Rithika Ramesh, Vegan City Guides, R186
Two years ago, a South African friend and I were discussing the beautiful city of Cape Town. I was complaining that when I visited the country some 15 years ago, I subsisted on French fries as I could barely find any vegetarian food. This is how the conversation went:
Me: “…so basically I starved.”
Friend: “How can that be? We make excellent chicken back home.”
Me: “Umm… yes… I don’t eat chicken…. Hens… you know.”
Friend (nodding in understanding): “Ah, but what about fish, we are next to the ocean!”
Me: “Er… I don’t eat fish as well, you know, they swim and all that! Oh, and I don’t eat eggs.”
Friend (shaking his head): “No wonder you starved.”
Trying to be vegetarian on an international trip is a bit of a challenge, and even more if you are vegan (people who follow a dairy-free diet). Since I visited South Africa in the ’90s, Internet was still something of a mystery and we relied on good ole’ word of mouth for sightseeing and food recommendations. Since then things have changed – travelling for vegans is easier, thanks to the Vegan City Guides, a series of guidebooks published by an independent e-book publishing house which started in South Africa. On their website, the mother-daughter publishing pair explains their mission, “Wouldn’t you be happy in the knowledge that wherever you went, you had somewhere to turn to for advice on where to eat, sleep, shop and enjoy your leisure time as a vegan? No more relying on French salads and pommes frites to get you through the day in a strange city! Above all, it is our aim to help ‘normali[s]e’ veganism to the extent that traveling abroad while maintaining a vegan diet will no longer be perceived as being a burden”.
Last November, they published Vegan City Guides: Mumbai, written by Rithika Ramesh. A vegan since 2009, Ramesh runs The Green Stove, what she calls “Mumbai’s only 100 per cent vegan bakery”. The guide offers a vegan guide to the city’s restaurants, pubs, malls and even vegan catering and shopping. In her introduction Ramesh warns that “Mumbai is yet to wake up to the vegan revolution” but does agree that “it is never hard to find something vegan in a restaurant if you know what to avoid and explain it to the wait staff”. She goes on to explain the green dot system of labelling vegetarian foods, pointing out that it includes dairy products. For tourists, there are some handy translations for words such as “ghee” and “doodh”, and a map that can help them navigate the culinary landscape of Mumbai.
Most of the guide deals with vegan eating. In the Restaurants, Pubs and Takeaways, Ramesh offers a range of restaurants and also advises on the price range. She recommends customising Chetana’s thali by cutting out the non-vegan options like dhokla and kadhi. Then there’s Ray’s Pizza in Bandra which makes a pizza without cheese. What really works is that Ramesh suggests more iconic and local places such as Prakash in Dadar and Ram Ashraya and Café Madras in Matunga. And at the other end of the spectrum, she also includes international names such as the Michelin-star dim sum house Yauatcha and Suzette.
Ramesh writes simply without any frills and that’s perfect for a guide. There is some generalising, but it’s evident that the author has put in a lot of leg work in researching vegan options in the city. That said, it’s a fact that a lot of Indian vegetarian foods can easily be made vegan, by simply cutting out the ghee or using, say, cashews instead of cream to make a rich gravy. Idlis, dal-rice, bhel puri,and many veggies are already vegan.
In many ways, it makes sense that the first India vegan guide is from Mumbai. A few years ago, the residents of the swanky stretch of Malabar Hill to Marine Drive pushed for no-meat restaurants. So much so that Pizza Hut on Marine Drive turned veggie as well. The debate between “vegetarian” and “nonvegetarian” buildings also started in our city. And we have learnt, first hand, that most restaurants are happy to customise food orders based on patron preferences.
The Nightlife in Mumbai was a tad too short, where you mainly learn that “Pub food is not very vegan friendly so it’s better to eat before you hit a pub or you’ll be eating French fries through the night”. The Vegan Shopping section recommends a list of brand names in biscuits, soya milk and chocolate. What really leaps out at the reader is that the list is small. It makes you wonder, if in the future food companies will consider developing healthy and tasty options for lactoseintolerant people, vegans or people with certain kinds of allergies. Until then, this guide is a good primer.
By Bijal Vachharajani on January 03 2014 7.24am
Photos by Mohnish Dabhoya