As more Indians appreciate the health and ethical benefits of a plant-based diet, home cooks and chefs are finding inventive ways to make tasty, familiar meals without using meat. They share some of their hacks and a recipe with us
If you cannot possibly conceive a burger with anything but meat in it, a yam burger is a revolutionary act. Aiswarya Sujit’s tasty vegetarian version of the classic, however, complete with fluffy sesame-studdded buns, molten cheese and crunchy lettuce, isn’t any less of a burger than its meaty counterpart.
The Kochi-based home cook, who calls herself “just an enthusiastic mother”, sneaks vegetables into her daughter’s diet in ways like this. She says the burger was inspired by artist Manjri Varde’s recipe that she chanced upon on Instagram.
Yam burger made by Aiswarya Sujit
“We like our meats, but I also like to experiment with vegetarian alternatives,” says Aiswarya who had experimented with burger patties made of high-protein rajma and chickpeas as well. “The yam burger came out surprisingly well: yam tends to take the flavour of what you cook it with,” she says, adding that her burgers were quickly polished off by the family.
With veganism finding more converts amid an increasing awareness of the important of sustainable diets, home cooks are experimenting with locally-available alternatives to meat. Although ready-to-cook plant-based meats are more accessible now, why not just try locally grown vegetables, they ask.
It may be a conscious change that people are opting for now, but Indian cuisine has always offered natural replacements for meat, says Mumbai-based home-maker Sudakshna Banerjee, explaining how jackfruit, known locally as gaach patha or the vegetarian tree goat, is a popular dish in West Bengal and a staple in her household during summers. “Raw jackfruit is a great stand-in for the meat,” she says, adding that it is cooked with the same spices and masala as they use for mutton curries, after which this ‘vegetarian mutton’ is relished with rice or rotis.
If jackfruit can pretend to be mutton, raw plantains could easily become fish, says IT professional and YouTuber Shahana PA. Based in Thiruvananthapuram, Shahana says considering the Malayali’s fondness for fish, faux fish curries are common. “Raw plantains, tomatoes, ivy gourd and even drum sticks are used instead of fish. The gravy will contain everything that a fish curry would, including all the unique regional nuances.”
Raw plantain fish curry made by Shahana PA
Shahana cooks it in an earthen pot, the same way she makes traditional fish curries; only she uses ivy gourd instead. “The gourd is chopped and fried before it is added to the curry to give it the crunch. I am not sure if vegetarians would feel the need to eat this, but those looking to transition to the green side will enjoy it,” she adds.
In North Bihar, pumpkin is sometimes reimagined as fish. “It is sliced into rectangular pieces, like fish fillets, and deep fried,” says Ritu Sharma from Patna. She goes on to elaborate on the recipe: “Yellow mustard, garlic and dry red chillies are ground into a thick paste. Onions and ginger are sauteed in mustard oil, adding coriander powder and turmeric, to which the masala paste is added. Once the gravy thickens, the pumpkin slices are slipped in and simmered for five to ten minutes.”
- Yam (peeled and diced) – 200 gm
- Potato (peeled and diced) – 200 gm
- Onion (finely chopped) – 1
- Ginger (ground) – 2 tbsp
- Green chilli paste – 1 tbsp
- Cumin seeds – roasted and powdered – 1 tsp (this can be replaced with powdered fennel as well as it gives a more meaty flavour)
- Coriander (chopped) – 1 cup
- Salt to taste
- Sugar to taste (if needed)
- Apply salt on peeled and diced yam and potatoes and pressure cook them until soft. Mash it once cooked and add chopped onion, ground ginger, green chilli paste, cumin powder, coriander, salt and sugar (if needed) to taste (Aiswarya Sujit used pink salt). (The onions along with coriander and masalas can be sautéed too, to get rid of the rawness of the onions.) The mixture is shaped into patties and shallow-fried. Toast burger buns in butter and place lettuce leaves and fried patties. Garnish with onion rings and tomatoes.
Faux fish curry even finds itself in legend. Known as Rama Rucha (Loved By Rama), a curry made with chickpeas is said to be a favourite of Lord Rama. Having tasted it when he visited Mithila after his marriage to Princess Sita, the curry is believed to have revived Rama’s appetite, adds Ritu. Here, chickpea flour is made into a dough, then cut into diamond shapes and deep fried. This is then added to a thick gravy of onions, tomatoes, ginger garlic paste and garam masala.
Soy chunks, mushroom, paneer, tofu and now tempeh (made from fermented soy beans) are popular substitutes for meat. And now the market is also bristling with ready-made plant-based meats, aimed at people who turned vegetarian but are craving the familiarity of the food they grew up eating. However, creatively using easily accessible vegetables is not just cheaper, but often also healthier than packaged alternatives. They also result in dishes that are tasty enough to appeal to everyone, including meat eaters who are trying to add more greens to their diets
Broccoli and parmesan fritters made by Maria Jose Martin
Spinach, green peas and masoor dal together make a kebab so good that even hardened spinach haters accept it, says Maria Jose Martin, a food blogger. The combination of lentil, spinach and mint and coriander leaves gives it a meaty feel. Maria also suggests broccoli fritters as a replacement for crab cakes. She makes then with broccoli florets cooked just right, mixed with parmesan cheese, flour and garlic. Served warm with yoghurt or sour cream, these fritters can be shallow pan-fried or baked.
Beet can never be beef, one may argue. But why not give it a chance to try?