Chennai: When you think of Chinese, Goan, Italian or Kerala cuisine, vegetarian is the last word that comes to mind. Thinking of a fish-less curry or a pepperoni-less pizza seems absurd. However, this ‘ludicrous’ idea isn’t as bizarre as it may appear. A keen eye can spot pure vegetarian restaurants for these otherwise ‘non-vegetarian’ cuisines scattered across the country.
‘It moves, it crawls, it walks – it has to be on the Chinese menu!’ This stereotype that typifies Chinese food received a jolt when Balasubramani opened Flower Drum, a pure vegetarian Chinese restaurant in the heart of the city.
“People didn’t believe that Chinese food can be 100% vegetarian. It took me nearly two years to convince people to visit my restaurant,” says Balasubramani, who decided to open the restaurant after his Gujarati and Marwari customers in his previous workplace suggested the need for such an eatery.
The vast menu has kept the picky vegetarian in mind at every stage. “We don’t use eggs and our noodles are made of flour. Minimal amounts of MSG are used as vegetarian Chinese doesn’t require much,” says Balasubramani, adding that dishes are tailored to suit Jain preferences also.
The nine-year-old restaurant in Prince Plaza, Egmore has wooed customers with its large portions, reasonable prices and varied menu which has more than 100 lip-smacking dishes with a few house specialities like Buddha’s delight vegetable and Eight jewel vegetable.
“The slight Indian flavour to the Chinese dishes makes it better than the food available in other places. Since it is pure vegetarian, we don’t get the smell of non-vegetarian food,” says graphic designer Nidhi Shah, explaining that for families like hers, which visit only vegetarian restaurants, this food joint has given them a taste of Chinese delicacies.
Interestingly, the large vegetarian community in Poes Gardens led to Dario’s opening a pure vegetarian Italian restaurant.
“We have vegan options for our pastas and pizzas and our cheese is also vegetarian. All our desserts are eggless and the sauces are freshly prepared at our kitchen,” says Suresh Cumar, CEO (Operations), Rama’s F&B Co., adding that their mouth-watering homemade pasta has successfully replaced the pepperoni pizza.
Goa is best known for its seafood and beaches. But two vegetarian cafés in Panjim, Goa – Café Bhonsle and Café Tato – have earned their credibility because of their authentic Goan cuisine over generations. Their finger-licking bhajis (gravies) like Patal, Sukhi, Tomato, Almi, Usal and Chole with pav (bun) or poori have been favourites among locals and tourists for years now.
“We are known for our chilli bhajiya and banana buns and our food is gelatin-free and eggless,” says the owner Milind Bhonsle whose 95-year-old café is now a landmark in Panjim.
Bhonsle, who owns a non-vegetarian café too, says, “Around 50% of my customers are catholics and they prefer vegetarian Goan food. Over the years, I have realised that 75% of the people prefer vegetarian food over non-vegetarian food here.”
Tucked away in the streets of Pallimukku, Cochin, is a small veggie diner – Ambiswamy’s – serving traditional Kerala Sadhya everyday. “We use red rice instead of white rice while serving Sadhya on the banana leaf everyday,” says owner Bindu Vijaykumar, explaining how even non-vegetarians opt for the Puttu kadalai and Sadhya as it contains less oil and can be had everyday unlike the oily fish curry.
Also, the healthy food and hygienic ambience make it a regular halt for patients visiting the neighbouring Cochin Hospital.
(I had written this piece for the Times of India, Chennai on the occasion of World Vegetarian Day (2015). But due to space constraints few parts of the story were cut out. Here’s the full piece!)