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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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Bon `veggie' appetit

Sumitra Senapaty

Vegetarian eating is becoming not just ethical and healthy, but creative, imaginative and delicious. Given the rising number of vegetarians, how are the restaurants coping with the changing equation?

An interesting thing is happening to vegetarian food. More and more restaurants and hotels, which are `not' vegetarian, are offering good quality meals without any meat, chicken or fish. At the same time, the mediocre cooking offered in some traditional vegetarian restaurants has started to seem unacceptable. Vegetarian eating is everywhere becoming not just ethical and healthy, but creative, imaginative and delicious. At last we may be witnessing the emergence of a real life — loving, cruelty-free haute cuisine in which asceticism and self-righteousness have absolutely no part to play.

A new type of diner is sitting down at the table, one that is happy to eat either meat or meatless dishes — as long as the food is good. This is raising the expectations of vegetarians and therefore, hopefully generating yet more improvement. Maybe the word vegetarian will fade away from menus altogether eventually, as meatless dishes become increasingly normal. However, things have not yet reached that stage. Vegetarians heading even for a night out — and certainly for a holiday — still have to think carefully where to eat and where to stay.

The problems of understanding what animal-free means can make life difficult for vegetarians. I've lost count of the number of times I have asked whether a dish has any animal content in it, been informed that the dish is animal free, only to find that said dish contains fish, chicken stock etc. One of the most memorable experiences occurred at a restaurant in Perth, Western Australia. The conversation with the waitress went something like this:

Me: Is the Sambal Eggplant vegetarian?

Waitress: Yes, it is.

Me: So there's no fish or anything in it then?

Waitress: Oh yes, it contains fish.

Me: So it's not vegetarian? Fish aren't vegetables, are they?

Waitress: Well, no.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Waiters, and often even restaurateurs and chefs really don't know what it means for a dish to be classified as vegetarian.

I went to a formal dinner a couple of months back, and beforehand asked the hostess who was organising the dinner whether she knew that the food for the vegetarians really was vegetarian. She said it was, but when I asked her if she'd checked for such things as chicken stock she said no. So I rang the caterer and asked about the food. Turned out that not only were the dishes going to have chicken stock and fish sauce in them, but that their food listed on their menu as vegetarian often contained these ingredients.

So what does this mean for vegetarians? First of all, it means that we really need to ask every time we eat out to ensure that food is safe. I for one do not wish to eat boiled down chicken remnants, thank you very much. It also means that even when dishes are listed as vegetarian we can't trust the listing to be accurate.

Are we fighting a losing battle? Should vegetarians just give up and eat at home all the time, or stick solely to strict vegetarian eateries? I don't think so. I think the answer is to be diligent, to ask questions, and to not accept foods as being vegetarian based on trust alone. Ultimately, of course, we can ask and check all we like and (short of watching the chef in the kitchen) never be sure a dish is 100 per cent animal free. But by checking we're at least achieving two ends — we're limiting the risk of eating animal flesh, and we're hopefully doing a bit of education in the process.

If you are a vegetarian, you will be pleased to know that you are in some very distinguished company. Dr John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of cornflakes and a brilliant surgeon, was a vegetarian who set up a chain of vegetarian restaurants where the poor could get a meatless meal for a penny.

Pythagoras, the ancient Greek sage who gave us the theorem, was also the father of vegetarianism in the West. Buddha, George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, Annie Besant were all vegetarians as are present-day celebrities such as the ex-Beatles Paul McCartney and his late wife Linda. They did believe that "No one who eats the flesh of animals can progress spiritually beyond the average." One of the plus points of vegetarianism is that you feel lighter and more energetic, although in those days it was considered eccentric, even bizarre, to be a vegetarian. Asked whether he turned vegetarian for his health, Nobel prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, replied "I didn't do it for my health but for the health of the animals."

Annalakshmi restaurant in Chennai.

Indian cooking is considered to be the highest, the most sophisticated form of vegetarian cooking. Take the case of Annalakshmi, the vegetarian restaurant chain located in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Coimbatore, Perth and Chennai. A largely voluntary staff run it — housewives who know what it takes to prepare a wholesome meal and a miscellaneous team of professionals. With ingredients prepared specially, each item on the elaborate menu reflects the ancient culinary art of India. The Annalakshmi philosophy is based on the ancient adage — athithi dhevo bhava — the guest is god. This restaurant stands out for yet another reason — the array of delectable dishes is served in an ambience that reflects 4,000 years of Indian Art. In every way then — food, ambience and service — it is a destination where vegetarian dining is a cultural experience.

Yet another major vegetarian development took place when the World's First Vegetarian Pizza Hut opened in India, in a city where 80 per cent of the population preferred vegetarian dining out options. This 120-seater exclusive restaurant set up in Ahmedabad serves only 100 per cent vegetarian meal items. In addition to a wide choice of vegetarian pizzas, the restaurant also offers vegetarian pastas, steaming tomato and mulligatawny soup, crunchy French bread, fresh salads with a choice of cool and crunchy vegetables and fruits and delicious desserts with 100 per cent vegetarian and eggless dressings. The ambience of the restaurant also sports a vegetarian theme — the wait staff wears special badges, bearing the sign `I serve 100 per cent vegetarian food'. Says a spokesperson for Pizza Hut, "We are expecting a large number of families, from grand parents to grand children, to come to the restaurant and enjoy the scrumptious vegetarian meal." After Ahmedabad's tremendous success, Pizza Hut continued the vegetarian wave by opening another vegetarian restaurant in Surat, followed by a vegetarian Pizza Hut in Chowpatty, Mumbai — India is the only country in the world to have 100 per cent vegetarian Pizza Huts.

A novelty for Delhi vegetarians is the Mongolian BBQ at Pan Asian, a recently-opened fine dining restaurant at the Marriott WelcomHotel. If you're not familiar with what Mongolian BBQ (barbeque) is, it goes a little something like this: You get to choose your freshly cut and diced vegetables, soft noodles, tofu etc. There is an immense selection of vegetation to graze on, including broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kidney beans, peppers, sweet corn, mushrooms and many others. You can even choose a bit of flavouring — cooking wine, soy sauce, hot cooking oil, garlic and one or two others. The chef cooks it for you on a large circular grill, which is strictly reserved for `vegetarian' cooking — it is near impossible to go wrong here as long as you know what you like to eat. Another positive is that it is extremely vegetarian-friendly, a meat-free bowl is entirely up to you based on what you put into it! Pan Asian is perfectly suitable for vegetarians, with its veggie only grill and separate vegetable salad section, so you needn't be `tainted' by the restaurant's non-vegetarian guests.

I admit most sushi is fish sushi. But never give up! There are still many varieties of sushi that vegetarians can enjoy at Metropolitan Nikko's exclusive Sakura restaurant. In fact, sushi rice itself is vegetarian (rice, rice vinegar, salt, sugar, seaweed, and sometimes sweet rice wine), so just select vegetarian toppings for your sushi. As long as they have the ingredients in the kitchen, Sakura chefs will gladly serve the sushi requested by their guests. Ask the chef to substitute avocado for tuna or try one of the Japanese vegetarian rolls — cucumber, spinach, mushroom, Japanese plum or pickle roll. The garnishes for sushi are pickled ginger slices and wasabi (Japanese horseradish).

One of the main reasons why Japanese cuisine is not familiar to vegetarians is that people know it is deeply connected with fish. Furthermore, Japanese soup stock contains bonito (fish) extract, and is used in almost every dish. Also bonito flake is often sprinkled as a topping or a garnish. Should you be a vegetarian trying out Japanese fare, you must have the knowledge, of which dishes may include bonito, so you can avoid them.

At Sakura you can eat lots of tofu (bean curd) dishes. To be on the safe side, remind the restaurant staff you don't want bonito, sometimes used as a topping for tofu dishes. When you eat, dip the tofu into soy sauce with some garnishes (grated ginger, chopped onion, and so on). Most appetisers, such as a small portion of salad, are vegetarian. Still, you may need to confirm that they don't put bonito flakes on the dishes. Sakura also has a special vegetarian Soya sauce. And great care is taken to ensure that tempura, fritters etc are fried in separate oil for the benefit of vegetarians.

Raw — it's the latest buzzword in top kitchens in the US, And we're not talking sushi/sashimi, we're talking vegetables — raw, organic vegetables that never reach boiling point (plus a few fruits and nuts). This form of cuisine even has a new label — `living foods' and even its own convention. The next one is taking place in Costa Rica in February 2003, called the International Festival of Raw Food Enthusiasts. According to raw foodists, cooking destroys 50 per cent of the protein in our food, and between 50 and 80 per cent of all vitamins and minerals. At the same time, I don't think anyone should be so presumptuous as to tell another how he or she should eat. But think about this.

Given that the number of vegetarians is rising, yet the growth of vegetarian restaurants is slow by comparison. So where are all the non-meat eaters going for dinner? Probably establishments across the board are getting better at catering for vegetarians, so there is less need for purely vegetarian restaurants. But there's still a long way to go. Although some doubts may exist over the success of restaurants, vegetarian fast food is doing a roaring trade, with Haldiram and Aggarwal Sweet shops dominating street corners in our metros and smaller cities. Indian fast food is designed to appeal to everyone, everything is freshly prepared on site and it is all vegetarian.

Vegetarianism today is no longer about replacing meat with cheese and eggs. Vegetarian food has to have high non-diary content, and be highly varied and clearly labelled. Having veggie staff can be of help too. Non-vegetarians can know a lot about catering but that doesn't mean success in vegetarian cuisine. To succeed, you need a high proportion of veggie dishes on the menu, especially desserts. Another growing opportunity is meat reducers, the people who do eat red meat or meat per se but want an enticing, healthy, vegetarian alternative. But labelling the food as healthy or vegetarian discourages a wider clientele. Ultimately, it's about great tasting food — that comes first, the principle comes second and then business is as good as ever. If the restaurant gets it right, customers will keep coming back, especially vegetarians, since they have so few places to go.

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