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Indian and Western vegetarians look for entirely different things in meals

Indian and Western vegetarians look for entirely different things in meals. Can we still take a leaf out of their books, wonders Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Feb 13, 2016 21:25 IST
Allain Passard,L'Arpege,Michelin
At L’Arpège, chef Alain Passard (above) serves vegetarian meals, in which farm produce is the star. (Photo: Getty images)(AFP)

Allain Passard is one of the world’s greatest chefs. His Paris restaurant, L’Arpège, has held three Michelin stars for ages. Some years ago, Passard announced that he was removing meat from the menu of L’Arpège. There would be a little fish but the menu would be based on vegetables.

Passard’s approach to vegetables is slightly different from yours or mine. So his signature dish was a tomato. But it wasn’t the sort of tomato dish that we Indians would recognise. It was a tomato stuffed with 12 different flavourings: citrus zest, spices, herbs, etc. He served it as a dessert with wildflower ice-cream.

Around five years ago, the owners of Château Margaux, the great French First Growth red wine, decided that they wanted to host grand dinners in three Indian cities: Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. Château Lafite Rothschild, another great Bordeaux First Growth had China all taped up and the Margaux guys thought that the Indian market for fine wine would explode. (It still might if you take the Chinese approach and shoot all the bureaucrats who impose absurd regulations and restrictions on the import and sale of wine.)

Somebody must have told them that the vast majority of India’s billionaires (and many of our millionaires) were vegetarians. So they hit upon the idea of an all-vegetarian menu for their dinners. And naturally, being Château Margaux, they had to fly in a chef of suitable eminence. And that was Alain Passard.

I always regard Passard’s experiences in India as the perfect example of the collision between Western vegetable-cooking and Indian vegetarianism.

Passard started his journey in Bangalore where he cooked the first dinner at The Leela. Many of the plates came back to the kitchen with the food uneaten. The hotel wondered why people had not liked the food. Passard, as befits one of the world’s greatest chefs, did not consider this possibility. The problem, he decided, was that the portions were too large.

In Bombay, he reduced the portion size. But though some guests complained that they were still hungry, the food did not receive a great response. The problem, one of Passard’s associates suggested, was that the Taj, where the meal was served, used crap vegetables so Passard could not get the flavours he wanted.

By the time the Delhi dinner (which I attended) was organised, some of the problems had been sorted out. The Delhi Taj imported vegetables that came close to Passard’s standards and the great man seemed content.

But there was still a problem. The food left the guests hungry and unimpressed.

Passard’s dishes were like nothing Indian vegetarians were used to. We began with a plate of mixed vegetables in a honey-citrus sauce, and were then served two tomatoes on a blackberry compote. Next came a roasted, charred onion with hibiscus. The main course was knob celery, a popular winter vegetable in France, cooked to look like a risotto. The dessert was a bitter avocado and chocolate soufflé.

By the end, everyone was raving about the wine and struggling to be nice about the food.

There was, I thought, a fundamental problem. When the French eat vegetarian food, they usually do so out of choice. They have been brought up on meat, beef, goose-fat, blood sausage, duck liver and God alone knows what else. So a vegetarian meal marks a change for them.

They look for simple dishes that unlock the flavour of vegetables and are much lighter than the food they normally eat. They will only allow spicing as long as it does not obscure the flavour of the vegetables.

In contrast, most Indian vegetarians were brought up as vegetarians. The vast majority do not eat meat for religious reasons. Even those who have now disregarded the religious injunctions of their youth were so conditioned to think of meat as a dirty taste and smell that they still can’t enjoy meat fully. Take my own example. I was brought up as a non-vegetarian but there is enough of the Gujarati in me to ensure that I will find it difficult to eat smelly fish or offal.

So Indian vegetarians and Western vegetarians start out from two very different places. And we look for entirely different things. Gujarati food is not very heavily spiced and focuses on texture much more than other Indian cuisines. But even Gujarati cuisine does not always allow the flavour of the original vegetable to come through. In other regional cuisines, it is the spices that are given more importance than the actual ingredients – do you really care what kind of peas go into your mattar-paneer?

Spice is nice: Indian vegetarian food is not very focused on ingredients. Do you care what kind of peas go into your mattar-paneer?

In France, this approach is heresy. Passard told me that he values young peas more than caviar. This is a view echoed by many Western chefs. They simply cannot understand that the interplay of spices is the point of Indian cuisine. Passard complained about our spices. “Why can’t you just sprinkle a little at the end?” he asked me. To which, of course, there is no answer; either you get it or you don’t.

Of late, the craze for fine vegetable cooking has spread to America. At Grace in Chicago, there are only two menus on offer: non-veg and veg. The vegetarian is excellent (Grace does have three stars) but I can’t see many Indians regarding it as worth the price. José Andrés, one of the world’s top chefs, has opened a new restaurant in Washington where you can order a bowl of bulgur, top it with raw or cooked vegetables and add tomato or bean sauce or yogurt and then garnish it with avocado or poached egg. I can’t see many Indians lining up to eat that, either.

At Grace in Chicago, dishes like banana cashew (above) and chocolate matcha (below) form the vegetarian menu.

An article in the October issue of US Vogue talked about the American craze for vegetables and as I read it, my heart sank with every para. The writer raved about a yellow bean stew with a poached egg and drizzled olive oil. She praised a chef who served a fava bean mayonnaise made “entirely of dinosaurish outer fava bean husks and the even less usable internal fava bean skins, containing no actual fava bean.”

Needless to say, few Indians will “salivate animally envisioning a mound of steaming, brown and buttered broccoli romanesco,” as she did.

Chocolate matcha at Grace in Chicago.

And here’s the other thing. Because these chefs are not actually vegetarian, they use ingredients that Indian vegetarians will not eat. One chef serves his vegetables with a side dish of “a whole black cod head, pressed flat and roasted under a box.” Another chef (the great Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park) serves a “whisper-light alabaster celery root braised with truffle” which sounds great till you realise that he has cooked it inside a pig’s bladder.

At Eleven Madison Park (above) a vegetable dish may be cooked inside a pig’s bladder (Photo by Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images) (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

None of this is to run down chefs like Passard and Humm who are legends, but only to explain why their approach to vegetarianism and vegetables is so different from ours.

They regard vegetables as curiosities, to be elevated into glorious main courses by the chef’s culinary genius. We regard vegetables as our staples, elevated by years of a great culinary tradition. Indians may try Alain Passard’s charred, roasted onion but 99 per cent of us (100 per cent, even) would prefer to have that same onion thinly sliced, dunked in a besan batter and deep fried into crisp kanda bhajia.

But we can still learn from the Western chefs.

Because we depend so much on spices, we care too little about the origins of our ingredients. And there is merit to the claim that we overspice so heavily that the original flavour of the ingredients is often destroyed.

On the other hand, there are few things as depressing as “healthy, vegetarian, organic food” in the West, unless of course, it is made by a great chef. Most Indians, when they travel abroad, will avoid the so-called “all-vegetarian” restaurants. They will order the vegetarian options at Chinese places, they will eat pasta and pizza and they will go to Middle Eastern restaurants. Nobody in his right mind will go to an “organic and healthy” place to eat nut cutlets and other disgusting Western vegetarian dishes.

Back in the Seventies, when I was a schoolboy, my mother, who is a studio potter, would take me to the headquarters of the British Craft Potters Association on Marshal Street in London. Next to the Potters Association was a large branch of a “healthy vegetarian” chain called Cranks. And often, because there were relatively few restaurants on the street, we would end up eating there.

The food was beyond revolting. And it helped me understand why British people could not see the point of vegetarianism.

Well, I went back to Marshal Street the other day. Cranks is gone. In its place is a Masala Zone. I found myself a table and ordered a bhelpuri. And as the sev crackled in my mouth, I felt like shouting out to the many Brits who were passing by on Marshal Street: “This is real vegetarian food, you fools. Not your stupid nut cutlets.”

From HT Brunch, February 14, 2016

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First Published: Feb 13, 2016 21:22 IST