Vegetarians the world over have never had it so good. Gone are the days when salad stuffings, breads and sliced potatoes gaped out of a vegetarian’s plate while his carnivorous friends revelled in a hearty three-course meal. A culinary renaissance, which has inspired celebrities like Aamir Khan, Russell Brand and Mike Tyson to go green, has also inspired internationally acclaimed chefs to turn a new leaf.
These gastronomy mavericks, although famed for their predominantly meat-dominated cuisines, are busting the ‘lack of variety’ myth with their world class vegetarian delicacies.
Leading the pack is chef Mark Best. Starting out as an electrician in the gold mines of Western Australia, Best picked the kitchen ladles to follow his passion and has created unusual and innovative gastronomic flavours. “Few chefs have stayed at the front ofcontemporary cuisine with such consistent results,” Australian Gourmet Traveller 2014 guide wrote about Best.
Best has created some of the most distinguished gourmet experiences in the world at his fine dining restaurant, Marque, in the heart of Sydney. He effortlessly balances his vegetarian dishes as well as the other numbers on his degustation (French culinary term for savouring food with all the senses) menus.
Best’s fascination for vegetarian food revolves around his desire to highlight the innocence of farm produce in its virgin, signature incarnations. His signature ‘Soy Yoghurt with Sweet Corn and Popcorn’ is a fascinating mix of subtle crispness and contrasting flavours. “We have always prided ourselves on our vegetarian menu options,” says Best. “I have never understood why non-meat eaters are treated like second-class citizens in most restaurants.”
In ‘Fermented Barley with Beetroot and Cured Egg’, Best has blended the nutritive aspects of the diverse ingredients and yet kept the flavours of each element intact. He believes that vegetables are a wild and wonderful source of inspiration and that “it is a poor cook who doesn’t understand this or takes advantage of such bounty”.
Best’s simple yet invigorating ‘Cauliflower with Date and Coffee’ combines the contrasting flavours of the small crisp florets with the sweetness of dates and the lingering aroma of coffee. At his restaurant, each course challenges the taste buds in novel ways. “The vegetarian cuisine of India remains an inspiration for me for its depth and variety,” says Best.
While indigenous innovators have made their mark in various countries, India’s culinary adaptability is legendary. With the innate ability of Indian chefs to assimilate the core essence of diverse cuisines from around the globe, India today boasts a dazzling repertoire of international cuisines.
Along with preserving the soul of traditional Italian cuisine, Chef Sushil Multani of Botticino at The Trident in Mumbai has contributed to its tantalising treasury. Multani believes that India’s better tasting and cheaper vegetables provide ample scope for innovation as compared with Europe and the enormous vegetarian clientele challenges him to step out of his comfort zone.
Botticino offers more variety in vegetarian food than most Italian restaurants in Europe. That is because Multani wants to cater to the well-travelled vegetarian Indians, who would want to relive a Michelin star experience they had in Italy.
“Vegetarian food is healthier, lighter with far greater variety,” he says. “It offers an unbelievably wider canvas to the chef and diner alike. It pushes us chefs to our limit. A tenderloin stake in Rome and in New York may not taste much different, or what one can do with a lamb chop, for instance, is limited. There might be just four or five things one can do with quail, but give me an aubergine, some bell peppers and tomatoes and I will give you 10,000 different innovations, even create something unconventional like aubergine with a Japanese Mizo paste.” Though Italian cuisine is meat-dominated, it is flexible enough for vegetarian experimentation, says Multani.
Chefs around the world are taking a fresh look at vegetarian cooking and not shying away from using rare ingredients like purple potatoes and ‘black garlic’. A growing awareness among vegetarian guests about the subtle ingredients has made chef’s like Multani go for original Italian tomatoes and Peruvian asparagus, among other exotic ingredients. “Vegetarians are adventurous when it comes to dining,” says Multani. “Although it is still 50-50, the number of vegetarian diners has gone up.
Earlier, fine dining meant just meatbased dishes. But that is changing now.” His signature dish ‘Mamma Rosso’, which is served with potato sauce, cream and grilled vegetables, has an underlying smokiness and the rustic flavour of olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
In another part of the world, chef Heinz Winkler has created his own signature cuisine by using local produce. A three Michelin star chef, Winkler is the brain behind Residenz Heinz Winkler, which is counted among the best restaurants in Munich, Germany. Though he is known for creating culinary masterpieces with meat, Winkler feels that vegetarian cuisine offers far wider and more exciting challenges that test and fine-tune his culinary skills.
His one dish that shines through is the light-as-air ‘Asparagus in Puff Pastry’, which has farm-fresh eggs, fennel, shallots, white asparagus, a dash of Pernod, French Vermouth, white wine and saffron in a synergetic blend. Every ingredient has been carefully chosen to give the dish a subtle, yet distinctive flavour.
His other creation, ‘Rice Tartlet on Apple Sauce’, is a well-conceived montage of long grain rice, vanilla bean, apples, galantine, white wine, champagne and Calvados that lends a kind of mystical appeal.
“Food should never burden but inspire,” says Winkler. “It is very important to distinguish and identify the original taste of the basic ingredient. The intention of my ‘Cuisine Vitale’ [produce-centred style of cooking] is to make the senses happy, and care for the body and the soul at the same time.”
Not to be missed is his feather smooth ‘Gnocchi Chanterelle’, which is served with chive sauce. The buttersoft gnocchi has the earthy flavour of the mushrooms in every morsel, which when relished slowly with the chive foam lends a tingling feeling.
While Europe mentored fine dining, India’s gastronomy is placed high up on the world culinary map. And, Shaukat Ali Qureshi, who hails from a family that once served the Awadhi nobility of Lucknow, best represents it. Apart from preserving the age-old recipes, Qureshi, who is the masterchef at Jyran-Sofitel in Mumbai, has also created novel vegetarian dishes. Jains comprise 25 per cent of Jyran-Sofitel’s clientele. Therefore, it has a hefty green portion, thanks to Qureshi’s passion for innovation.
“While in many of our neighbouring countries, people are unwilling to experiment beyond the conventional, nobody can beat India when it comes to variety in vegetarian cooking,” says Qureshi. His vegetarian signature ‘Anaar Badam ke Aloo’, which is prepared by cooking pomegranate, almonds and potato mash in a clay oven, is a hot favourite among the diehard vegetarians.
He has also created vegetarian kebabs like Shikampuri and Bhaguni Kebab. “Vegetarian cuisine offers far more variety. I can make koftas from any vegetable,” says Qureshi. “Although there are just five types of gravies, I have gone beyond and used almonds, pistachio and even pine nuts as a base.” Considering the health benefits of vegetarian cuisine, Qureshi says, one must consider it as an option, especially after age 40.
Chinese food is considered to be minimalistic, light and greatly organic. However, even Chinese dishes revolve around meat and seafood. Chef Paul Lau Ping Lui is trying to change the perception that vegetarian food is boring. “A vegetarian dish doesn’t have to be boring. Varied in colour and texture, vegetables, beans, mushrooms and gluten are great ingredients for a delicious and versatile vegetarian meal,” says Lui, who is the executive chef at The Ritz- Carlton, Guangzhou, China.
He brings traditional cooking methods into play with his inimitable style of contemporary presentation to create dishes that have a fine texture and delightful flavours. Lui demonstrates his keen exploratory flair in ‘Braised Bamboo Fungus with Spinach and Black Truffle’. Another must-try is his ‘Pan-fried Bean Curd sheet filled with Tomatoes’. “The key to cooking a vegetarian dish,” says Lui, “is to retain and highlight the original flavours of different ingredients.”