Book Reviews

A Heartfelt Ode to India’s Love Affair with Vegetarian and Vegan Cuisine

Raul Dias | Updated on November 25, 2021

Tarkari  seeks to hero classic and lesser known desi flavours drawn from India’s wide culinary repertoire of vegetarian and vegan dishes

While the trajectory of vegetarianism and veganism the world over has been a mercurial one, over the last few decades or so, it is undoubtedly at its zenith today. It is no great surprise that it took a pandemic to put the two intimately related concepts into greater focus and scrutiny. Thus, giving them a certain gravitas and staying power like never before. Healthy, clean, plant-based—all buzzwords that smack us in the solar plexus almost everywhere we look today.

A perfectly timed cookbook, Tarkari by RohitGhai takes full advantage of the zeitgeist. Having grown up in a vegetarian family in Punjab, the Michelin-starred chef—who has to his credit the opening of super successful restaurants like Kutir and KoolCha in London—channels his vegetarian roots very effectively. All this to come up with an almost seminal ode to vegetarianism in all its desi glory. A well-curated collection of recipes that revels in its simplistic, yet often experimental take on Indian vegetarian and vegan dishes. Almost each one of them reflect some much-needed heart and soul.

Vegging Out

Never mind Wikipedia’s rather pithy and wildly erroneous take on what a ‘tarkari’ is by calling it,“a spicy vegetable curry, originally from the Indian subcontinent”. This eponymous cookbook celebrates the Bengali word (torkari) or any vegetable dish, the way it was intended to be. Plain and simple.

Keeping simplicity at the fore (and core!) of this book, chef Rohit Ghai's easy recipes seem to stem from something he remembers his mother often saying... “If you can cook with your heart and soul, you don’t need special ingredients.” With this, his first cookbook, Ghai managers to dispel the myth that Indian food is overly complicated with lengthy recipes. He harnesses his love for simple, home-style dishes with recipes for a rustic Pindi chana(pg. 142), an ubiquitous palak paneer (pg. 134)—where he recommends using a 50-50 blend of puréed and chopped spinach for a unique texture—and a fool proof butter naan recipe (pg. 157) to mop it all up with.

Vegan Vows

With a sizable chunk of his recipes paying obeisance at the altar of vegan cuisine, Ghai pulls it off with aplomb. He does this by showing us his very apparent reverence...nay, obsession with rapeseed oil. One that finds itself as the fat component in almost every second recipe in this book. Replacing the much-loved butter and ghee in a few traditional recipes like baingan ka bharta(pg. 102) and paneer makhani(pg. 116).

The book also does its best to hero a rapidly emerging 'superstar' in the vegetarian, mock meatworld—jackfruit. This truly versatile, fibrous vegetable (or, is a fruit!?),finds itself in both a jackfruit masala (pg. 88) and in a jackfruit biryani (pg. 148). The latter being a somewhat complex preparation to navigate around, but worth the stress. Trust me, I tried it out and lived and loved to tell the tale!

Exotic Bites

Extending his repertoire beyond India’s borders, by paying homage to a few tarkari dishes from around the Indian subcontinent—and Nepal in particular—are a few exotic (to me, at least!) recipes. Ghai speaks of his time in the Himalayan country, where he was based for his regional cuisines qualifications as a chef-in-training, with nostalgia.

Recipes like tareko aloo (pg. 56), the beans and pulses-richkwati (pg. 127), the leafy, green palungo ko saag (pg. 141) and the yummy rice-based bhute ko bhat (pg. 146) put the spotlight on Nepali cuisine like never before. A cuisine that is robust and flavourful. And a perfect blend of Indian and Tibetan influences.

Ghai continues to flirt with the exotic via an array of jazzed up, fusion style dishes.We see seaweed making an appearance in the vegan chickpea and samphire salad (pg. 61) a riff on a South Indian sundal. This one jostles for space with a Brussels sprouts poriyal (pg. 128). Kashmiri morels make an appearance in his bharwan guchhi (pg. 81), while the super trendy avocado finds itself in a chutney form (pg. 178).

The book even features an 'elevated' version (not that it needs any elevation) of a vegan mushroom and truffle khichdi (pg. 99) that has become one of Ghai’s signature dishes at Kutir. Teaching us an important lesson that simple and boring are very much at opposing ends of the spectrum.

“Meh!” Moments

As much as I relished this book with almost manic gusto, it isn’t a perfect one. A few red herrings seemed to surface every now and again. One of the fundamental issues I had with the book is that the pictures and styling of the dishes weren’t very evocative of what they sought to highlight. Indian food, for me, is all about colour and abundance. The colour-saturated visuals lack that much-needed vibrancy and zest. As does the styling which leans towards a more western aesthetic and sensibility in its austere and almost stark display.

At the risk of being accused of nit-picking, I also found the addition of a sole, French dessert (from Lyon and Burgundy) à la poached pears (pg. 182) at great odds with the others in a section named ‘meetha’. One that is otherwise laden with gems of the Indian dessert table like malpua (pg. 187), carrot halwa (pg. 193) and phirni(pg. 194) to name an illustrious, yet humble few.



Hachette India


208 pages; Rs. 999

Check the book out on Amazon

 (A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and a food consultant)

Published on November 25, 2021

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