When Vidyut Jamwal, the action star of Commando, was walking out of the venue of the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada, a woman called out to her friend: “That’s the sexiest man I’ve seen in my life. I wasn’t expecting this!” The man called India’s New Action God by his colleagues in Tollywood is an expert in the martial art of Kalaripayattu, is worshipped by fans for his rippling six-pack abs, and has shared space with Hrithik Roshan in Hottest Men lists.
He has been compared by directors with Jackie Chan and was also voted the hottest vegetarian celebrity of 2013 by PETA. Meet the New Indian Vegetarian, one comfortable in the best restaurants and tony dinner parties, on the ski slope and the boardroom, a green connoisseur of shelves whose conscience is on a plate.
The clichéd concept of the vegetarian as a conservative eater, whose dishes are limited to dosa, idli, daal and paneer is being thrown out with the dishwater in India. With nearly 500 million vegetarians, the country has 4.43 million hectare under organic cultivation with a total organic certified production of 171,100 tonne. Urban farming and local produce gain vogue in cities and suburbs, and organic food is part of routine table fare. Hence, it’s gone from just being a family habit to a lifestyle choice, impacting big business, celebrity style, global food exposure and health awareness, besides ethical eating and going vegan, an extreme form of vegetarianism.
Foreign equity fund managers are happy about investing in food chains like Domino’s Pizza whose majority of sales comes from vegetarian items. Fast food is urban India’s palate nirvana, and it may come as a shock to committed meat eaters that the world’s first McDonald vegetarian outlet is in Punjab, the land of tandoori chicken. Speaking of the hapless bird, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s new promotional strategy is ‘So Veg, So Good’—with Veg Twisters, Veg Rockins and Paneer Zinger being considered finger lickin’ good. Four out of five pizzas sold in Delhi are veg. Riding the leafy wave, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, decided to launch India’s first all-veg luxe restaurant. Ajit Bangera, Senior Executive Chef, ITC Grand Chola, says: “India has the largest number of vegetarians in the world and secondly, most of the wealthy business houses in India are vegetarians. Keeping this in mind, the question we need to ask ourselves is what took us so long to come up with something like the Royal Vega.”
Variety in Spread
Variety is also the spice of the Indian vegetarian, and supermarkets are changing the shopping list. Neatly packaged rows of asparagus, avocados, kiwi fruit, guavas greet the shopper looking for baby corns and mushrooms. In organic stores, salads are packaged for takeaways. Urban retail outlets, in even medium-sized cities, have broccoli, iceberg lettuce and celery on their shelves. Now it’s also chic to be veg. The menu at India’s leading macrobiotic nutritionist, chef and instructor, and best-selling author Shonali Sabherwal’s dinner parties at her Mumbai home is exotic and creative—assorted vegetables with pilaf, baked or fried polenta, black bean salad, lentil soup, red pumpkin mash, eggplant strips, spinach in yogurt and more. “It’s such a misnomer that vegetarians have trouble with finding variety. Non-vegetarians have a few meats to choose from, whereas vegetarians have the whole farm at their disposal,” she says. When eating Indian, she enjoys Dal Pongal—a dish a non-vegetarian would rarely have heard of, let alone eaten, which she insists “once they do, they’ll realise what they’d been missing out on.”
Veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, galangal, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves have now entered the Indian gastronomic lexicon, and tofu or soya paneer has become a staple diet for many. Niche vegetable stores offer vegetable and leafy green varieties that were unheard of in India five years ago like kale, purple yam, yellow yam, tatsoi, mizuna, white brinjal, zucchini and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). What’s more, they even stock varieties of one vegetable! Take tomato or mushroom for instance. Now you can pick up tomato varieties such as tuchita cherry, roma, san moranzo or heirloom, and mushrooms like shitake, portobello, oyster, morels and enoki. And these are all locally grown.
Vegetarianism is also part of mass scale popular culture. The upcoming season of MasterChef India will feature exclusively vegetarian cuisine by vegetarian cooking enthusiasts. Chef-cum-show host Vikas Khanna says, “I often meet people who tell me that their mother or wife is an excellent cook but cannot participate in cooking game shows because they are pure vegetarian and do not cook meat or are not comfortable in a non-vegetarian environment. A non-vegetarian cook can always cook vegetarian food but the vegetarian may not be comfortable with meat or fish.”
Hence food choices have also changed. And vegetarians have their celebrity brand managers too. Actress Kareen Kapoor attributes her figure to a veg diet. Actor Madhavan supports her theory. He says, “I’ve been skiing and surfing, which require peak physical fitness. Being vegetarian in fact, has been more beneficial and rewarding.” Actor Sonu Sood remembers growing up in Moga, Punjab, on a diet of aloo-parathas and lassi. “I’ve never eaten meat, nor experienced the urge to,” he confesses. “Full moong sprouts in fresh salads, protein shakes, dal, coconut water and oats work fabulously for me. It’s a grave misnomer that you can’t build up your muscle tone if you are a vegetarian.”
South Indian actress Pranitha Subhash was born in a vegetarian family. “We don’t cook non-veg food at home. Since I grew up in that environment, I remained vegetarian,” she says. Environments breed many myths. A jet-setting lifestyle and living abroad have not inhibited the food choice of die-hard vegetarians like Rupali Edekar, the Regional Talent Director-Asia Pacific, Brand Union, who ironically grew up in a non-vegetarian Maharashtrian household in Bombay. “Being vegetarian was not a choice but it just happened to me! As far as I can remember all my memories are of my mum trying to feed me meat or fish and my body just rejecting it! Eventually my mother just had to quit.”
At 17, Rupali left home to study and work, and has since lived in countries like England, Vietnam, Denmark, Australia and Indonesia. An avid foodie she frequently holds pop-up kitchens in her home in Bangalore. “When I used to live in Denmark, someone told me that if I did not eat meat I would die,” she laughs. In the case of chef Kshama Prabhu, a sea food allergy forced her to avoid meat. “I love shopping for mushroom, asparagus and seasonal vegetables and use them to consistently reinvent my dishes. Turning veggie has made me realise the challenges other veggies face,” says the Executive Chef, The White Owl Brewery, who swears by her porcini risotto.
With changing perception, a significant number of Indians are going for the leaves, the reason for the uptick in the Indian organic food market. According to a recent survey, it recorded a 30-40 per cent growth rate, is estimated at `1,000 crore of which `700 crore came from exports only.
India and China drive the world’s meat markets; only about 42 per cent of India’s population prefers vegetarianism. But this hasn’t affected the growth of the new Indian vegetarian. A major factor behind this trend is increasing consciousness about health and fitness.
Says Sabherwal, who also authored The Beauty Diet and The Love Diet, “Non-vegetarian food, typically classified as animal protein, has a lot of saturated fat and is difficult to digest in compromised digestive systems. When improperly combined with other fats like oil or ghee, the digestion slows down even further. Therefore, it’s better to be vegetarian. Plant protein is better assimilated than animal protein, easy to digest and more efficiently utilised by the body.”
Many are embracing it as an ethical and healthy lifestyle choice. Screen colleague Madhavan agrees: “I kick up a mean, famed barbeque on my pent house terrace, with smoky mushrooms and soft, baby potatoes. What fantastic fare, if you allow me to be a little immodest!” grins the confirmed vegetarian who is busy beefing up for his next film modelled along the life of renowned boxer Mohammed Ali. “Nothing works better for me than a hearty, wholesome South Indian breakfast complete with appams, idlis and sambhar. I feel veggie food rolls in the best in nutrient value. I absolutely love sushi in all its variations, and thrive on Italian food, with whole wheat pasta topping the list.” Then there are the converts to the vegetable diet. Jamwal was a hardcore meat-eater for many years. “I gave it up one fine day. It’s vegetarianism that has helped me sculpt my body the way it is. I feel light, agile and alive being vegetarian, both physically and mentally.” Dancer and cookbook writer Jigyasa Giri, whose Cooking at Home with Pedatha won the Gourmand Award for Best Vegetarian Book in the World 2006, explains why she turned vegetarian though she is from a family of meat-eaters. She elaborates, “All of a sudden, I turned completely vegetarian, by choice. I think I was beginning to see the first signs of difficulty in digesting non-vegetarian food.”
Elisha Saigal, Founder & CEO, El Sol Strategic Consultants, is another such convert. “I used to feel very heavy after eating non-vegetarian food, even though it was quite delicious,” she says, “I quite preferred the vegetarian options since they left me feeling light and energetic no matter how much I ate.”
With such a burgeoning trend, vegetarianism is a rewarding business opportunity as well. Restaurants, supermarkets and of course cookbook authors are having a field day. Bangalore-born serial entrepreneur Siddarth Goenka’s dream restaurant, Kesariya, serves the food he grew up with—a pure vegetarian fare from his ancestral town in Shekhawati. “I wanted to put together our family cook’s veg dishes and serve up a bit of the fine art and architecture that came with the havelis,” he says.
Singer Chinmayi and Pranitha, who order only non-Indian vegetarian while eating out, show that the new Indian vegetarian is extremely cosmopolitan in taste. Chinmayi loves Chinese and Thai while Pranitha prefers Italian and Mexican. With such diverse demands, restaurants and hotels have discovered the vegetarian delights in Vietnamese, Japanese, Mediterranean and Mexican as well as Chinese, Thai and Italian. The Invention is the mother of perspicacity for chefs: previously unheard-of dishes like Veg Tagine, Green Apple Carpaccio, Melagu Mushrooms Cannelloni, Inari Veg Sushi, Thai Yellow Curry and Cantonese Lotus Stem with soya cream are ready to tickle veggie taste buds. Says Chef Manu Chandra, Executive Chef and Partner, Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao and Executive Chef, Olive Beach, Bangalore: “Many people are veg by upbringing or by choice. The moneyed classes in this country, for example, have traditionally been vegetarian—be it the Marwaris, Sindhis or the Tamil Brahmins. In fact, Haryana has some of the highest vegetarians per capita in the country. People are also switching to vegetarian food because it is getting so exciting! Chefs and restaurateurs are beginning to realise that there’s a fairly large world out there which has gone untapped.”
Gourmet food services have also sprung up thanks to the demand for healthier food options. Sabherwal launched Soul Food, a gourmet food service in 2007, based on the macrobiotic approach to food and lifestyle. Today, her list of clients includes numerous Bollywood personalities like Katrina Kaif, Ahana and Esha Deol, and Jacqueline Fernandez. Ask her what dishes her clients like and she answers, “My clients love the Burmese Khow Suey, Mexican Black Bean Tortillas, Brown Rice Croquettes with a nice White Bean Curry, marinara sauce with pasta and Italian chopped salads, and sushi.” It’s indeed not surprising that none of these dishes are Indian!
Riding on the rising vegetarian wave, organic food sellers are laughing all the way to the bank. At Kochi’s Aroma Store, managing partner Edgar Pinto is all smiles. “Business is good,” he says. The store gets 80 per cent of their produce from their own farms in Kollam, Kerala, and Gundluput district in Karnataka.
Not surprisingly, the price is 20 per cent higher than the market price. One reason is that because the transportation costs are high.
Vegetarian conscience keepers also try to influence eating. Many food activists suggest whole organic plant-based diets. Former meat eater Sujatha Ramni turned vegan about three-and-a-half years ago, and with two of her friends, started Dharti Organics in Chennai to promote the food choice.
Forty-two-year-old Sujatha says: “Any kitchen can become vegan-friendly. Don’t buy meat, dairy or honey. The usual rice, atta, dals, spices, fruits and veggies stay. Human beings by instinct and evolution are herbivores (our bodies are not designed to eat meat). We only started eating meat after the invention of tools.”
Veteran Odia actor Mihir Das who loves his pets and birds finds eating meat “ghastly”. He is a vegan now. “I feel I am a calmer person and controlled in my behaviour unlike most of us in the high-voltage entertainment industry where we go through lots of stress. In addition, being a vegan has helped me remain healthy with all health parameters in control,” he says.
Mumbai-based celebrity stylist Aakriti Dobhal went from beef burgers to bean burgers in a day—driven by her concern for animals. She couldn’t just digest a scene by the lead actress of a film who had to go thumping over clipped pigeons. “That one incident changed everything for me. I turned vegetarian and then vegan soon after,” says Aakriti who has been a happy convert for three years now.
Conscience Eating is fast becoming a popular food trend in Indian cities. The owner of Cafe Turtle and Full Circle Publishing in Delhi, Priyanka Malhotra’s veg story is not new. She was driving past the familiar neighborhood meat shop when she saw skinned chicken hanging from iron hooks. She says, “To cause so much pain to another life seemed just beyond cruel and since then, I’ve turned vegetarian.” When she opened her café she wasn’t a vegetarian. In the end, it was just desserts for sisters Anushka and Gayatri Kakkar, the brains behind Divinelicious, the 100 per cent vegetarian luxury bakery in Delhi. Gayatri’s friends abroad jokingly referred to her as “a poor little Indian”, since her food was simple and super cheap compared to their fancy meats. She also got to hear things like, ‘you don’t know what you’re missing out on’. ‘So what do you eat again?’ ‘You’re having fake food.’ ‘You can’t be taken to the awesome Michelin-starred restaurants; what would you eat there?’ That’s when the cookie crumbled.
Food for thought, indeed.
(Inputs by Latha Srinivasan, Jayanthi Somasundaram, Samhati Mohapatra, Jackie Pinto, Meera Bhardwaj, Chetana Divya Vasudeva, Suhas Yellapantula, Apurva Venkat, Shilpi Kakkar, Anil Mulchandani and Ayesha Singh)