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Who says vegetarian food can’t be sumptuous?

Vegetarian concepts are gathering steam — from restaurants in five-star hotels, casual-dining eateries to cookbooks and home kitchens

Delhi too, like Mumbai, has seen an increase in the number of restaurants serving pure vegetarian food. Delhi too, like Mumbai, has seen an increase in the number of restaurants serving pure vegetarian food.

Earlier this year, there was a strong rumour that chef Joël Robuchon, who has been awarded with the highest number of Michelin stars —  28 to be precise —  is headed to Mumbai. With an unlikely location that he found in Mumbai’s Dadar, Robuchon is looking to set up his signature French fine dining restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at Kohinoor Square Tower. However, what surprised culinary experts was his confession: it was vegetarian cooking that got him interested in the city.

While waves of various kinds have been sweeping the nation’s consciousness to much uproar, India’s restaurants have another movement taking root in their kitchens and dining areas, one rather close to our new PM’s heart.

Though the country has always been a largely vegetarian nation, eating out options — especially for those who prefer their greens —  used to be fairly limited. However, restaurant owners are taking steps to mend this. For instance, Colaba’s latest entrant Burma Burma is a pure vegetarian restaurant that specialises in Burmese cuisine, which is inherently non-vegetarian. “We realised that there has always been a gap in the market that needed to be filled with imaginative and affordable vegetarian options,” says Ankit Gupta, the restaurant’s co-owner and a third-generation restaurateur.

Even a non-vegetarian may find delight in various vegetarian thoke (salads) made with interesting ingredients such as tea leaves, tofu, grapefruit and even a deep-fried samosa.

At Asian Street Kitchen — a pan-Asian restaurant in Mumbai’s Chowpatty —  dishes from Thailand, China and Japan have been reinterpreted to suit the vegetarian palate. For its Nasi Goreng —  an Indonesian delicacy — traditionally used prawn wafers were replaced with rice wafers while the scrambled eggs topping has given way to a tofu scramble. “Such innovations are sure to whet the appetite of even those who love their meat,” says Mitesh Rangras of Sid Hospitality that owns Japanese restaurant Aoi and pan-Asian restaurant Lemon Grass, both in Mumbai.

Rangras is also the brain behind Asian Street Kitchen’s experimental menu that features a veg version of the Vietnamese Pho that uses a concentrate made of shiitake mushrooms instead of beef stock. According to Rangras, innovation with fresh vegetarian produce is the future of modern cuisine.

Unthinkable a few years ago, but now Chandigarh —  where gourmands would have otherwise frowned upon the idea of vegetarian food —  is seeing a rise in all-vegetarian restaurants. In the heart of Sector 9 market, which houses a range of eateries offering meat specialties, is located Garlic and Greens, a newly opened all-vegetarian restaurant. Its menu includes everything from sandwiches, burgers, pastas, salads to a sizeable dessert line-up. The meats have been substituted with soya in some cases but the emphasis is on fresh vegetables and exotic flavours.

Unlike Garlic and Greens, the name isn’t a giveaway to the menu at Casa Bella Vista, a pizzeria and restaurant housed in Chandigarh’s Sector 10 market. It has on offer lip-smacking all vegetarian fare which is gaining popularity with the meat-eaters. This could be because many diners are looking for vegetarian alternatives and the restaurant offers home-style Italian dishes. For instance, it has a pasta in toffee butter, lemon rind and sage sauce added to the popular four cheese sauce. “It’s a misconception that Italian fare can’t be vegetarian or sumptuous. Our veg pizzas have been received very well,” remarks restaurateur and owner Jas Giri.

Manish Mehrotra, executive chef of Delhi’s Indian Accent, which is known for its take on modern Indian cuisine and regarded as one of India’s finest restaurants, attributes this trend largely to health and lifestyle choices. “Internationally, there’s a surge of vegetarianism with concepts such as Meatless Mondays and Chicken-less Fridays,” says Mehrotra, who has introduced vegan and gluten-free dishes to his menu. “This is more of a lifestyle trend , similar to going gluten-free or vegan. We get at least two guests a day who request gluten-free or vegan dishes,” he says. That’s not to say people don’t sometimes stray over the thin red line. Mehrotra recounts how he recently found an in-house guest, who had requested gluten-free vegetarian food, eating Indian Accent’s famed bacon kulcha with great relish. “I said this surely must be against her dietary restrictions. She replied that they were so delicious that even her doctor wouldn’t mind,” he said.

Delhi too, like Mumbai, has seen an increase in the number of restaurants serving pure vegetarian food. Shraman at The Ashoka in Chanakyapuri offers a completely saatvik menu, with meals cooked sans onion and garlic. Sattviko Delivery, a Greater Kailash-based eatery, provides vegetarian meal boxes, snacks and breakfast in Indian, Mexican and Continental cuisines. Even smaller eateries have joined the vegetarian brigade. The Rolling Joint is a vegetarian roll restaurant in Delhi, while the Zen Café in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area specialises in vegetarian pizzas, sandwiches and wraps.

With exotic ingredients available at specialty grocers and gourmet stores, even home chefs find it exciting to experiment with fresh produce. Vidhu Mittal, author of cookbook Pure and Special: Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, says: “Today, there’s a much wider range of ingredients available even at roadside markets and I incorporated these into Indian dishes.” Celebrated chefs such as Ritu Dalmia and Vicky Ratnani have also championed the cause of vegetarianism with their books. “The next big thing in vegetarian cooking is the use of sprouts and micro greens such as beetroots, fennel, sunflower seeds and okra,” says Ratnani.

(With inputs from Shantanu David and Jagmeeta Thind Roy)

This story appeared in print under the headline: Hold the Meat

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