"Vegetarian food is not just about paneer"

Pumpkin, brinjal and potato: Who would imagine dishing out delicious and international fare from these humble, desi vegetables? Celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia does, and has created a spread of refreshingly delish vegetarian recipes that do not includes a melee of spices and usual suspects -- mushroom, dahi and paneer -- in her cookbook Diva Green.

Ritu Dalmia

Jordanian style Labneh, Apricot Knodel and Roasted Fig and Camembert Bruschetta are some of the appetising and appealing (thanks to the delectable photography by Anshika Varma) recipes in this all-vegetarian cookbook. Dalmia spoke to THE GUIDE about going green. Excerpts:

Pumpkin Salad with Parmesan Cheese and Pumpkin Seed Dressing
Pumpkin Salad with Parmesan Cheese and Pumpkin Seed Dressing. Pics/Anshika Varma

What sort of a challenge was it to create vegetarian recipes that canvassed international cuisines but also appealed to the Indian palate?
Actually, for me it was a cakewalk. I have a lot of vegetarian options in all my restaurants, and we are always experimenting with them. So, it was just about putting together all the recipes, which are easy and taste good.

Diva Green, Ritu Dalmia, Hachette, `699, available at leading bookstores.

Why did you choose to go the international route rather than create recipes centred around paneer, mushroom and more elements we are used to reading on restaurant menus?
You will never see paneer on any of my menus, and personally I detest it, hence no paneer in my recipes. Secondly, vegetarian food is just not about paneer; there is lot more to it. Regarding going the international route, well that’s what I specialise in, that’s what I am good at, that’s what I cook, so I guess it was obvious that I would take this route rather than the regular paneer and dal way.

As a restaurateur and an authority on food; internationally, what are some of the factors you account for while working on vegetarian menus?
Whether you create vegetarian or non-vegetarian recipes, the most important factor is that it should taste good, and should appeal to the Indian palate. For example, Swiss chard -- a much sought after vegetable in Europe will never feature in my menus, because Indians find it very bitter; likewise with endives -- it is a very cultivated taste. So, I don’t mess with the authenticity but pick and¬†choose cleverly.

What is your favourite non-Indian ingredient, which works as a surprise wonder for Indian food?
I love Chinese Sesame Oil, which adds so much oomph to any dish.

Which Indian vegetable and / or ingredient (you mentioned macaroni made in common Indian branded cheese in the introduction) works well as options for international cuisine, if someone prefers the local baniya to speciality food stores?
When I spoke about macaroni made in common branded cheese, I was talking about our exposures to international food in the early days. I don’t think self respecting food lover would make macaroni with Amul cheese. Whereas when an Indian ingredient is concerned, if you look at the book, all recipes revolve around local ingredients like pumpkin, beetroot, potatoes, carrot etc, which is easily available at your local subziwalla.

Did any particular city or country surprise you with its vegetarian food options (especially street food)?
Street food in Naples is truly amazing for vegetarians. Actually, Italy is one country where you can taste ample of veggie food, especially street food, whether it is pizza by the slice, or Arancine (fried rice balls coated with breadcrumbs), or fried vegetables.

Any interesting anecdotes to share while working on this book?
Way too many to list, but while we were shooting some of the dishes and the cover in Goa, my photographer and editor were bitten by sandflies and both suffered for weeks. But as they say, the scooty rides, amazing Goan food, the sun, the sea and all the drunken laughter, every night was so worth it.

Spinach Tempura with Radish Dipping Sauce
One has to admit that there is something very satisfying about fried food, especially if it is fried well. As a child I detested spinach in any form, except when the leaves were fried in chickpea batter and served with coriander chutney; then I could just not stop eating it. Even now, I am not at all keen on eating spinach in purée form, but if it is fried... bring it on! I will eat my five portions of greens every day!

500 g spinach, leaves and stalks separated
500 ml tempura batter
50 g regular refined flour
Oil for frying

The Dipping Sauce
75 ml vegetable stock
50 ml soya sauce
25 ml sesame oil
2 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp grated radish
1 tbsp chopped red chilli
Salt to season

  Spinach Tempura with Radish Dipping Sauce

To make the dipping sauce, in a medium saucepan, combine the vegetable stock, soya sauce, sesame oil and vinegar and simmer over low heat for 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the chilli, sugar and grated radish. Remove from heat, whisk well, and keep the sauce aside.

Heat the oil in a deep wok till it reaches smoking point.

Dredge the spinach leaves and stalks with flour. Dip them into the tempura batter and drop into the hot oil.

Fry them in batches till crispy.

Serve them in paper cones with radish dipping sauce.

In Naples, they do an amazing tempura with green beans. You could do a mix of flat spinach tempura topped with long and thin bean tempura.

Extracted with permission from Hachette India. 

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