Eating out can be a hit or miss affair for vegetarians. Whilst things have undoubtedly improved in recent years, it’s still not unusual to find some restaurants offering only a handful of meat free dishes.
And even then, my vegetarian friends tell me they often find the options open to them uninspiring and somewhat tokenistic.
I checked the website of one of the most celebrated restaurants in Newcastle recently – I won’t name them to spare their blushes – only to find that out of 13 starters just TWO were vegetarian…and there were NO meat-free options amongst the 19 main courses! That means less than 7% of what they offer is suitable for vegetarians.
Of course, they will probably say vegetarians need only ask and the chef will try to accommodate them. But why should they have to?
I’m proud to say that this tends not to be the case with Indian restaurants.
On Raval’s A La Carte menu, for example, three of our 10 starters and six of our 26 mains are vegetarian – that’s 25% of our dishes.
Why should this be the case? The answer lies in India’s culinary and cultural heritage.
It is a country that embraces vegetarianism not as an ‘alternative’ lifestyle but very much as a mainstream option.
Indeed, India contains more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined. Out of a population of 1.2 billion, it’s estimated around 500 million have meat-free diets. Demand is so great that McDonald’s even opened a vegetarian-only restaurant in Amritsar, northern India, a few years ago.
So I guess it’s fair to say Indian chefs take vegetarianism seriously. As a result, I would argue Indian restaurants serve up some of the most sophisticated vegetarian meals available.
Here at Raval, our chefs are experts at marrying together the freshest ingredients with complementary spices to create dishes that are bursting with flavour.
Amongst our most popular dishes are Pindi Chana, chickpeas with Punjabi spices, onions, tomatoes and pomegranate seeds, and Panch-Mel dal, a mixture of no fewer than five different lentils served with onion, garlic, tomato, chilli and coriander.
If you have yet to try a vegetable curry at home, take my advice – don’t just go for the easy option by pouring a ready-made sauce over boring boiled veg.
With a little imagination, you can turn out something with colour and texture that you’ll want to try again and again.
So here’s one of my favourites that always delights dinner guests, a mild curry called Kayi Korma.
There’s enough here to serve four – so go ahead, give it a go!
2 tbsp sunflower or groundnut oil
1½ tsp black mustard seeds
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4cm (1½in) cube fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1-2 green chillis, halved, deseeded and chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
200g (7oz) tomatoes, cut into chunks
250g (9oz) carrots, cut into chunks
350g (12oz) potatoes, waxy or floury (peeled if floury)
250ml (9fl oz) coconut cream
100g (3½oz) frozen peas
125g (4½oz) French or dwarf beans, topped and halved
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp chopped coriander, plus extra sprigs to serve
Fry the mustard seeds in oil until they start to pop, then add the onions and continue to cook until they are brown, but not burnt. Add the garlic, ginger and chilli and cook for a further five minutes, then add the ground coriander and turmeric and cook for a minute to release the spices’ fragrance. Add the tomatoes, carrots and potatoes and cook for about four minutes. Now add just enough water to cover the vegetables, followed by the coconut cream. Now season and simmer, allowing the vegetables to cook until they are almost tender. Add more water if necessary. The sauce should just coat the vegetables. The peas and beans only need to cook for about three minutes, so add them towards the end. Add half the lime juice, taste, adjust the seasoning and decide whether you want more lime. Stir in the chopped coriander just before serving. Serve with plain basmati rice or rice with added and vegetables.