By Lavina Melwani, New York City
Imagine living in a carnivorous—and coronavirus—world in the heart of London—and yet exploring soul-satisfying vegetarian food for 20 days! Vegetarian and vegan food are a growing trend in London. Representing a combination of philosophical, moral and health aspects in thinking, vegetarian food is now available in almost all cuisines.
Visiting from New York, I was staying with relatives who all eat meat. Since I would rather starve than eat anything that moves, the challenge was to find the British essence of what vegetarian food can be. During those three weeks, I discovered some great resources for vegetarians—and realized that London’s Indian food ranks among the best in the world.
The travel site Wanderlust recently did a listing of the top vegetarian-friendly countries to visit. While India was first and Sri Lanka second, Italy (surprisingly) ranked third and the UK seventh (after Lebanon, Indonesia and Taiwan). Another travel site, Travel Off Path, listed Israel as the best country for vegetarian and vegan-friendly food, with India ranking second. It seems Tel Aviv calls itself the Vegan Capital of the World: at least five percent of the population classify themselves as vegan and 13 percent as vegetarian. The UK ranks sixth on this list: in 2018 the UK launched more vegan products than any other country.
The UK capital came on top for a second year in the rankings put together by HappyCow, which claims to be the largest vegan and vegetarian restaurant and store guide in the world, looking at options in more than 180 countries. The number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, with around 600,000 Britons now on a plant-based diet, equivalent to more than one percent of the population, according to The Vegan Society.
Gone are the days when a vegetarian had to survive on bland meatless soups or salads, or a slice of pizza—restaurants across London offer an abundance of vegetarian riches. Whether a restaurant is Italian, Taiwanese or Middle Eastern, you are bound to find at least a few plant-based dishes on the menu that celebrate healthy eating. Some of these dishes are so appealing that you have non-vegetarians clamoring to have a taste from your plate!
Some of the international restaurants I tried were casual, trendy places in the heart of London. These included Middle Eastern, Korean and Malaysian neighborhood restaurants. The latter, with an extensive veg-friendly, pan-Asian menu, had a lot of Indian clients who are often vegetarian on different Hindu holy days (Mondays for Shivji, Tuesdays for Hanuman, Thursdays for Satya Sai and Saturdays for Shani), and so on. I felt part of a group rather than an outsider!
Some relatives in nearby Ealing invited me to join them for a meal. Since they are believers in Radhaswami, I knew I would be in solid vegetarian hands. To my surprise, what they served me was not a home-cooked Indian meal but a vegan meal in a pub, as they wanted me to get the full English experience! We ate “burgers,” “buffalo wings,” “chicken nuggets” and fries—all plant-based, but looking unnervingly like the real thing. At home they cook perfect Indian vegetarian food, and even their cakes are made without eggs. Also, they don’t use garlic or onion in their food, so this was their idea of a fun, chilled out evening for me to experience.
My niece lives in Dubai most of the time, but was spending a month in London. She explained to me she was so busy with work that she hardly did any Indian cooking, but left that task to magic helpers increasingly being used by well-to-do South Asians in Britain. These immigrant workers, adept at Indian cooking, ensure that busy families are kept stocked in homemade rotis, Indian snacks and a variety of curries and kormas. By cooking at several homes, these part-time workers provide a livelihood for themselves and a comfortable lifestyle for their employers. I was delighted to get home-made, soul-satisfying spinach, cauliflower, daal and rotis, with the menu changing each day. These talented women can also make vegetarian biryani, dhokla and Sindhi koki (a flatbread), having picked up the tastes and recipes of different families.
While Britain has a massive South Asian population and scores of Indian-Pak grocery stores, especially in areas like Southall and Wembley, which have immigrant demographics, the surprise was to see how Indian grocery items had infiltrated the aisles of the mainstream supermarkets. As a vegetarian, I felt like a kid in a candy store—there were just so many frozen, ready-to-eat Indian delicacies, from samosas and fritters to South Indian treats like idli and dosas. The Waitrose, one of the largest and most upscale stores, gives out recipe cards to its customers. I was tickled to pick up one for cauliflower and chickpea tikka masala, a recipe I had not seen even in New York.
The MW Eats Restaurant Empire
My trip took place in November 2021, when the pandemic was at its height. Going out to eat was a real challenge, since so many restaurants had shut. I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Camellia Panjabi, the author of the award-winning book Fifty Curries of India. She, her sister Namita Panjabi and brother-in-law Ranjit Mathrani are the brains behind MW Eats, a mini Indian restaurant empire in London with eight Masala Zone restaurants, the elite Chutney Mary, the very sophisticated Amaya and also the oldest Indian restaurant in London—Veeraswamy.
Veeraswamy was opened in 1926 by Edward Palmer, a British Indian army officer who was the grandson of an English general and an Indian princess. It is said famous guests had included Winston Churchill, King Gustav VI of Sweden, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin. This glamorous restaurant, with its ornate, palatial interiors, was named by National Geographic as among the ten best Destination and Special Restaurants in the world. MW Eats acquired Veeraswamy in 1997 and restored it to its former glory.
It won its first Michelin star in 2016. The Michelin Guide inspectors said that “It may have opened in 1926, but this celebrated Indian restaurant just keeps getting better and better! The classic dishes from across the country are prepared with considerable care by a very professional kitchen. The room is awash with color and it’s run with great charm and enormous pride.” The restaurant has consistently won the star every year and remains among London’s great Indian restaurants, with its classic dishes and efficient kitchen.
The Queen has a soft spot for Veeraswamy. She chose it to work with royal chefs for a reception she hosted at Buckingham Palace in 2009 for the State visit of the President of India, and then to launch 2017 as the UK-India Year of Culture and India’s 70th year of Independence. The delicacies at this event included many sophisticated vegetarian canapes such as raj puri, paneer squares with herb crust, soya gujjias, pineapple almond halwa tart, and boondi and chocolate rock.
Camellia Panjabi came from Bombay in the 1980s, when there were hardly any Indian restaurants in London. With a stellar career as marketing director at the Taj Hotels, where she had helped open 40 restaurants, she introduced modern Indian cuisine to London—classic cooking served in contemporary fashion, with small grazing plates showcasing the best of India’s streets and markets. She joined her brother-in-law and sister (who had both been bankers) in starting MW Eats. The emphasis was on freshness and innovation: India’s famously popular street snack Pao Bhaji was served with home-baked caramelized onion pao bread. Even many in India would not be familiar with Jalebi Chaat, savory crisp jalebis combined with yogurt, tamarind, spices and fresh herbs. According to The Caterer magazine, “Namita and Camellia are regarded as leading authorities on authentic Indian cuisine, which they have researched extensively in people’s homes, Maharajas’ palaces and wayside stalls rather than conventional restaurants.”
Camellia Panjabi has seen the worldwide push toward vegetarian choices: “I have noticed that even Middle Eastern clients who would normally go for a full meat-based menu have started incorporating a vegetarian biryani or other meatless sides. They too are reading the same media as everyone else and realize the importance of adding some vegetables to the meal,” she says. “The proportion has gone up, but is still far from a majority. But it is rising and even though it seems strange to put so many vegetarian dishes on the menu with less sales, we still make sure that it’s there.”
While most restaurants accommodate vegetarians by substituting tofu for meat in various dishes, the MW Eats restaurants already offer scores of vegetarian dishes in the printed menus. “There is a full vegetarian section with main courses fully prepared, not put together at the last minute. There is a big proportion of vegetarian starters—four or five as compared to six non-vegetarian. We do tandoori artichoke, chili paneer with date and sesame as well as char-grilled aubergine—and all kinds of things you will not find anywhere in the world.”
In fact, Amaya, near Hyde Park, is noted for its menus of grilled offerings. Its huge silver tandoors are almost a part of the decor. Meat-eaters have always enjoyed a huge array of kebabs; Amaya also offers vegetarians their own menu of grilled vegetables and plant-based delicacies such as vegetarian spinach kebabs and tikkis, all barbecued to get that special aroma, including char-grilled aubergine, spinach tikki with spiced fig and watercress and green peas seekh kebabs. There are also world-class flatbreads of varied textures and ingredients to enrich the tandoori eating experience.
Each of the MW Eats Indian restaurants has its own personality. Chutney Mary is at a power location close to St. James Palace, home of Prince Charles, and the Carlton Club, which is headquarters of the Conservative Party politics. Panjabi tells me this is the prime financial district of Mayfair, surrounded by 500 hedge funds.
The eight Masala Zone restaurants are popular with Indians and non-Indians alike, especially the young. The atmosphere is fun and light, with happening decor, design and art, and the price point is affordable. A tight budget shouldn’t force you to economize on joy, and that is the atmosphere of these fun restaurants where you could probably taste something new every day, something from the streets and small towns of India. Both veg and non-veg dishes are offered, as one family can have its share of vegetarians, vegans, non-vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians.
The Sri Lanka Entree
One can hardly talk about vegetarian food in London without touching upon the delights of Sri Lankan food. I had eaten a flavorful vegetarian Sri Lankan curry in Canada many years ago, and the tangy taste has always stayed with me. Just as I was departing London, I was intrigued to hear about a whole array of London restaurants called Hoppers that showcase Sri Lankan food. Social media has made this a small world, and I connected on Whatsapp with Karan Gokani, the young owner, who happens to be from my Sindhi community. I saw a lot of nonvegetarian food on the menu, but asked him about the vegetarian signature dishes and how popular plant-based dishes were.
Karan, who is Indian but from Sri Lanka, told me he was fascinated by how different Sri Lankan food is—but also how similar it is, in some respects, to the cuisine of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A lawyer by trade, he had always wanted to open a restaurant. His wife’s family already owned several Indian restaurants in London, and he founded Hoppers with them. The success led to the opening of three Hoppers, and he just did a popup in Saudi Arabia too. Soon to be launched is a cookbook inspired by the cuisine of Hoppers.
“We’ve been flying the flag for Sri Lanka for a while, but it’s very much Indian as well. Obviously, both regions have a lot of great vegetarian food, but it’s an equal match,” he says. “Meat is definitely some of the highlights, but we do an amazing aubergine curry and local vegetables like squash and kale. I wish I could get more Sri Lankan and Indian vegetables here but it’s difficult.”
At Hoppers he says he doesn’t need to tweak the food much because it’s naturally vegan, and they don’t use meat substitutes or soy—just showcase the vegetables. While there is a growing trend for people to eat more ethically, Hoppers doesn’t try to target any one market; there’s something for everyone. He says, “Our menu is just naturally balanced. That’s our unique selling point and we just follow traditional stuff—we follow a set of recipes that are time-tested and obviously great without tweaks to it, without making it fusion.”
What is a popular signature vegetarian dish at Hoppers? Karan suggests a barbecued cabbage which is grilled and charred and immersed in a mild coconut curry with crispy mushrooms and chili oil. He says it can be eaten with rice but is fantastic enough to eat by itself with a fork and knife.
Quilon: Top of its Class
While in London, I visited the remarkable Quilon Restaurant in the Taj Hotel, a virtual vegetarian feast with a special tasting menu—dish after dish evoking the flavors of the South. Chef Sriram, who was originally headed for law studies, graduated instead from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in India. While still in college, he joined his father in the restaurant business before joining the luxury Taj Hotels in 1989.
“It was here that I strengthened my thoughts and shaped my desire to uncover the potential of South Indian cuisine,” he says. He opened the Karavali, which was ranked among the top five restaurants in India in 1995, and he was judged as one of the top five chefs in India. He believes the lightness and multidimensional flavors of South-west Indian cuisine can appeal to Western audiences, but “to use the right technique and authentic ingredients from the recipe, without compromising the foundation of the cuisine, was challenging.”
Sriram opened Quilon in the Taj Hotel in London in 1999 and made it his mantra to interpret his southwest roots for a new audience, using only the freshest ingredients. He is the largest importer of South Indian spices. His food has won many awards, including the Michelin Star in 2008 and every year since then.
Quilon’s vegetarian tasting menu can make a vegetarian or vegan feel like a pampered prince. Its offerings include drumstick soup, stuffed courgette (zucchini) with courgette flowers and paw paw chutney, pulled jackfruit roast with steamed pathiri (rice pancakes), scallions, baby cucumber, cherry mustard, mint chutney, vegetable kola chop, jerusalem artichoke roast, thalassery vegetable biryani, coin paratha, yellow dal clove smoked, followed by boondi guava cheesecake with guava kulfi.
I was able to have a brief conversation on vegetarianism with Sriram in his office, after enjoying the delicious brunch he had prepared for me—and after his busy morning preparing tailor-made meals for his many other guests, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
Sriram pointed out that in India 39 percent of the population is vegetarian anyway, and even non-vegetarians consume largely vegetarian food which has long been part of Indian culture as a whole, be it due to religion or moral philosophy. He says that in Hinduism all animals are connected to some God and worshiped in different parts of India in different ways and there’s a great respect for their sanctity.
“I think people look up to India because it’s the only country in the world which has followed a cuisine in terms of vegetarianism so intensively and because of which there is so much variety,” he says. “The idea that a vegetarian diet has no variety has been proven completely wrong in India, inspiring a lot of Western chefs and the Western world. I think that is of great value and brings people to become aware of what they are eating and what it does to their body.”
Now is definitely a good time to be a vegetarian in London—you will not only get your vegetarian food but you will be well fed. Even mainstream Britishers are totally familiar with samosas and other delicacies. They are increasingly cooking vegetarian at home and also buying ready-made Indian vegetarian meals.
There’s Even Home Delivery
Indeed, you get the flavors and influences of all the meals cooked by immigrants to the British Raj from different parts of the globe. Chef Ravinder Bhogal, for instance, was born in Kenya to Indian parents. She brings to her food and restaurant the many influences of growing up in diverse cultures. Her debut restaurant Jikoni, launched in 2020, introduced the vegan and vegetarian home delivery brand Comfort and Joy to London. She is also the author of Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from an Immigrant Kitchen. Jikoni, meaning “kitchen” in Swahili, is a London restaurant that draws on a mixed heritage, flavors and culinary traditions.
And that, perhaps, is the charm of the London food scene. Reading up on the creation of Jikoni, you read the designer notes: “We created a relaxed, disarming and homely space with hand-finished details, ingredient illustrations and carefully sourced textiles, supporting craft and cooperatives in India, East Africa and the Middle East. The open kitchen and bar were designed in a domestic style at a human scale. We created a spice pantry and sky-lit stairwell, with details inspired by 1950’s homes in Nairobi.”
Jikoni’s takeout is a changing selection of vegan and vegetarian meal boxes, inspired by different cultures from around the world. Every meal is cooked using green energy and the packaging is 100% home compostable. With every order, a meal is prepared for London’s homeless by the charitable organization Nishkam SWAT.
Indian Food Colonized the British Raj
Just imagine: the ancient food culture of India has traveled over hundreds of years to the small island nation of the United Kingdom, once known as the mighty British Raj, and has conquered the country, one British palette at a time, with its noble food philosophy and healthful ideas, its myriad flavors and its jeweled spices. It has been brought by South Asian immigrants arriving by boat and by air, on slave ships and chartered flights, as refugees, travelers and dreamers. Each newcomer has brought their own family heritage and food secrets and now shares them with the entire world.
More of London’s Best
The media always includes several Indian restaurants on the “best of London lists.” While none of these are even close to being exclusively vegetarian, one can see the mighty V is present in all menus of these restaurants as the vegan and vegetarian customer becomes ever more important. I wasn’t able to visit these, but assembled some information from their websites:
The Gymkhana, with one Michelin star, has the amazing Vault Vegetarian Tasting Menu (right) with dozens of choices. It’s definitely not a budget choice, at us$131, but quite the treat if you can afford it. The menu includes tandoori broccoli, chilli and green mango raita, beetroot chops pao, peanut ghati masala, methi malai mutter paneer and khatta meetha baigan, along with dal maharani, rajasthani bhindi, saag makai, bread basket or basmati rice, and rich desserts.
Flora Indica has several vegetarian offerings and an entire vegan/vegetarian take-away menu on its website including such delicacies as kurmure okra fries, chaat, achari tender broccoli, cherry tomato and sour cream, jerusalem artichoke papdi chaat, sauteed curly kale with shredded hispi cabbage, turmeric and ginger, and spiced almond cream spinach cooked with dill and cherry tomato.
Jamavar also has a Michelin star and features a luscious vegan/vegetarian menu with offerings such as chandni chowk ki aloo tikki (potato tikki, spiced white peas, yogurt, tamarind and mint chutney) katyal bhel (jackfruit cutlet, puffed rice and date-tamarind chutney) and makai palak ke goolar (spinach and rice dumplings, mustard yogurt, pine nuts, raisins and feta).
Along with these high-end restaurants, there are also some fun takeaway places like Motu Indian Kitchen’s eight locations. These are owned by JKS Restaurants, which also owns Gymkhana, Trishna, Brigadiers and Hoppers. The site describes it thus: “Motu, a name derived from the affectionate Hindi term for “Fat Man,” serves indulgent home-style Indian food, paying homage to the British love of a classic Indian takeaway. With a nod to the dabbawalas of India, who would traditionally deliver a packed meal for workers across Indian cities in what became known as a tiffin.” Bowing to the all important ‘V,’ they offer a vegan Motu Box.
About the Author
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who has written on the arts, spirituality and life for several international publications. She is a columnist for CNBCTV18.com and is a co-founder of Children’s Hope India. She blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com. You can follow her @lavinamelwani