Straight out of Gujarat: India’s traditional vegetarian cuisine

Street food, small plates and centuries of history – could Gujarati cuisine capture plant-based consumers in search of authentic flavours?

8 November 2018
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Thali from Gujarati Rasoi

Being a vegan hasn’t always been the easiest lifestyle choice. Considering the sheer number of innovations in this category being unveiled across the food industry, it’s easy to forget that it was only quite recently that retailers and restaurants started looking more seriously at their meat-free meals.

Gujarati cuisine, however, has been a bastion of plant-based eating for centuries. While it isn’t exclusively devoted to vegetables, a large portion of its dishes draw upon the traditions of Jain vegetarianism to create some deliciously spiced, vegan-friendly foods.

Using your Jain

Jain vegetarianism is a diet born of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion founded in the 6th century. It has had a major impact on a number of Indian cuisines, including Gujarati, and is said to have been one of the most influential movements in popularising vegetarianism in Indian culture.

The idea behind this spiritually motivated diet is that Jains can’t consume anything that is the result of the perceived injuring or killing of another living thing. That means animal meat, eggs and gelatine are off the table, naturally – but so are onions and garlic. Plucking root vegetables such as these is considered to kill a plant that would otherwise continue to thrive, unlike those that grow back or only flower once.

Dairy, on the other hand, plays an important role in Gujarati cuisine, from cheeses to yoghurts – it’s also the foodstuff that separates Jains from vegans.

Khandvi, made with gram flour and curds, seasoned with sesame seeds and mustard seeds
image credit: Getty Images

Despite being a relatively unknown diet to many in the West, a number of major airlines cater to Jains, including Emirates and Bangkok Airways, as do London restaurant chain Woodlands, which has three restaurants across affluent parts of Central London.

And while Jain vegetarianism isn’t mainstream, its influence means Gujarati cuisine is practically ready-made for the recent plant-based wave, while also catering to consumer desire for regional, traditional Indian flavours.

Spicy, social and street

Over the summer, Food Spark flagged up the success of budding restaurant group Bundobust in Manchester and Leeds, where it sells small veggie plates styled on Gujarati street food.

Street food, like plant-based, is enormously popular at present, with the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares releasing a new snack-style menu in the summer and even Iceland jumping on the growing trend for casual Indian with a new frozen street food range.

Fundamental to Gujarati cuisine is the thali (meaning ‘plate’): a platter of veggie dishes that often includes veggie curries, dhal, rice, bhujia (crispy snacks shaped like noodles), chutneys, homemade rotli or chapatti, kachumber and poppadum.

Market stalls serving Indian veggie street food in thali/tapas-style format are proving popular in London, such as Gujarati Rasoi and Spice Box. The latter is set for a permanent site after raising £500k in an enormously successful crowdfunding push. The former operates both the market stall and a fully-fledged restaurant in the trendy area of Dalston.

Over in the USA, Gujarati eateries have also been gaining recognition, including recently opened Besharam in San Fran and Rajdhani, which was named one of the 38 essential California restaurants by Eater US this year.

But is Sparkie going gaga for Gujarati?

 

Sparkie says:

It makes perfect sense to develop foods like Gujarati right now. On two fronts really. First, the trend towards authentic, traditional, higher-quality foods has created an ideal environment for them to do well, particularly considering the relative familiarity of surface-level Indian cuisine in this country. ‘New’ traditional foods will generate initial sales through curiosity and experimental consumers.

Second, the majority of vegetarian and vegan foods do their best to replicate recipes that traditionally contain meat. This can work to their detriment, as they appear to target non-vegetarians primarily, rather than the larger, more readily available market of current vegetarians. The products often end up lower quality due to the attempted meat replacement.

Recipes that are vegetarian by tradition, on the other hand, are likely to be better because of their tried-and-tested appeal as well as their attractive cultural history.

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