Go out to eat in a restaurant in most parts of the world, if there is one person who would squirm in their seat, it would be that lone poor vegetarian. Being primarily a vegetarian and having the love of food, it is one challenge that I have faced time and again. So many lovely dishes with gorgeous presentations- but all of them are beyond my value system to try, God why? Why should I have to always settle for a frisse lettuce salad with goat cheese or a lone pasta usually the calorie loaded mac and cheese? The question that pops in my head is why can’t you, so well-known innovation driven chefs, make some vegetarian options that do not include just the boring green salad or the calorie loaded pasta and cheese. There are some, I have seen who take pride in bragging about their lovely creations made of Foie gras and pate or eyeballs of some poor creature! I also recently read about a famous Michelin star studded chef proclaiming one of the food trends to be an increasing use of insects in the gourmet kitchens. Whoa! But take them to a vegetable shop and you will find their creativity thoroughly stunted.
I do cook non vegetarian dishes for my family and I would not deny that there are animal based recipes in my upcoming book, albeit just a few and I say I am primarily a vegetarian however truthfully I am hypocritical, I eat it as long as it’s not in my face, on my plate flesh and blood, so eggs in desserts, rennet in cheese, gelatin in ice cream- all goes in. That said it is us with some love of ‘not animal’, who have to be the torch bearers of innovation in vegetarian to remind this world of what is possibly a trend they have overlooked.
I have tried to analyze meat, to try and understand what stands out as one characteristic that is not found in vegetarian food and which makes it so difficult to resist for most people across this world. Here’s what I found (and this is really my opinion not meant to override any of yours, so feel free to put across yours if you feel like), meat has a texture – a chewy, juicy fleshy texture that is agreeable to take on the flavor of the sauce, the marination, the curry or the curing you choose to bestow upon it. When cooked the raw stretchy tissue becomes soft pliable chewy flesh made palatable with some vegetarian flavors that are added into it-the spices or the herbs or the tomato or the cream- the artificial flavorings from the magic stock cube or even the hordes of sauces and marinades available in the supermarkets!
It is my opinion that all the flavors that there are can be found in the vegetarian, only what we miss most often is the chewy texture. So I began to hunt for texture that’s vegetarian. I would however like to bring in here a word about Parmesan- the Parmigiano Reggiano- a hard granular cheese, the king of cheese that’s delightful. I love its sharp, nutty, umami flavor; the only thing is that it is definitely not a vegetarian cheese. Its production involves the use of natural calf rennet and strictly none other. I was looking up, the other day for a vegetarian recipe to cook for dinner- I found one of Jamie Oliver’s that I decided to try…it was full of parmesan and I went- nah! The classification is not right, I tried it with some adaptation, it turned out great (and I did use Parmigiano Reggiano!). This surely is an exception and we’ll talk about this a bit later, for now getting back to looking for texture in the natural vegetarian food.
The other day I cooked some pasta, I and my husband sat down to eat, he looked at me and said- “you’re eating chicken?”- I said-“no, this is vegetarian- these are oyster mushrooms!”. Oyster mushrooms have a great texture and they take minutes to cook, just sauté in some olive oil, with pressed garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and you can use them for anything- in the pastas, on pizzas, in pies and in salads. Shitake and Portobello mushrooms are also great on their meaty texture, however here in Dubai they are pretty expensive but then so is meat- that reminds me I should run a price comparison of these meaty mushrooms and the meat itself to see if I would save up some pennies and still be able to have exotic vegetarian food, that the carnivores in my family would also enjoy.
Indian food is heaven for vegetarians; this is probably the only cuisine in the world where you would find such a huge array of delicious vegetarian recipes that you’d forget squirming in your seat till you take that flight out of the country. The only downside is that it is designed to compensate for calories from the carbohydrates- so your main course will always be carb heavy with rotis and rice as indispensable accompaniments!
A few other vegetables I find work very well to provide the chewy texture- the first one of them is Jackfruit. we also call it Kathal, this is a fruit that’s native to south and south east Asia. It is amongst the largest tree borne fruits and the weight of each jackfruit can sometimes be in excess of 30 kilos! The flesh of jackfruit is starchy and fibrous, the smaller softer fruits are quite sweet but it’s the harder and larger variety that is nice to stir fry and eat. If you are able to select a piece that is not sweet, then stir fry with onions and ginger, add a few indian spices and seasonings and you will know what I mean.
The other great veggie option is eggplant known by several names- brinjal, aubergine and in India we call it baingan. Eggplant has a firm hard flesh that can be charred, roasted, bar be cued and baked with great results. It is also available in various sizes and so you can render it in various forms- the large ones can be sliced, pan fried and rolled with fillings or can be scooped, filled and baked; the smaller ones can be cooked whole or halved lengthways (together with the stalks) with Indian spices, you can also chop them and sauté to make toppings. They go very well with mozzarella cheese or even with other vegetables like peppers and onions. In India we make something called Baingan Bhartha– the skin of the brinjal is charred till it comes off and the flesh is chopped and cooked with spices and onion, it is a firm favorite especially in the state of Punjab. A version of Bhartha (a term that translates to mince) is also found in the Arabic mezze that I have written about earlier in this blog, in the form of Baba ghanoush, a seasoned mince of eggplant flesh mixed with pomegranate seeds et al.
Some other chewy meaty vegetables you might want to try are-
- corm (also called taro, colocasia or arvi) which is a starchy root vegetable- you can boil these and then bake or stir fry.
- Artichokes- The edible portion of artichokes is the lower fleshy part of the young buds, called artichoke hearts not without reason! The artichokes are boiled and then the outer scales are removed to reveal the fibrous heart that is great in salads, on pizzas, as pickles or even as fillings in your tortilla wraps!
Amongst the other vegetarian food groups other than the vegetables are definitely the paneer or the cottage cheese. You can use paneer in numerous ways including kebabs, stir fries, frittatas etc. It is firm, soft and chewy and a great favorite with vegetarians in India. Likewise is tofu- the soyabean curd. Its taste is such that not everyone enjoys it but try the firm white tofu in soup with seaweed you will become its fan!
It would be great if you could share with us some of your vegetarian ideas that we could chew upon!! And if you have come across, do share with me a worthy vegetarian replacement for the lovely Parmigiano Reggiano!
Look forward to hearing from you.
Bhavna J Mishra