier, veganism was often confused as an alternative to vegetarianism, but today there is a lot of awareness, not just among the diners but also the restaurant community, at large. “Even five years ago, when I asked for vegan options at a restaurant, I would get confused stares. But now that’s not the case. People are more aware,” remarks Takia, who, along with her mother and sister, loves to come up with dairy-free alternatives and makes cashew cheese at home.
Similarly, when Marissa Bronfman decided to turn vegan, her mother and sister joined in too. When she moved to Mumbai from Toronto, she started sharing photos of her healthy meals on Instagram. “I was amazed at the response. I realised that there was a small but growing bunch of people who really wanted to be healthier,” she says. Thus began Bowl Bar, a vegan delivery service where she sells colourful bowls of chia seed pudding and nut mylks (non-dairy versions of milk) via delivery app Scootsy. Bronfman is also working on launching an all-vegan café in the city by the end of the year.
Samir Pasad, who runs Vegan Bites, a Lower Parel-based delivery service, is also looking to launch an all-day vegan café and a vegan fine dining space by the end of this year. “I have been vegan for the last 19 years. Our main aim has been to give Mumbai healthier and cruelty-free options in the food space,” he says.
Is it healthy?
For 33-year-old Rashi Paliwal of Café Fuchsia, a vegan food pop-up, health was an important consideration when she decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle: “I was diagnosed with prediabetes. My doctor wanted to put me on to medicines. I went vegan, gave up cheese and egg and now I’ve lost enough weight to lead a healthy life.” Seven years since then, Paliwal hosts regular pop-ups that feature dishes like vegan chicken (made with soy), pumpkin paprika mash and chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.
By cutting out dairy and meat, one does ensure that fewer calories are being consumed. But is it a balanced diet? “Vegan diet tends to be high in oils and fat. It lacks nutrients, especially micronutrients like B12. Vegans need to get their multivitamins in the form of supplements and for proteins they can rely on soy and pulses,” says nutritionist Prachi Sanghvi, co-founder of the nutrition app MyDIETist.
Though she has a growing list of vegan clientele, Sanghvi offers a word of caution: “If you are vegan, that doesn’t necessarily imply that you are on a healthy diet. There is no scientific or healthy reason to completely avoid animal-based food products,” she says.
Thirty-one-year-old Rithika Ramesh turned vegan seven years ago after attending a workshop. “During the course of this day-long workshop, I learnt about how cows were being mistreated and had to be kept pregnant all their lives by injecting them with hormones, just to get milk. That’s when I changed my lifestyle overnight,” says Ramesh. She also runs The Green Stove, a vegan bakery that specialises in cakes, cupcakes cookies.
Disclaimer: no animals were Harmed
Similarly for Siva, an animal lover, veganism seemed like a natural choice. In fact, when she decided to get married last year, Siva and her family went to great lengths to organise a vegan wedding. Imagine a Tamil Brahmin celebration without those Kanjivaram silk sarees, honey and ghee for the rituals and filter coffee. “We know south Indians can’t do without their curd rice and coffee, so there were dairy-free alternatives. And we’d ordered yummy vegan ice cream all the way from Delhi,” says Siva, who wore a faux silk saree for her wedding.
Internationally, celebrities like Natalie Portman, Alicia Silverstone (who wrote a vegan cookbook called The Kind Diet) and Ellen DeGeneres advocate veganism. It is still a niche community in the city. While the celebrity craze adds to the hype, it also takes the focus away from the cause. “There are many people who turn vegan to stay healthy, for instance a lot of people from an older generation have tried to reverse diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. But for me, it is all about the cruelty against animals,” explains Ramesh.
The Vegan Bombay Facebook group has about 1,400 active members. “We have regular events like potlucks, meet-ups, film screenings, cooking classes and seminars,” says Pasad.
Popular food trends such as natural yeast (also known as nooch), a raw diet, root-to-stem dining and zoodles (vegetable spirals — zucchini, asparagus, beet, sweet potato diet) are yet to become mainstream. And, we are yet to move beyond D-I-Y options when it comes to plant-based milk. “But there is a lot of interest in this trend,” asserts Takia. “Every time a customer walks into any of our restaurants and asks for vegan options, I get excited.”