“Taka diye veg ke khaaye? (Who pays money to eat vegetarian food?).”
Soumita Maity’s query is more of a statement and it hangs in the air at Kolkata’s Wabi Sabi veg cafe where she is sitting with her husband Amit Maity. It is a Saturday evening and the couple do seem visibly impressed with the food they had just eaten. A Thai food lover and a hardcore non-vegetarian, Soumita and her husband eat vegetarian on Saturday(s), mostly out of compulsion, but they confess being “pleasantly surprised” with Ema Dashi, the Bhutanese national dish they had ordered.
Wabi Sabi, a plush vegetarian cafe is located in a quiet lane near Sarat Bose Road. The thatch roof and the warm yellow light emanating from inside make it an easy place to spot. The location might be prime, but it is also singular. Situated close to Gariahat, a shopping haven for the people of Kolkata, one can find people gorging on chicken rolls and fish fry here any time of the day. There are also several upscale non-vegetarian eateries near Wabi Sabi, those that have stayed long enough in operation to serve as popular landmarks. Yet, Soumallya Ghosh, the man responsible for the services at the eatery, maintains there was always a demand for a cafe like this.
“In most places here, they serve non-vegetarian food, but those who are Jain or Marwari needed a place like this.” Ghosh is not the only one to harbour such an opinion. Abhishek Panja, executive chef at the all-vegetarian Cafe 4/1 situated at Minto Park, feels the same. “Our target clientele were Marwaris and Jains. Previously, even though they would go to places where vegetarian food would be offered, the element of faith was not there as much, something a place like this offers,” he says.
Their reading of the situation is not without good cause. Non-vegetarian food in Kolkata, as the several hoardings adorning the city would corroborate, is ubiquitous. People in Kolkata love their food. They also love their non-vegetarian servings. At several popular junctures as well as unobtrusive alleys, banners or small carriers scream out the availability of non-vegetarian food, in correct and incorrect spellings.
The city’s unabashed love for the non-vegetarian platter has been documented by several authors, in the form of food reference or by including it as an unmistakable trait in a leading character. Satyajit Ray’s celebrated sleuth Feluda, other than his fondness for Charminar and quick wit, also has his love for fish and meat in place. In the novel Gorosthane Sabdhan (The Secret of The Cemetery) Feluda, does not forget to indulge himself in a mutton roll from Nizam’s even when entangled in solving a case. He instructs Topshe and Lal Mohan Babu, in no uncertain terms to get it for him, before they would sit to solve the case. There is a part in Badshahi Angti (The Emperor’s Ring), where Feluda, rather sneakily lifts a chicken from his cousin Topshe’s plate and justifies the act by saying it would help him in thinking about the case.
Much like him, his father, Sukumar Ray has written extensively about food in his nonsensical verse, Abol Tabol. In one his verses, titled Bhalo Re Bhalo (It’s All Good), the author lists all that is good in our lives, and, unsurprisingly goes on to write, “Pulao bhalo korma bhalo/ maach potoler dolma bhalo,” (Pulao is good, korma is good, fish is good, so are dolmades).
Perhaps this is why the racket involving supplying dead animal meat to Kolkata restaurants, that broke out earlier this year, left the meat-loving Kolkatan hurt and betrayed. Ghosh admits that the footfall at their eatery increased substantially at that time, encouraging them to open another outlet in Salt Late. Panja too agrees that the pandemonium worked in their favour.
People in Kolkata ready to give their fish a miss?
This, however, does not count as the only reason for the growing popularity of the vegetarian cafes across the city. They have fulfilled the growing demand that there was for such places. They have also redefined the idea of a vegetarian eatery in Kolkata. Traditionally, vegetarian food cafes have often been seen as an extension of a sweet shop, a practice still followed at places like Haldiram’s or even Gupta Brothers.
These cafes, that have come up of late, have not only invested in creating a space just for vegetarian food, they have also departed from the conventional dishes that were available before. They offer an extensive menu.
Chai Break, a famous chain of eateries has its oldest outlet in Chowringhee Road, close to the Rabindra Sadan metro station. And although they do serve non-vegetarian food at their other outlets, they have stuck to the vegetarian menu at their Chowringhee outlet since its inception in 2011 – a decision that, Denzil David Francis, an assistant there, says never affected their sales. Flanked by schools and colleges, the place witnesses a healthy crowd on almost all days of the week, many of who are Bengalis or non-vegetarian.
Isha Parekh, Shagufta Ali and Pooja Pal, who constituted the Saturday crowd at Chai Break, unanimously agree that it is the wide variety of food the place has to offer that attracts them. While for Parekh, a Gujarati, the place might seem like an obvious choice, she admits that her non-vegetarian friends wouldn’t have come if they did not like the food. “If they had not liked the food, I would never be able to drag them here,” she says, looking at them. A self-proclaimed foodie, she also maintains that availability of such a variety of vegetarian platter is a recent phenomenon. “Growing up we hardly had such places and our generation does get bored very easily, so such variety helps,” she says. Pal agrees, adding that the Italian cuisine at the outlet impressed her the most.
Wabi Sabi too has a delectable, fusion menu and it has worked on their favour. “Some customers come regularly over the weekend for some particular dishes like the momos we make from wheat and potato starch. The red rice we use here is brought directly from Bhutan and the the gravy in black rice with rosemary sauce, one will not find anywhere else,” he says adding people also stand in line for hours for their baked potato. “People are finally acquiring a taste for different types of vegetarian dishes,” Ghosh says.
Good food triumphs all
Experience, Ghosh says, has also taught him that people in Kolkata are still aficionados of good food, and this often surpasses their rigidity regarding vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Panja echoes his opinion. “When I was designing the menu, I did not meddle with the food items as such. Even in our most celebrated non-veg dishes, vegetarian ingredients are irreplaceable. That is why, more often than not, I just replace the non-vegetarian item with its vegetarian counterpart,” he says. “I have not compromised with the quality, therefore the taste on the customer’s palate remains the same,” he adds.
Panja’s ruse has clearly worked. In the board hanging outside, there is no mention that 4/1 is a vegetarian cafe but the gesture, deliberate as it was, has seldom backfired. “Very rarely have customers entered and gone back knowing that it is a vegetarian cafe,” he says, adding the place has something for everyone. There is an Afghani platter- assortment of veg kebabs, a Bong Thali, even a Jain thali, designed as per the requirement.
Patrons too seem to subscribe to this idea. Anushka Mondal and Bhaskar Saha, college students and regular patrons at Chai Break, maintain the only thing they look out for are quality and hygiene and the eatery offers them both. Sukumar Ray concludes his verse Bhalo Re Bhalo (It’s All Good) with the lines, “Kintu shobar chaitey bhalo/ pauruti and jhola gur (But the best among the rest is bread and jaggery). People in Kolkata still love good food — simple or elaborate, vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Clearly Ray knew what he was talking about.
‘That one Instagram photo’
A large part of the popularity of these places also lies in their stunning decor. Apart from their vegetarian platter, these cafes are united in the vibrant colour palette of their interiors. Wabi Sabi, with its warm yellow lights creates an inviting ambience, a fact Maity vouches for. “Previously eating at a vegetarian place seemed like a task. Now we can sit at a place like this for hours and even hang out with our friends. Now, even though it is a choice, it seems like a sweet choice.”
Matargashti, a vegetarian cafe at Deshapriya Park had created much stir when it had started out as Friends Cafe in 2015. Much like the name, the place was done up after the famous sitcom right down to the famous couch. And though the cafe was later changed to a more neutral theme, Aditya Bachhawat, one of the co-founders of the place, still remembers the astounding crowd that would turn up initially. “Maybe it was a gimmick, but in the first six months, a staggering number of people had come,” he says.
In the age of social media, where that one Instagram photo carries much weightage, the decor of these places, often serve as a reason more compelling than the food. “I have been here before and quite honestly the place is a bit more expensive than others,” says Fatima Rahman, 18, who was out with her friends Universe Kejriwal and Shreya Chand on a Saturday evening, sitting at 4/1 cafe. Ask her the reason for her second visit this time, pat comes the reply “Have you seen that wall decorated with saucers? It comes really well on Instagram, especially with the yellow lights.”