Traditionally, vegetarians haven’t made for exciting dining companions for us happy carnivores. You’re at an Indian restaurant, about to dig into your juicy, slow-cooked seekh kebabs, when the boring paneer pasandas and navratan kormas roll on to your companion’s plate.
Matters are slightly better in a Thai or Chinese restaurant, with a variety of stir-fried veggies, and rice and noodle dishes on the menu. But it is about as bad as it can get in a Japanese restaurant. While you go the whole hog —salmon, tuna, beef (if it moves, it’s food)—it’s a rather sorry sight to watch the vegetarian next to you bite into cucumber and carrot maki rolls.
Let’s face it, things from the soil can never exactly become epicurean delights. Right? Not quite. Today, with diehard non-vegetarians waking up to cholesterol and coronaries, vegetarians are having their chlorophyll-healthy day in the sun.
Mesculine Asparagus Panchino Salad with Ricotta Cheese at Prato (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Four Seasons in Mumbai, which opened its doors to the city’s gourmands in May, did its research well. They found that to keep customers happy, they couldn’t just be cooking meat. Friends of Giancarlo Francesco, the hotel’s Italian executive chef in India, had warned him before he moved here. As the wizened chef says today, “You can make as many vegetarian dishes as possible and it’ll never be enough.”
Though the cuisines available at Four Seasons may not traditionally lend themselves to experiments with leaves, shoots and roots, the menus at all their restaurants, including the Italian, Chinese and Japanese, offer almost as many vegetarian options as non-vegetarian. The chefs here wield their magic knives to whip up innovative vegetarian dishes using exotic as well as common vegetables and giving them a gourmet twist.
The veg sushi options no longer begin with cucumber and end with asparagus. Take your pick from the chef’s special sushis—hummus, baba ghanoush, mango, okra, tomato and avocado maki roll, and the delicious tomato sushi topped with yazu pepper puree. The Italian menu at Prato has equally exciting options.
“Till a few years ago, vegetarian dishes were merely for the person considered less of a gastronome,” says Magandeep Singh, sommelier and host of Around The World In 85 Plates, a food show on NDTV Good Times. The self-confessed carnivore now makes sure he gets at least a few vegetarian dishes on his table every time he eats out. “Restaurants serving international cuisine are getting more creative with their vegetarian cooking. Even about three years ago, all you got was boiled vegetables tossed in sauce,” he says.
Vegetable sushis at San Qi, Four Seasons (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Before Wasabi by Morimoto opened at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel in May, one of the most important briefs that its chefs had was to come up with more for vegetarians. “Earlier, we didn’t give as much importance to the vegetarian part of the menu,” executive chef Amit Chowdhury admits. The challenge was to create vegetarian dishes without “bastardizing” the cuisine or tweaking it to suit the Indian palate.
Wasabi not only imports the seafood and meat, but flies down the veggies too—Japanese celery, scallions, lemon, radish, cabbage, tapioca and different types of mushrooms, such as shitake, and enoki. Vegetables such as broccoli, avocado, asparagus, white asparagus, olive, salad greens and zucchini, which are normally imported by most top restaurants in the country, are also being grown in India these days. Chowdhury says it’s not just Indians who are looking for more greens on their tables. Fiona Caulfield, freelance travel writer with Conde Nast magazine, challenged the chefs at Wasabi to come up with a vegetarian spread, and was amazed at the variety they offered her.
In India, turning vegetarian-friendly also makes sound business sense. There are the so-called “pure vegetarians” for whom it is a matter of religion—Jains, Gujaratis and Marwaris in most cities make up the majority of a restaurant’s clientele. Then there are Hindus who abstain from meat on certain days—Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays being most common. Restaurant owners say there’s a dip in the sale of meat and seafood on these days.
Pan Fried Noodles with Asparagus, Broccoli, Water Chestnuts and Shitake Mushrooms at India Jones, Trident (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Samir Chabbria, business head of Tetsuma, a south Mumbai Japanese eatery, realized he was losing out because his menu had few vegetarian options. “Gujaratis and Marwaris are traditionally big spenders and their population is so high in south Mumbai that if you can’t cater to them, your restaurant is bound to suffer,” he says. From a 90:10 ratio of non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes on the menu when it started about two years ago, Tetsuma’s revised bill of fare, available from August, will have more than almost 40% dishes that are vegetarian. Tetsuma now works with what Chabbria calls the “replica system”. If there’s a non-vegetarian dish you want without the meat, then it’s on the menu.
Non-vegetarians can no longer lay sole claim on carpaccio—thin slices of raw beef served with dressing and seasoning. Indigo in Mumbai serves a pickled root vegetable carpaccio, while Wasabi and Celini, Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, offer the vegetable carpaccio.
At Shangri-La, New Delhi, too, there’s a diverse platter for vegetarians. “We remove non-vegetarian ingredients and replace them with vegetarian alternatives, but retain the authentic flavours,” says Vivek Bhatt, executive sous chef. Mako Ravindran, chef and manager of the Japanese restaurant Harima in Bangalore, believes that being vegetarian is no reason to miss out on a great Japanese meal. A meat lover himself, he confesses that the vegetables, weeds and tofu have blended so well with the cuisine that he likes to dig into the tofu-based dishes himself.
Documentary film-maker and foodie Fahad Samar says he had been a non-vegetarian for most of his life, till he discovered recently that he was missing out on the subtle flavours of vegetarian cooking. His introduction to the Italian rustica cuisine—simple, home-style cooking with fresh vegetables—changed his preferences and he now has at least one vegetarian meal every day. When he accompanies his “hard core non-vegetarian” friends to their favourite restaurants in Mumbai (Indigo, Olive and Wasabi), at least half the order is vegetarian.
Creating innovative vegetarian dishes is a challenge for most chefs. Joy Bhattacharya, executive chef, Trident, Mumbai, calls it craftsmanship. “Unlike meat that has its own distinct flavour, vegetables taste neutral. To create different flavours with the same vegetables is quite a challenge,” he says.
Sliced in: Vegetable Carpaccio at Wasabi by Morimoto, New Delhi (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Chefs at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, use seasonal vegetables and add nuts to create variety. The vegetarian dim sums at their popular Chinese eatery, China House, are a much sought-after staple. At Celini, their Italian restaurant, the home-made, whole-wheat pasta made without egg, and with vegetables, is also popular, especially among the health conscious.
Farzana Contractor, editor of the food and lifestyle magazine Upper Crust, says, “Like any good Muslim, I was brought up on meat.” Her vegetables used to be part of the meat recipes. “But now, it’s mostly salads and greens for me. It feels healthy and ethical,” she adds.
After sampling all the new leafy, exotic, hybrid fare out there, being healthy doesn’t seem that daunting, even for the seasoned meat-eater. And having a vegetarian companion for dinner seems exciting enough. So here’s a toast to eggplant soup, Japanese style.
Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this story.