It’s easy enough getting vegetarian options in an Indian restaurant: there’s paneer, dal, vegetables and snacks galore. But, how about vegetarian options in a non-Indian cuisine? That’s a tough one. Some cuisines such as Lebanese and Italian do have interesting vegetarian choices. Others like Chinese lack the basic concept of what vegetarianism is, while still others like Thai, Japanese and Malaysian have so many delicious proprietory sauces, that it’s hardly rocket science for our chefs to come up with something novel for vegetarians, so what if it’s less than authentic.
Researching this story was a revelation. Vegetarian customers of most restaurants across the city really are treated like poor country cousins. There are frighteningly few exceptions to the rule. There’s a palpable “if it’s vegetarian it must be cheap” syndrome at work.
It’s too painful to do a complete listing of all the places serving non-Indian cuisines where you get vegetarian options. What follows, then, is a look at some of the best.
Oriental: Chef Hashimoto of Shangri La’s 19 Oriental Avenue does some of the best vegetarian sushi in town. Here’s one place that you won’t be fobbed off with carelessly planned and executed maki sushi. Their vegetarian sushi platter contains premium vegetables like asparagus and avocado. Shitake mushrooms have been imbued with a delightful flavour, and good quality tofu is gently simmered in mirin before being used. A platter of vegetarian sushi contains maki (rice rolled around ingredients and covered with a sheet of seaweed called nori, futomaki (a far thicker roll, having three or more ingredients), temaki (also called inside-out sushi, where the rice is outside the nori sheet, which in turn covers the ingredients) and nigiri, where a single ingredient is placed atop the rice. It is priced at Rs 800. Chef Hashimoto has also worked out his own brand of futomaki which combines a range of vegetables that have been drizzled with teppanyaki sauce and grilled, before being rolled with rice and a nori sheet. It’s called Maharani roll (Rs 420). Even purist chefs in Japan are experimenting with new forms of sushi. It’s my theory that India is going to be at the forefront of such experiments.
Chinese food is not known to be vegetarian-friendly. The problem with this particular cuisine is that the better restaurants in the city are headed with expatriate chefs who have only encountered the principle of vegetarianism once they reached India, and consequently, haven’t been able to conceptualize vegetarian dishes anywhere near their successes with seafood, duck and meats. The single vegetarian dish that one actually finds in Chinese-speaking countries is stir fried vegetables with garlic or oyster sauce.
The lone exception is The Chinese which serves the cuisine of Hunan. Spiked with enough spice to give neighbouring Sichuan a complex, and a sour pickled vegetable that gives its characteristic flavour to many dishes, some Hunanese dishes on The Chinese menu include braised tofu in a sandy pot and glass noodles with pickled sour vegetables (Rs 235). Steamed or fried buns provide an interesting starch component to your meal, the most innovative being silver and gold buns (Rs 215).
On the other hand, other oriental cuisines – Thai, Malaysian and Korean – have so many proprietary sauces like (vegetarian) oyster, three types of soy sauce, black bean, chilli paste and sesame oil that the blandest dish gets perked up. I experienced this at Rick’s at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where the south-east Asian cuisine is at least as good as the ambience and the drinks for which it is so famous. Phuket style tofu with toasted cashewnuts Rs 290, vegetarian wokkerie Rs 415 and vegetable mein Rs 435 are just three items in this intelligently planned menu.
Mediterranean: This is one area where there are traditional options for vegetarians. The famous Mediterranean salad composed of tomatoes, basil, olives and feta cheese is vegetarian, as are the two best-selling pizzas: quatro formaggi and Margherita. Pasta with pesto and spaghetti with aglio olio (garlic and olive oil) are classical Italian first courses that don’t have to be re-worked for vegetarians. Other pasta dishes include those made with either tomato, spinach and ricotta or gorgonzola sauce. Continuing with the first course, risotto with three kinds of mushrooms and a few types of gnocchi never have non-vegetarian ingredients in them, because the presumption is that they will be followed by a second course featuring seafood or meats. The meager handful of vegetarian second courses that exist mostly feature aubergine. It’s another matter entirely that few Indian vegetarians will consider paying top dollar prices to eat baingan in a restaurant!
One of the best vegetarian dishes in the capital has to be the French Wild Mushroom Platter priced at a modest Rs 215 at Ploof in Lodi Colony Market. There are baby Portobello mushrooms and a fat, meaty wild French mushroom that I’ve seen nowhere else but here.
Without wanting to play the communal card, the best options for vegetarians in the city are Diva and Azzuro, both owned by members of a largely vegetarian community! Or perhaps it’s just that both owners are trained chefs – a rare occurrence in Delhi indeed. While Ritu Dalmia of Diva is fanatically insistent upon changing her menu every three months, Shrivant Rajgarhia of Azzuro racks his brain for interesting, innovative options for vegetarians who may or may not be adventurous foodies.
When I last dined at Diva, I had a spectacular second course of artichoke and parmesan crepes with a gruyere fonduta (Rs 415). It’s perhaps the only restaurant in Delhi where I order from the vegetarian section with enthusiasm. I never feel I am missing out on the lobster, squid and salume of the non-vegetarian segment, because I know that I’ll get premium ingredients cooked intelligently.
Azzuro has a wider palette to work with, because it is a Mediterranean restaurant. Their polenta mushrooms works well even for those who like a certain amount of spice level in their food. Ditto for the risotto croquettes, a traditional starter that Azzuro serves with a jalapeno pepper slice in the centre of each croquette. However, it is their version of hummus that is excellent, topped as it is with slivered toasted almonds, parsley and browned onions.
The newest kid on the Italian block – Baci – also has interesting first and second courses for vegetarians, including a delicate pumpkin gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce and a well of polenta with creamy mushrooms in the centre.
Hotel Shangri La, 19 Ashoka Road, Tel: 41191919
The Chinese, F 14-15, Middle Circle, Connaught Place, Tel: 23708888, 55398888
Ploof, 13 Main Market, Lodi Colony, Tel: 24649026, 24634666
Diva, M 8A, M Block Market, Greater Kailash II, Tel: 29215673, 51637858
Azzuro, 3, Community Centre, Saket, Tel: 51664274
Baci, 23 Sunder Nagar Market, Tel: 41507445
Box: Special requests. Ritu Dalmia is inured to getting requests for meals that contain no egg, dairy products or nuts. Those are easy. She has her share of lactose-intolerant diners. What is a tad more difficult is getting requests for Jain meals, where not only is there no garlic or onions, but no vegetable that is grown under the ground, for example potatoes and carrots.
Suddha Kukreja of Ploof gets regular requests for meals with a low glycaemic index, no carbohydrates, high protein or no fat.
Deepak Arora of The Chinese is used to vegetarian customers specifying that they don’t want broccoli, mushrooms or bamboo shoots in their food.
Food faddists and vegetarians with food allergies are rarer here than in the west. On the other hand, those with religious requirements and extremely conservative palates are far more common.