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The green evolution
For about six weeks each year, Bangalore restaurant Caperberry creates a menu it calls 'veggie chic'. It is an appropriate name because the special menu features vegetables - including a few totally unexotic ones - that have been given chic makeovers. The menu, which ran in August this year, not only included dishes like an avocado and mint gazpacho and ratatouille-stuffed grilled portobello mushrooms, but also a carrot and fennel soufflê, cauliflower and roast garlic risotto and a beet and honey caramel-centered sponge cake. Chef Abhijit Saha, who owns and runs Caperberry, says the idea was to take vegetarian food to the next level. "We also wanted to show people that gourmet vegetarian food is not just about so-called 'exotic' ingredients, and that even the humble eggplant and pumpkin can be given a new value, " says Saha, who also own the Mediterranean-themed Fava. Saha's 'veggie chic' menu was a hit - the restaurant initially planned to run it for two weeks and had to extend it to six to meet demand.
Other Indian restaurants, especially those serving up Western cuisines, are also moving beyond the usual pasta-pizza routine and creating exciting choices on the green-dotted side of the menu.
At Olive Beach, Bangalore and Olive Bar & Kitchen, Bombay, executive chef Manu Chandra has been waging a long (and sometimes lonely) battle against what he calls the "kaddoo kaun khayega" attitude. At Olive Beach, he does a mean pumpkin ravioli and a vegetarian rendition of the classic Moroccan bisteeya with slowly stewed vegetables cooked in an orange-tomato sauce. Recently, Olive hosted an all-vegetarian sit-down dinner for 20 with dishes like the simple Provencal eggplant, tomato and olive tart.
Even more significantly, when French chef Alain Passard of the 3-Michelin starred Parisian restaurant L'Arp?ge came visiting last year, Chandra hosted a black-tie dinner for him at which Passard was served a ravioli made with one of Chandra's favourite greens, the bathua, and a lotus stem and mushroom kibbeh. Passard, of course, is that eccentric French chef who removed meats from his popular restaurant and vowed to cook only with vegetables.
While not eschewing meat, many other chefs across the world are letting vegetables be the stars of a meal rather than being relegated to appetisers and side dishes.
However, persuading vegetarians to pay prices that are at par with those on the non-veg side of the menu is a tricky job, says chef Mrigank Singh of blueFROG (Delhi and Mumbai). "For meat eaters, it's very easy to quote pricing relevant to the meat you are serving, but for vegetarians, one has to be creative with the use of exotic ingredients to justify pricing. This limits your usage of products - some restaurants feel only stuff like exotic cheeses and international products like cous cous and polenta can justify fine-dining prices, " says Singh, who has tried to move away from this trend by using everyday veggies like jackfruit, bael and raw papaya creatively. "The surprise element of elevating seemingly "common" produce into a gourmet experience is our way of paying homage to the vegetarian diner and ensuring he does not feel short-changed, " adds Singh.
Singh makes an interesting observation when he says that fine dining restaurants have the bandwidth to take more risks. "Mid-range restaurants tend to play it safe as their menus are larger (encompassing 'multi-cuisine' ), which therefore requires the stocking of ingredients that can be used across all cuisines. Fine-dines have smaller menus, are usually cuisine-specific and, therefore, have the room to play around with ingredients, " he says.
Today, at Megu at the Leela Palace New Delhi, vegetarians can sample epicurean vegetarian delights that make use of tofu, edamame beans, seaweed, a cornucopia of mushrooms and sesame paste. "We have never had a vegetarian customer who was not gratified by the sheer choice in our menu, " claims manager Rajat Kalia. Chefs Saito and chef Achal Aggarwal who head the kitchen have more or less specialised in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
"This kind of rarified vegetarian food is a gastronomic adventure in its own right and is not a palliative for those who cannot eat meat, " says Kalia.
Surprisingly, given Indian cuisine's dependence on vegetarian dishes, it has shown the highest reluctance to innovate with vegetables, preferring to stay with the tried-and-tested dals, a few greens like spinach and the inevitable paneer dishes. Yet, a few restaurants and hotel chains are beginning to change this.
Very soon, ITC hotels will open doors to its first all-veg restaurant Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. The hotel chain has plans of extending this signature eatery to its other properties across the country as well. Featuring "grand vegetarian cuisines from India's royal kitchens", the Royal Vega will lay an emphasis on serving seasonal fruits and vegetables, says Gautam Anand, VP, pre-opening services, ITC Hotels. "The endeavour is to harness the sensibilities of Indian vegetarianism. Even today, for special occasions like Diwali and weddings, vegetarian cuisine is served as a symbol of celebration. Happiness and vegetarianism are synonymous, " says Anand.
Food consultant Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal, founder of the APB Cook Studio in Mumbai, is passionate about preserving the usage of local, traditional vegetables and this, she feels, can only be done when they are used in previously unheard of ways. "I was terrified that one day my professional side which, as a food consultant is exposed to some of the newest ingredients to arrive in India much before they hit supermarket shelves, would come into horrid conflict with my personal philosophy of preserving local, regional and traditional foods, " she says, relating an anecdote about finding Himachali white corn at the local supermarket (Indian white corn has been almost completely pushed off the shelves by American yellow corn).
Ghildiyal used the white corn to make a feta and white corn chowder drizzled with a pesto of fresh green garlic. "And as I stirred the feta into the chowder and pureed the tender green garlic with extra virgin olive oil, that niggling worry was settled, " she recalls. "In fact, there is nothing new in what I am suggesting. Chillies, potatoes and tomatoes were all new and unknown once, but Indian cuisine absorbed them, stirring them into dishes in such a definitive way that it is hard to imagine our cuisine without them. "
With inputs from Marryam Reshi
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