Chew on… vegetarians!

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.

Love animals

Bhavna J Mishra

4 thoughts on “Chew on… vegetarians!

  1. Here’s something more for the Vegetarians, – if you get Colocasia, don’t throw away the leaves. You can use colocasia (Arbi) leaves, apply a thin chickpea paste on then, and then roll them. cut them into thick slices, and fry them in olive oil. In India, these are called “Bataun, or Pathorey”, high on calories, but tastes good.

    Regards, Puneet

  2. Hey Bhavna,
    Read your blog… I loved the amount of research you have done for your blog. Also the way you have delved into one of the key mouth feels to food ie ‘texture’ and juxtaposing vegetarian with non-vegetarian is very interesting. Plus your vegetarian solutions surely deserve ample credit. It was indeed quite an interesting read (I have updated my notes based on your suggestions for my next vegetarian dinner party!).

    Nevertheless, I’m taking my liberties to give you the other side of the story from a different point of view – if you dont mind that is…

    While you do mention that restaurants in most parts of the world do not give a vegetarian good options apart from salad and pasta and cheese, I do get a distinct feeling from your post that you are mostly referring to European restaurants (which does not really constitute most parts of the world!). Although you are absolutely right in stating that the vegetarian options are not too many in Europe. On the other hand, the rest of the world does not alienate the vegetarian so blatantly as does Europe. Am referring to the cuisines offered by south-east Asian countries such as Thai, Singaporean, Indian, Chinese and other parts of the globe such as Greek, parts of Africa, South American, etc. And these today have become very important and a significant part of the world!

    So while you do ask that why cannot these so-called Michelin-star restaurants from Europe offer as wide a vegetarian fare as compared to their non-vegetarian counterparts – this can be replied by two simple words – weather & culture.

    Speaking of Europe (since thats your main point of reference), it has historically been a cold continent with severe winters and short & cold summers. This kind of harsh weather never really let much vegetation grow in the soil. Therefore, people had to rely on cattle for their survival. Additionally, meat and meat products could store longer in cold climates and little amounts of the same would provide ample energy and strength to carry on in the relentless winters (hence the importance of ‘fatty meat’ such as bacon, etc). And that became their culture! Therefore vegetarianism is not something that comes to them naturally. There has never been an intentional effort to keep out vegetarianism. But because meat is an inherent part of their food-habit and therefore their culture, not only do the chefs cook meat products more but also the customers eat meat more.

    On the other hand, places such as South-east Asia, are extremely warm and humid, where meat and meat products do not digest easily and does not keep long and hence culturally the evolution of vegetarianism is stronger in those parts (apart from pescetarian-ism and the culture of catching and eating fish fresh). I cannot even imagine mentioning the word ‘meat’ to a Tam-Bram!

    Now in reply to just one more point, of course with my limited intelligence 🙂
    Its in reference to your analyses of meat and appropriating it’s taste to that of the sauce, marinade or curry which is not entirely true! Of course a lot of the meat dishes are intended for a marinade or served with a sauce or dunked in curry but to relegate the taste of the meat entirely to its accompanied preparation is gross injustice. In that case the world would not have experienced ‘bleu steak’ which is just put on the grill for 3 seconds or carpaccios which is basically thin slices of raw meat or smoked salmon which is nothing but fish kept in a smoked room for days or smoked ham or peel n eat shrimps or grilled chicken and the list could go on. There are loads of preparations where there are no additives except for salt and pepper and the meat is relished just for its taste and flavour. So to say that meat does not have a flavour or a taste of its own and its taste is derived from the vegetarian spices added to it, would be like saying ‘salad and pasta and cheese’ are the only vegetarian dishes in the world (which I am sure you would totally disagree)! In that case I wonder what would happen to the Aberdeen Angus Beef from Scotland or Bresse Chicken from France or New Zealand Lamb or Wagyu Kobe Beef from Japan or game meat from Africa, for which people across the globe pay seriously good money, if chewy texture and no flavour or taste were all that they wanted!

    So to conclude, it is indeed a study of weather and culture and what has been handed down the ages into society which defines the food eating habits of man rather than fashion, which has always been very fickle!

    And of course, anyone and everyone may have a different point of view to what I have written, because thats what this actually is – my opinion – and therefore only mine. And I do respect everyone else’s as well! 🙂

    And apologies for the drawl!

  3. PS – To add to my looooooong point of view, it struck me that non-vegetarianism is also strong in hotter regions such as the Middle East (but of course)! Hence, my previous explanation about cold weather conditions and food-habits threw me into a conundrum. But then a bit of extra research landed me with the same explanation of weather being the determinant factor here as well. Similar to colder climates, almost nothing grows in the desert as well. And hence the reliance again on cattle which in this case is predominantly sheep and goat!
    Right – I think I must now stop or I will be bordering on obsessiveness! 🙂 I hope you forgive me for my endless banter!

  4. Hi @Navanita,
    Really appreciate your effort here and welcome all the points you’ve made. However a few clarifications:
    Please do remember that this post is written from the point of view of a person who is a true vegetarian (even though i do not fit in that definition) and believe me when i say this, as i once was a true vegetarian- it is the story of the menu in most parts of the world and not just Europe or Middle east. I have mentioned India as an exception which i still feel is the only one significant part of the world that predominantly caters to the needs of a true vegetarian, but more due to its culture and religion than the climate.
    Geographically speaking whether it is the colder temperate countries or the more tropical ones, be it South East Asia, Africa, Russia, Japan, China, Australia or Americas it is non vegetarian food that reigns supreme. A lot of vegetarians (and I can not include ‘piscetarians’ over here ), would not consider condiments such as shrimp paste, oyster sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, stock cubes made of animal origin, cheese with rennet or eggs or even honey as something they could be happy to order off a so called vegetarian menu. The vegetarian dishes in all cuisines including the ones that you mention i.e. Thai, Singaporean, Chinese and other parts of the globe such as Greek, parts of Africa etc. have these flavorings added to them and hence the vegetarian continues to squirm!
    About the flavor of meat, what you say is perfect from the point of view of their countries of origin- the bleu steaks, the raw sashimi, the biltong and jerkys amongst all the ones that you mention are all too good for the people who have grown on them and have acquired the taste and have found this in their culture as you rightly point out. But then the point i am trying to make is that the one differentiating element of the taste that probably is not usually available in the vegetables is the bite or the texture. All the rest of the flavors and characterstics i.e. the olfactory sensations and the sensations due to temperature of food apart from the sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory, mushy, squishy, juicy, crunchy et al, are all there in the vegetarian fare as well. The truth is that non vegetarians find vegetarian food boring and not satisfying, if the non vegetarians were to find this missing link in the vegetarian food, then it might accelerate an already increasing trend towards health through vegetarianism, considering vegetarian food is almost always cheaper to procure than the meat. Probably the acceptance would be more rapid and easy and you might see more chewy veggie options on menus even in Europe! The whole point here is to make the vegetarian choices even wider and more inclusive. But thank you for your very valuable points, I am editing my post above to remove the line that says- flavor does not rest in the other side, just to remove that dissonance and obviously the idea here is at all not to make any side sound better or worse.
    Cheers and Keep writing.

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