Tag Archives: restaurants

Life Hacks for a Kiwi in India!

1. Learn Your Veg from Your Non-Veg!

Until I got to India I had never heard of the term ‘Non Veg’. In the simplest terms it means food that is not considered vegetarian. In New Zealand ( and most other countries in the West) food is only labelled (and then only sometimes) if it is deemed as vegetarian. It is accepted widely that the majority of people will choose food by taste and style, not necessarily if it has some type of meat or not. In the hospitality industry, we always used to keep a few plates of food with no meat on it for those few that called themselves vegetarian. Until very recently there was very little understanding of what vegetarian food is or means.

In India Veg or Non Veg food is steeped in religion and politics and is a lot more complicated than at first glance. Restaurants freely display signs to say if they are 100% Veg or sell Veg and Non Veg food.

From my own observations, what people eat depends on a variety of factors – your religion, your caste or where you live is just the start. As in Hinduism where there are thousands of Gods/ Deities there sometimes seems to be that many types of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

For example, Muslims tend to be Non Veg and eat chicken and mutton (goat), but not pork. Non veg Hindus don’t eat beef and Catholics pretty much eat everything unless it’s lent then they tend to be veg, with fish only on Fridays. If you are from the Punjab, you most likely eat meat, but if you are from Gujarat then most likely you don’t.

Jain’s are vegetarian and don’t eat garlic or onion ( or anything from under the ground, don’t eat eggs, but can eat dairy).

Then there are the vegetarians that don’t eat eggs or dairy and those that do. Those that are only vegetarian on Tuesdays or Thursdays or vegetarian only in India – overseas they will eat anything. Those that are vegetarian only while fasting (fasting food is a whole blog in itself!) and the list goes on. Approx. 30% of India is classified as pure vegetarian, the rest somewhere between those that eat eggs (not classified as pure vegetarian) and dairy through to those that will eat anything.

Buying food can be a bit of a science too. The majority of India still sells goods from smaller family owned stores; large chain supermarkets are in the major centres but much fewer than in the West. Gujarati’s tend to own a lot of the general food stores (at least in Mumbai) which mean’s you can buy milk but not eggs (no meat at all ). Larger supermarkets almost without exception will have all their non veg products including eggs in a separate walled off part of the supermarket.

Fish is brought from the Goan’s or Manglorean’s, many of whom are also Catholic so will also sell pork products. Bengalis also sell fish, but this tends to be the fresh water variety only. Mutton and chicken tends to be sold by Muslims, Paneer (cottage cheese) and fresh dairy by the Punjabi’s & Sindhi’s and eggs are sold in tiny roadside shops manned by immigrants from the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Beef is a sore point all over India. In many Indian states, including Maharashtra where I live, the slaughter of cows is illegal; making it difficult to buy, sell, and, as a result, eat, beef. In Maharashtra, it is now illegal to sell or be in possession of beef. Beef is avoided by most Hindu’s but eaten widely by Catholics on the Konkan coast and in the North East. I am not even going to start on the politic’s of beef!!

By the way before I forget, alcohol is often seen as ‘Non Veg’ so its not allowed to be sold in the majority vegetarian or dry states such as Gujarat and not allowed in pure veg restaurants. At the same time you will never find alcohol at a Muslim restaurant, but you will have plenty of eatable non -veg options available, In fact finding veg options in a Muslim area on a festival is very difficult!

So in a nutshell, check what you want to eat before you go to a restaurant – it might be a little more complicated than you think.

For the record I am mostly a vegetarian. I do eat fish and seafood, occasionally eggs and dairy. I don’t eat any animals. I do occasionally drink alcohol.

Disclaimer: This piece is only from my observations as a foreigner living in Mumbai. It is only a generic observation from my point of view.

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Roti Chai

Today I visited Roti Chai, a not so small cafe / restaurant not far from Selfridges behind Oxford st.  Roti Chai, sells a cross section of Indian street style food, small tasty morsels of popular fast food from across India and as the name suggests Chai, or sweet Indian Tea made with milk and infused with spices.

I like going to Roti Chai. The place has plenty of natural light, seems friendly and the decor is reminiscent of the murals and truck art that is seen widely through India. It reminds of me my time in India. The food is tasty and reasonably authentic in a hygienic British way and comparably not bad value for money in the middle of the tourist belt of Oxford St. I even drink the chai there considering I hate tea. I have never really liked tea even though my parents drank gallons of the stuff when I was growing up. I got introduced to the hot sweet, spicy chai in India and loved to drink it steaming hot by the roadside out of tiny terracotta or glass cups. Watching chai being prepared by a chai walla is an experience in itself.

Back in the west I am not so fussed, but a few months back I had a chai at Roti Chai that I enjoyed and now look forward to that unique taste served in the traditional chai glasses whenever I am in that part of town. The bhel puri and vegetable samosa with chutney is also hard to resist. Until today that is; today I got served warm, thin, weak chai, which of course we sent back, only to see the chai walla insert the milk frothing wand on the espresso machine into each glass to heat it up. We got back the same chai, still weak and thin but at least piping hot. Gone was my vision of the chai being cooked slowly in a pot, giving it time for the spices to infuse and the taste to develop before being strained and served steaming hot and fresh.

Maybe I will return here, maybe I won’t, but I will certainly never order chai again. Maybe the chai walla was new, maybe he was having a bad day, but it doesn’t really matter I don’t want to visit there anymore and I won’t take my friends there for chai anymore.

One of the hardest things for an independent restaurant to obtain is continuity with its food. Unlike the large chains whose food is processed and managed from some central food manufacturing plant down to the last crystal of salt, the last puff of flour to ensure that it looks and tastes exactly like the same no matter what day or where you buy it; independent eateries are usually born of a vision from the owner to create a unique taste and experience, whilst been freshly prepared and cooked on the premises.

The visions from this would be restaurateurs or chefs coming either from a new vision, idea or the desire to recreate the home cooked food from their home, their childhood memories, often from a land far from where the restaurant of today is. The recipe, the love and ambience in the way that it is prepared and served is usually just as envisioned during the early days but once the popularity grows and the visionary has to start to rely on other people to keep preparing and serving the food day after day, this is usually when the cracks start appearing.

Visiting an independent restaurant, I do expect some variations of the same dish on different day. Slight variations of seasonal differences and the flair of different chefs even though cooking from the same recipe.  I do however; expect that the standard of taste, presentation and quantity remain constant. What annoys me is that when I find a place that I enjoy visiting regularly I find suddenly that the one thing I enjoy is now substandard, disappointing and no longer exciting or value for money.