When Monkey Bar, the country’s coolest gastropub, launched in Bangalore’s Indiranagar in April, regular patrons of the older edition on Wood Street were rather taken aback. From a menu that unabashedly made love to its meats, including lamb heart, brains and chicken liver, beef and pork, executive chef and partner Manu Chandra had pared down the non-vegetarian content in the newest avatar to just over half. Alongside the Crab Rangoon and Tempura Calamari, a number of the dishes especially crafted for the new outlet were vegetarian: Chilli Cheese And Sour Cream Pierogi, Mushroom Pan Rolls, a Tofu Burger, even a wok-tossed Japanese eggplant and paneer (cottage cheese) take on the MoBar bork, which uses double-cooked pork belly.
“At Indiranagar, we have about a 55/45 division between non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes,” says Chandra. “The Wood Street outlet, which opened in 2012, was our first foray into the gastropub zone, we were still setting the template. The general feedback was that there weren’t enough vegetarian options on the menu. So we corrected it along the way, and launched the Indiranagar pub with a more balanced menu.”
In the upscale dining space in India, where vegetarians have long complained of a paucity of exciting choices, the “balance” is a significant new phenomenon. It is inspired as much by the wealthy vegan/vegetarian as the conscious consumer, and driven by the canny businessman as much as the intrepid chef. The shift is a sign, perhaps, of a maturing market, where meats and, to a lesser extent, fish are no longer the only indulgences or dishes with which to impress a dining partner. The upshot of it all may well be a more diverse food landscape, with farmers encouraged to experiment with their produce, restaurateurs emboldened to test their own culinary skills and diners tempted to step outside their comfort zones.
That the veg edge is no passing fad—or even just the mainstay of the ever-popular Sukh Sagars and Rajdhanis—is borne out by the dining segment where it all began. At a time when top-end restaurants still considered Norwegian salmon the ultimate luxury product, quick-service restaurants (QSR) were the first to tap into the vegetarian market. From the all-veg Pizza Huts, which have been around since the 1990s, to the no-meat McDonald’s which set up shop near the Golden Temple in Amritsar earlier this month, fast- food chains are happy to feed the Indian idea of kosher. Further up the food chain, casual- dining restaurants such as Johnny Rockets have been quick to pick up the idea, minus the QSR accompaniments of fat and salt and fillers.
“When I took up the franchise (of the American chain) in India, there was one vegetarian item on the menu, a soy patty burger,” says Bakshish Dean, who quit the Park Hotels group as director, food production, four years ago and is now CEO, Johnny Rockets India. “For eight months, we conducted food trials and now we have a 50/50 division between the veg and non-veg dishes. Besides the mushroom patty, the mixed-veg patty and the potato patty, we recently came up with a 100g paneer patty with Creole spices and a panko crust. Our international team, which was here recently, had never seen such a vegetarian variety. Now we are in talks to take some of our creations abroad, particularly to the Middle-Eastern market.”
If you’re thinking, erm, paneer patty, really? you wouldn’t be the only one. As with Chandra’s creations for Monkey Bar, veg dishes in a restaurant can often seem to be essentially non-vegetarian dishes recast with a vegetarian-friendly protein. It is something of an Indian speciality, a tribute to the famed spirit of jugaad, of making do and thereby going where no chef has gone before—including vegetarianizing cuisines that, say, unlike Italian, thrive on meat and fish.
“Five years ago, I thought it would be just wrong to do a vegetarian pad Thai,” says Mitesh Rangras, partner at SID Hospitality, Mumbai, owner of pan-Asian restaurant Lemon Grass and Japanese restaurant Aoi, and the brain behind the all-vegetarian menu at Asian Street Kitchen (ASK). “Then we met a master chef from Thailand, who told us that though vegetarian food was unheard of in their country, the sheer number of Indian tourists was forcing them to adapt their dishes to Indian dietary preferences.”
With this reality check, Rangras set about creating a vegetarian base for the classic Thai soup, the tom yum. “We thought a mushroom stock would come closest to the meaty base of the traditional soup. But it was too mushroomy—and a lot of vegetarians don’t even like mushrooms. Then we went back to the basics of the French cooking we’d learnt in catering school and made a vegetable broth, reduced it and added it to the mushroom stock. Besides the tom yum, it is also the basis of the Vietnamese pho served at Asian Street Kitchen,” says Rangras.
Incidentally, the ASK, which opened in March at Girgaum Chowpatty on a stretch known for its “pure-veg” eateries, claims to be the first restaurant in Mumbai to serve vegetarian versions of Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes like nasi goreng, ramen and pho, all heavily characterized by egg, seafood and meat in their originals.
The newest triumph of the veg wedge of the food pie is Burma Burma, a well-received 12-table restaurant in south Mumbai. “The Burmese usually cook their raw meats in broth, something I knew Indians would not take to. Similarly, the mohinga, which could be called their national dish, is topped with a sprinkling of shrimp powder, which I was sure Indians wouldn’t like,” restaurant owner Ankit Gupta explains his rationale to go veg.
“But at the end of the day, it was a business decision. We are in south Mumbai, which has a huge community of Jains, Marwaris and Gujaratis, who enjoy eating out. Even if some of their younger members go to non-vegetarian restaurants, their parents wouldn’t accompany them. Plus, some of the Marwaris and Gujaratis actually lived in Burma in the middle part of the last century. I wanted them to come here and relive their youth but there’s no way they’d come here if we served meat,” adds Gupta, whose mother spent the first 25 years of her life in what is now Myanmar.
But of course, both Rangras and Gupta operate out of Mumbai, that bastion of the well-off and well-travelled vegetarian. Long before eating out became liberalized urban India’s favourite mode of socializing, their parents were serving the best of stir-fried babycorn and mushroom au gratin at their lavish weddings and private parties. Now, as they demand variety and quality within their inherited food traditions, they are joined by the vegetarians by choice, guided by health or environmental or other concerns, and well able to afford their proclivities. And they can be anywhere.
Or so hopes Yauatcha, the London, UK, based dim-sum house with branches in New Delhi and Bangalore, besides Mumbai, which recently introduced a 50% vegetarian menu across cities and the option of transforming a decent number of these dim-sum, salad, stir-fry, rice and noodle dishes into no-onion, no-garlic options. “Though we really don’t have that many Jain customers, we think of this as a value-added service,” says Yauatcha Bangalore manager Joydeep Das.
While vegetarians will definitely be relieved by the new trends, innovative chefs are as thrilled by the veg-friendly non-vegetarian, who loves a jimikand (yam) purée when it accompanies the roasted salmon, or opts for a Malabar spinach stuffing in the gyoza over the regular ground pork. Alert maître d’s notice regular clients opting for a vegetarian starter, followed by a non-vegetarian main course—or the other way around: a change from a few years ago, when a meal out inevitably meant a meat and fish feast. Pushing that trend is the rediscovery both of desi fruits and veggies such as drumsticks, amaranth, jackfruits, colocasia roots, plantains and lotus stems, and the local availability of new “imports”, such as baby pumpkin, kale, Swiss chard and the like.
In a country where meat or fish is one of several equal constituents of a lunch or dinner, and frequently shared at a restaurant table—unlike, say, the staple meat-and-two-veg meal of the UK—vegetables are finally creeping up from the sidelines to the centre stage. And there’s not a single piece of fake meat in sight.
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Five must-try meat-free dishes
u Parmigiana de Melanzane, tomato-aubergine-Parmesan reimagined at Ottimo, ITC Gardenia, Bangalore
u Watermelon Soup with Black Salt and Feta, at Caramelle, Kolkata
u Wild Greens Lasagne, featuring ‘bathua’ and ‘cholai’, at Olive Beach, Mumbai and Bangalore
u Ohn Thamin, rice cooked in coconut milk, flavoured with shallots and raisins, at Burma Burma, Mumbai
u Pak Boong Fai Dang, stir-fried morning glory with chilli and garlic, at O:h Cha, Mumbai