This book review first appeared in Mail Today on Sunday, March 30. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers. Go to Page 29 after clicking on http://epaper.mailtoday.in/epaperhome.aspx?issue=3032014
PURE & SPECIAL: GOURMET INDIAN VEGETARIAN CUISINE
By Vidhu Mittal
Lustre Press/Roli Books; price not stated
VICKY GOES VEG
By Vicky Ratnani
Collins; price not stated
Vicky Ratnani and Vidhu Mittal
rescue vegetarian cookery from
the taint of being commonplace
By Sourish Bhattacharyya
I STILL can't forget the wine dinner many moons ago, when my favourite chef, Bill Marchetti, came out of the kitchen and asked me out of the blue: "Are you sick or something, mate?" Taken aback, I asked, "Why?" He answered with a deadpan expression, "Why else would you ask for a vegetarian dish?" Without waiting for my reply, he asked the waiter to plonk the non-vegetarian option in front of me. Before I could protest, Marchetti steamed off to the kitchen and the waiter moved on to other guests.
Chefs have traditionally treated vegetables with disdain, leaving to cookbook writers, a class they hold in utmost contempt, the challenging task of sexing up vegetarian cuisine. In recent years, as a result of the exertions of gifted chefs such as the Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi, Michelin three-starred Alain Passard and the Italian-born UK television celebrity Aldo Zilli, vegetarian cookery has achieved the exalted status it has always deserved. Luckily for home cooks in the country, a new generation of cookbook writers have moved away from the past's aloo-gobhi-paneer routine to lift the glam quotient of vegetarian food. The days of vegetables being good only as steamed or grilled accompaniments to meats are well and truly over.
Vicky Ratnani, whom many of us know as a television chef, but who is more famous among his peers as the one who introduced Mumbai to polenta, has taken the leap of faith, which no other member of his fraternity has dared to do, to transport us to commonplace veggie bazaars and discover how even the humblest root can be transformed into a treat. He has shown, for instance, that yam (ratalu) can replace potatoes in the Swiss roesti and taste as good with a tomato and zucchini relish.
Ratnani's day job is being the corporate chef of the fine-dining restaurant Aurus in Mumbai. You realise why he's there when you get exposed to his breadth of vision in his colourful cookbook. He loves playing with ingredients (and yes, there's a method to his randomness), combining charred corn, broccoli and plum in a salad pumped up with the Middle Eastern sumac and zaatar, tagine spice mix and feta cheese. He makes Nashik radish slaw or cucumber and tendli (ivy gourd) carpaccio with equal ease. And he adds a new taste dimension to the familiar pumpkin soup by pepping it up with Madras curry powder and sambhar masala.
His chickpea and almond croquettes make you want to eat the page in which they appear. His vegetarian take on polpette (Italian meatballs) with potatoes and soy granules, or sweet potato wafers with amla aioli, plantain (kachche kele) braised with Thai spices, green chilli and raw mango risotto, hing-roasted pumpkin, or stir-fried yellow squash spaghetti with parmesan and ginger (a dream alternative to regular carbs-laden spaghetti), all tell one story: you can use veggies as creatively as you'd like to.
Vidhu Mittal doesn't have the luxury of taking off on flights of the imagination. Being a cookbook writer (this is her second, after Pure & Simple: Homemade Indian Vegetarian Cuisine), she cannot lose sight of the creative limitations of her constituency of homemakers and hobby cooks. A celebrity chef can take the liberty of challenging the ingenuity of his readers, but Mittal also works her way around everyday dishes to make them exciting. She lifts the moong dal by adding zucchini and cherry tomatoes, she lends a desi flavour to her cauliflower au gratin by adding fresh coriander leaves, peanuts and green chillies, and she turns around the Chinese speciality, lettuce wraps, by using three home-style chutneys: tangy and sweet, peanut, and sweet and sour.
Mittal has her share of fusion frolic too. Her Sheetal Macrajma Bahaar, for instance, is a chilled macaroni salad with kidney beans, orange and a medley of sauces. I'll remember the book, though, for the Pasta Chaat Salad, "a crispy melange of fettucine, fried potatoes and bell peppers tossed in a hot and sweet dressing". Rest in peace, Tarla Dalal, your legacy of pumping excitement into home cooking is in safe hands.