KOCHI: A pink-glazed dome, ever so elegant with pistachio, is in front of me. A spoonful and I’m transported to a land only Payal Lodha knows. “Strawberry, cream cheese and pistachio,” she cheerily says, while I questioningly look at her and the entremet. I’d just tasted a multitude of unfamiliar textures and healthy flavours but Payal sticks to her stand. Payal, 23, is probably Kochi’s exclusively plant-based pastry chef and veganism is her driving force. The Pune native works as the pâtissier at the Loving Earth Yoga Cafe, Fort Kochi.
Payal’s stint with veganism was not accidental. “I came across veganism when I was 16. I’ve always been active with animal rescue and I’m a Jain so I hadn’t eaten meat all my life. However, as my family staunchly consumes dairy, I’ve never been able to follow a proper vegan diet. Along this time, I wanted to be a vet, as my father was one. But I wanted to study the same abroad and I’d learnt that the undergraduate studies were eight years long. This discouraged me. I took a break and joined a few baking classes, took orders whilst I studied English Literature on the side,” she quips.
However, despite baking eggless cakes, Payal had no option but to use to ghee and butter aplenty for her desserts. “Fondant cakes are rather popular in India. And while I like the artistic part of it, the concept didn’t quite feel right. Upon attending a six-week course in Lavonne Academy of Baking Science and Pastry Arts in Bengaluru, I knew I wanted to do more. They specialised in French pastry which dwelt more on the ingredients,” Payal explains.
Wanting to explore more, Payal took a flight to Ferrandi Paris, a culinary school wherein she learnt the art of her craft. However, she faced the same dilemma. Plant-based pastries were rather difficult to pursue. “On a backpacking trip to Austria, I met a 49-year-old pregnant woman called Tamara who practised veganism. Her health and energy were beyond comprehensible. Her enthusiasm motivated me and I interned with a vegan pastry cafe in Paris which taught me ample,” says Payal.
Curious about the vegan scene in India, Payal returned in 2018. She chanced upon an opportunity to work with Loving Earth India Cafe in November 2019. However, things were far difficult than she expected. “Veganism can be practised better in Western countries due to the availability of more brands catering to options such as vegan butter and soy milk. Here, I struggled to find the right companies. So I studied ingredients and decided to make them for myself. For example, I make my vegan butter so I had to curate newer recipes to suit the butter I created,” she says.
That sounds exhausting. But to Payal, veganism is worth paying the price. What else does she substitute in desserts? “Aquafaba, which is the viscous water in which chickpeas are cooked, is the equivalent of egg whites. Algae replace gelatin which is primary to several desserts such as mousses,” she says. The chef is keen to teach the craft of plant-based pastries.
“I just had my first student who arrived from Puducherry and I have a few more lined up. I would love taking workshops. There have always been misconceptions about veganism, touting the same as bland or boring. Some have even called vegans a cult! All I can say is try the food, learn the recipes and if you like it, opt for the lifestyle. You can always revert. But do not judge,” she adds.