A true blue Goan at heart, Chef Joshua D’Souza, recalls the many times when he has made fun of his vegetarian friends whenever they went out to dine. “Go have some dosa from Shiv Sagar or pick up some gobi manchurian,” he used to tell them, with a smirk. Today, when he breaks his head over whether beetroot goes better with rice or cottage cheese, he doubts whether it is his once hapless vegetarian friends’ curse. Running a one of its kind culinary experential studio Silverspoon Gourmet at Lower Parel, D’Souza realised that almost 80 per cent of his clientele is, in fact, vegetarian. And, thus came into being a horde of unique all-vegetarian modern European dishes like the little pieces of heaven–beetroot crepe rolls with goat cheese–that I was munching on. Other beauties on their menu include potato cake, pumpkin gnocchi stuffed with cottage cheese, spinach and walnut cake, and a veggie lasagna with a twist.
Yes, the vegetarians of Mumbai, tired from their Udupi dosas and Rajasthani thaali fixes, are asking for more. They want variety in their cuisines, ingredients and cooking styles. And, the sudden flourishing of vegetarian restuarants in the city is enough proof that Mumbai chefs and restaurateurs seem to have obliged. From Kala Ghoda’s Burma Burma to Juhu’s Little Italy, Lower Parel’s Quattro and Zen Cafe, Bandra’s The Yoga House, Oshiwara’s Quesso and Powai’s Breeze, vegetarian restaurants are coming up around the city and serving up food from cuisines, which are otherwise inherently non-vegetarian, like Burmese, Thai and European. Take, for instance, Girgaum Chowpatty’s new pan-Asian restaurant, Asian Street Kitchen. Till I tried their version of the Indonesian Nasi Goreng, I couldn’t believe that vegetarian food could be so sumptuous. “In South East Asia, usually the Nasi Goreng is cooked in fish sauce and served with a fried egg on top,” says Arjun Dhinsa, owner, Asian Street Kitchen. “We have replicated this using only vegetarian sauces and accompaniments. It is served with rice wafers, roasted red chilli and tofu scramble.” Same goes for their version of Vietnamese Pho, which is cooked in a concentrate made of shiitake mushrooms insted of the traditional beef stock.
Celebrity chef Kunal Kapoor says that this has been a trend that he has been observing for the last few years and credits it to the changing perceptions about food and health among people and their exposure to world cuisine. “India had always been largely a vegetarian population. But we are seeing such a rise in demand for exotic vegetarian food only recently,” he says. “The main reasons is that people are becoming conscious not just about what they eat, but also where it comes from, how it was processed, what all ingredients have gone into it etc.” Agrees Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal of A Perfect Bite cooking studio. “I think our food industry is finally realising that we are a predominantly vegetarian culture and catering to this does not mean putting out paneer in 365 versions, but creating innovative vegetarian options,” says Ghildiyal, who is prepping up for a vegetarian world cuisine cooking course scheduled this month in her studio that includes innovative vegetarian dishes like the Spanish Tapas.
For those who still dismiss vegetarian food as uninventive and boring, take a look at the eclectic menu on offer at 22-year-old Aditya Sawant’s restaurant Vedge. The restaurant that likes to identify itself as one that adds that special edge to vegetarian food stays true to its spirit with dishes like cottage cheese money bag, vegan pani puri shots, hakkao style steam dumplings and Mangalorean gad bad, the vegetarian Burmese Khow Suey and the chukandar ki galoutis (beetroot cutlets with a soft cheese centre). “Traditionally, we have tended to perceive veg restaurants to be family oriented,” says Sawant. “We wanted to break the mould and make it different and unexpected by creating a space for single diners, college students, youth and families all having a great time, without the supposed ‘clutter’ experienced in vegetarian eateries today.” Celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia says that now the general mindset that vegetarian food is just “ghaas-poos” is changing. Dalmia, who came out with an all-veg Italian cookbook called Diva Green recently, was pleasantly surprised with the response she got when she served a six-course tasting menu to 60 meat-eaters for the book launch. “The challenge was to find out how many of them actually missed meat,” she says. “And, of course, after the meal none of them did.”
When main course has arrived in full vegetarian splendour, can desserts be far behind? The city is also seeing a rise in vegetarian versions of otherwise non-vegetarian desserts. Marzipan, which was earlier only restricted to the Christian population of Mumbai, is now available in an eggless version, and that, too, straight from what is believed to be the marzipan capital of Europe, Estonia. When Thea Tammeleht, an expat, decided to introduce Mumbai to this sweet through her enterprise Nordic Kandie Magic, she was astonished at how little was known about marzipan here. The only thing vegetarians knew was that it was a “greasy, Christian sweet that tasted of eggs”. “We discovered that a large part of the population here, who are vegetarians, had not even tasted a marzipan for the same reason,” says Tammeleht. “So we decided to make 100 per cent vegetarian marzipans as a great way to intoduce it to them and fit the Indian market.” Ayushi Shah of Icing On Top, a dessert gourmand that specialises in cookies and crackers, too, decided to cash in on this untapped market with her all-veg spicy and savoury cookies. “Many people believe that when it comes to vegetarian cookies, the flavours will be limited,” says Shah. “But we have flavours ranging from Sundried Tomato ,Basil and Parmesan, Chive and Onion, Cream Cheese and Poppy to our range of crackers like Moroccan Chermoula, Arabic Spice, Mexican Blend ,Green Chilli and Oregano, Chilli Garlic and Cilantro which offer robust flavours.”
Contrary to popular belief, running a vegetarian restaurant does not offer much of a cost advantage, say restaurateurs. Dhinsa says that although vegetarian food has a cost benefit in comparison to meat and sea food, different varieties of mushrooms and exotic vegetables are rare to source and sometimes more expensive than meat or sea food. Agrees Tammeleht, who says, that her marzipans uses imported ingridients like Mamra almonds and Belgium chocolate, which cut down the advantage if any. Also, vegetables have a limited shelf-life as compared to its non-vegetarian counterparts, which make it even more trickier, says Yogesh Parekh, director, Diwa Hospitality that runs the master franchise of African pizza chain Debonairs Pizza, famous for its vegetarian pizzas. “In case of some vegetable toppings we use, the shelf life is as little as 3-4 hours,” he says. “This means that we should ensure the consumption and renewal of the stocks of our toppings every 3-4 hours.”
Another challenge that is peculiar to Mumbai is the presence of the Jain community. “They do not eat anything that grows below the ground, they use no garlic, no onion and some of them have a problem with curd, too,” he says. “The basic foundation of modern European cuisine is onions and garlic, so it becomes challenging to make Jain versions of these dishes.” For the same reason D’Souza makes it a point that his Jain clients inform him of their orders well in advance and that he discusses their preferences down to every little detail before drawing up the menu. It is always more difficult to cater to the needs of a Jain vegetarian, says Dhinsa. “To begin with, they do not eat aubergines, spinach, mushrooms or carrots, hence the key challenge is to keep them excited and involved all the time,” he says. Being in a Jain-dominated locality, it was unavoidable that Dhinsa offered special on-demand Jain versions of most of the dishes on the menu.
All said, it is not just vegetarians who are in an upbeat mood because of this trend. “Many of my non-vegetarian friends, too, have started trying out dishes which include vegetables they earlier despised like yam, eggplant and pumpkin,” says D’Souza, who is on a vegetarian diet himself. “Vegetarianism, I feel, is very much now a way of life,” adds Dalmia, who says that as she gets older, she is realising that most of her favourite dishes are vegetarian. “It is something which is so much a part of our society, whether we like it or not. As a country we have gone through an evolution from being pure vegetarians to a sudden discovery of meat and now we are back to vegetarianism again.” With such a huge variety on offer, why not, we ask.