"Grass Eaters" on board !
Being Vegetarian adds a unique ,but happy, dimension to travels abroad. Omnivores ,by and large, stick to itineraries worked out beforehand as they can satisfy their bellies with fare from any cafe or kiosk found near their tour trail. Vegetarians have to be explorers. We get to cruise into lanes never mentioned in guide books and see non-touristy humdrum street scenes in our endeavour to locate an address taken from experienced traveler/s.
Had we not hankered after a rice meal for the kids, we'd never have discovered the beautiful Fiesole hill near Florence. Nor had the opportunity to witness a lovely wedding ceremony had we not hunted down a vegetarian serving inn in Denpasar. Nor heard about the plight of Srilankan refugees in Eastern Europe from the horse's mouth had we not gone looking for the rotis advertised in a Dutch handbill. Nor could we have met a colourful , chattering character of Pondicheri-Paris descent who made us dosas in a Roman cellar, but left us almost fully convinced that his chef avatar was just a mask for more lucrative businesses of " Sicilian " origin. God(father) alone knows how he manages to be so charmingly carefree !
There was a time when the term Vegetarian was looked down upon as a badge of eccentricity in the west. Grass Eaters, Moralistic Killjoys, Starving Swamis, Cattle Cousins- thats what vegetarians were !
Many are the instances when we placed orders for "anything vegetarian" and the over helpful waiters very kindly brought us food containing fish, eggs or shrimp and, in all earnestness, assured us it was safe for our religious sentiments. " No Meat ! " they'd explain triumphantly and in much relief that they could find something in their kitchen to please the fussy ( wierdo) customer. Instead of tearing our hair or driving the poor waiter up the wall with our definition of vegetarian, we'd quietly settle for green salad, bread rolls and coffee.
That was then.
These days, not only is Vegetarianism fashionable but it has gone highly specialised. We can get Vegan, Ovo-Lacto Veg, Buddhist Veg, Pescetarian, Fruitarian, MacroBiotic Veggie etc.etc. anywhere . Bangladeshi-run "TajMahals" and " Maharajas" are a dime a dozen. Naan, Channa Masala and Samosa can be found, in frozen packs, even in Supermarkets.
The most fond memories of vegetarian dining in Europe that i have are of a unique non-Indian hotel named " HILTL" in Zurich.
We had the address from an aquaintance, but no directions for finding it. We had just dragged the reluctant kids out of the temptation- loaded superstore "Jelmoli " and they kept whining in protest as we walked and walked in search of Hiltl. The directions two people gave were not helpful and we kept getting lost. Finally, a Srilankan Tamilian, hailed us from afar, greeted us effusively and walked us a whole block away, right upto the hotel door. His kindness and warmth were remarkable.
The story of hotel , from the leaflet given to us at entrance :
HILTL was established in 1901 by a Bavarian tailor named Ambrosius Hiltl, who had been ordered by his doctor to give up meat. He overcame his medical condition and regained robust good health after being in the care of an obscure family-run hostel named " Vegetarians and Teetotallers Home" ( Estb: 1898) generally thought to be an eccentrics' club. But Hiltl, convinced of the efficacy of Vegetarian diet, bought over the impoverished hostel, married into that family and refurbished it into a regular hotel serving healthy vegetarian food. The hotel quickly gained popularity with its innovative fare. Now it is much sought after by both health conscious people and adventurous foodies.
We , neither health conscious nor adventurous , went in expecting some bland pancakes and steamed vegetables. But what an Alladin's Cave it turned out to be !
Primarily a buffet setting, the huge hall was dominated by a round counter overflowing with colourful , eye-pleasing dishes. We were directed to go around the counter, helping ourselves and to finally hand the loaded plate to the hostess. She would weigh it and issue a bill according to the weight which was to be settled immediately. We could then proceed to the tables and eat at leisure.
A dozen people were circumambulating the table , balancing overflowing plates. I had a stray thought that had the counter held a Ganapathi idol as a centrepiece, the people doing repeated "pradakshina" could have earned some punya .
There were lentil fritters, dumplings, moulded rice portions, flat breads ,pasta, combinations of steamed vegetables, raw salads, fruits, great varieties of gravies ,dips and sauces,crispies, pickles/preserves and three tureens of soups.
We were rather bewildered , so a hostess helped us put together our meals. She was very helpful ofcourse, explaining what ingredients went into each gravy or dressing. But her idea of a Combo. seemed rather strange ( understatement!) to our indian tongues. For instance, she placed a fat potato-spinach dumpling , splashed over a ladleful of " Curry Sauce" over it, topped it with crispies and just as i started drooling, rained a helping of ginger-flavoured honey over everything and finished it with caramelised apple pieces ! I am not complaining, but it is a combo i'll never try out again.
The other courses went off well. We had a whale of time experimenting. The colours, flavours and textures were wonderful. I made a lot of mental notes about the aromas and the display styles. That night, the kids faithfully noted down what we had eaten , how much they weighed and what each helping had cost. Back home, upon conversion to rupees, the bill seemed staggering ! So for some time after, every time they had curd rice or idli, ' they'd add a cucumber slice or some pickle on top, give it an exotic name and a fancy price tag. It was a silly game. But at least they learnt the value of food !
Some dishes we had at Hiltl:
Pumpkin-Orange Soup ( with cream topping)
Penne tossed with tofu-tomato,garnished with tahini
Pineapple,Spring onion, nuts Salad with Rosemary dressing
Hot Colonial Combo. ( rice, curry sauce,cashewnuts, peach wedges with Pappadam)
Lentil Fritters with spiced Youghurt
For dessert, we politely turned down the hostess's suggestion of "Srikand with garam masala" and settled for a non exotic fruit tart.
A memorable experience.
The other veggie restaurant we tried while in Zurich was the much publicised Raja Bongo. A typical Indian restaurant. Loud decorations with mughal miniature prints, a large Tajmahal model, waiters in kurta , sitar music, steel thalis et al. The North Indian fare was good. The owner reportedly speaks 12 or 13 languages !