French vegetarian food in Mumbai marries a great culinary tradition with vegetarian food, creates magic on a plate and brings the café and lounge culture to the city, finds MAITHILI CHAKRAVARTHY
Meat is staple to many French. Executive Chef of Sofitel Mumbai BKC Neeraj Rawoot says, “In French food, vegetables were always the non-hero. It’s the meat that is the hero of the dish. The vegetables are a side dish.” Therefore it may seem like vegetarian French food is perhaps non-existent. However, trials and errors and adaptations have resulted in the graduation of vegetarian French ‘side dishes’ into main dishes. Many a times, there have been fusions of French and other cuisines, to create recipes for a vegetarian.
The classic touch
The Ratatouille Lasagne at Sofitel’s Artisan – French Bistro, is one where the ratatouille (made of zucchini, eggplant, bells peppers and tomato), made in a base sauce of tomatoes is piled on top of the pasta layers along with mozzarella, cheddar and parmesan cheese. To suit the Indian palate, in this dish, the classic French ratatouille meets the classic Italian lasagne. “The dish has a crunch. The flavour base of tomato sauce is accepted by the Indian guest. The dish has a good ratio of pasta and vegetables and it’s a good marriage (of two cuisines),” continues Rawoot.
The French bistro at Sofitel also serves a vegetarian version of the classic Salad Nicoise, mixing together french beans, potatoes, olives, mesclun, and tomatoes along with a French vinaigrette dressing, quiches of wild mushroom, leek and onion, and pumpkin and feta, and Egg En Cocotte which is a baked egg preparation where eggs are cooked in a ramekin along with tomatoes, chives, mushrooms and goat cheese, served to the hotel’s corporate guests, business travellers and groups that are relaxing in the restaurant’s open air area. At the entrance to the restaurant, one will find dainty pastries on display and even a pyramid of macarons that are gently balancing on top of each other, invitingly tempting admirers to risk taking one, resulting in the collapse of the macaron tower.
One often wonders whether it’s easy for a vegetarian living in France to find food for their diet. Over the years, restaurants are catering to vegetarians more than they were in the past in big cities like Paris, as opposed to smaller towns across the different regions of France, many of which have developed their own indigenous cuisine. However classic home-cooked dishes like, French Onion Soup and fruit tarts like, French Apple Tart are those that most vegetarians can enjoy. In Mumbai, restaurants like The Table and Artisan serve the hot soup whose recipes differ, however usually consist of braised onions, clear soup, spices, sometimes in a gratinéed version which has a cheese-topped crouton over the soup.
In Mumbai, Tasse De The, started by tea lover Jiten Sheth and his son Rohak Sheth, is a French-inspired restaurant where preparations such as Dauphinoise Potatoes and Filo Baked Brie are paired with exotic teas that promise to boost immunity, weight loss and beat stress along with offering other health benefits.
“The décor of Tasee de The is inspired by European and French architecture, which the owners observed on their travels abroad such as the arches in the restaurant. They were also inspired by French cuisine which they have incorporated in the menu. However, even though the food is French influenced, it has been modified and altered to suit the Indian and vegetarian palate. Even our macarons are eggless. We are planning on opening around eight outlets of Tasse De The in Mumbai alone by the end of the year,” says Rohit Dhole, the restaurant’s General Manager.
At Le 15 Café in Colaba, half Colombian half Hungarian head chef Pablo Naranjo Agular speaks about how much the French love their salads, which might even just be a tomato sprinkled with salt and pepper. He also talks about how he uses local ingredients in his creations and refers to a market trip to the Grant Road market, where he learnt techniques even culinary school didn’t teach him.
Discoveries of inventively packaged ingredients at the Grant Road market led him to create the Beans and Seeds salad which includes five beans, and five roasted seeds in a very typical French honey mustard dressing. Whether in salad or in soup, vegetarians love their beans and seeds. The protein and mineral rich foods are often a saviour for vegetarians, since not only are they satisfying to the taste buds, but their benefits are innumerable and irreplaceable in heart health, diabetes and cancer.
The Café’s Spicy Raclette Sandwich, a whole wheat grilled cheese sandwich, is another dish vegetarians can enjoy, and if one eats eggs, the Oeufs Des Bois breakfast is a scrumptious breakfast of mushrooms, parmesan cream, truffle salsa and poached eggs. “I do dishes specially for vegetarians. In India, there are more vegetarians than in other countries. My food is all about product and freshness. Le 15 takes its inspirations from Parisian cafés, but we also incorporate other cuisine styles into our food,” says Naranjo Agular.
The desserts on the eatery’s menu are named after French women, some of whom are Naranjo’s friends and include ingredients that mirror their personalities and individual tastes.
Vegetarian food is on-trend. Legendary chefs like, Alain Ducasse have re-launched restaurants with newer vegetarian dishes on their menu. Organic produce, naturalistic food, and using freshly and locally grown ingredients is considered ‘haute cuisine’, and Ducasse has tried to move away from ‘globalisation’ of food to making it healthier, attempting to re-set the trend in the gastronomic world. In Mumbai, Slink & Bardot is a French restaurant that celebrates vegetarian food and French food in ways that are visually appealing, gastronomically inventive and yet loyal to the traditional luxuriousness and precision of French cuisine.
“Many of my dishes are classic. It’s not my aim to Indianise the food. It’s about using your imagination in food. I try and use vegetables that are popular in France such as celeriac, turnips, sunchokes, rhubarb and parsnips that are not common in India, however grown locally, especially, for us,” says Alexis Gielbaum, Head Chef and Partner at Slink & Bardot. The Poached Pear Belle-Helene on its menu is a vanilla and hot chocolate French dream with the cold ice cream stuffed inside warm and flavoured poached pears bursting with the scents, aromas and fieriness of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. On the other hand, the Mixed Pepper Piperade – open-faced sandwich on sour dough bread combines of peppers, onions, herbs like thyme and espelette pepper from the South of France along with a defining garlic confit and another element of the zesty seasoning in the form of dehydrated garlic chips.
The French know how to transport the excitement of their food, and the thoughtfulness of their cooking techniques across borders, and vegetarian French gastronomy is a celebration of a multitude of textures, combination of ingredients that challenge and complement each other and the sophisticated artistry of those who seek to change dining in Mumbai.