Vegan cuisine—a choice that seeks to maximise awareness and minimise the use of animal products. Pune—a city on the verge of megapolism. And yes, the twain does meet. Pune foodies recently welcomed Bell Peppers, the city's fifth vegan food delivery and takeaway. Get this: the city has been named India's fastest growing vegan hub by PETA (India) and noted advocacy group Vegan Outreach. So what's the winning combo for veganism in Pune? The city is home not just to vegan entrepreneurs who have the gumption to back their beliefs with business, but also a host of animal rights activists who are doing what it takes to educate people on veganism as a way of life.
Is Vegan Food Expensive?
"That's the one notion my restaurant is trying to dispel," expresses Anjana Mishra, owner of the newly started Bell Peppers at Baner. With an accent on desi cuisine—which she believes needs to be actively promoted as a viable and delicious vegan alternative, she would recommend her kadhi chawal, palak tofu, gulab jamun and dahi wadas—that substitute dahi with cashew nut and soya curds. Her kofta curry and dal makhni have coconut cream and her shrikhand, coconut malai and cashew.
She'll have you know none of these cost the sun and the moon. "I aim to reach out to both middle-class and lower middle-class customers. After all, only the 'rich' can't propagate veganism as a way of life," she points out. "My vegan dabbas, that cost only Rs 50 a piece, are a wonderful way of spreading the good word. Office-goers, roommates and friends typically share meals and confidences. So, when the conversation veers to how the yummy gulab jamun or kadhi has no milk products and is still delicious, it makes a deeper impact than simply lecturing folks. After eating at our restaurant, people often ask us for our recipes and the ingredients that replace milk, curd and ghee. So, it is sheer curiosity that sets the ball rolling for veganism as an alternative way of life," adds Mishra.
Entrepreneur Jaya Rai, the brain behind Granny's Bowl, the vegan restaurant cum take away joint on Dhole Patil Road, couldn't agree more. "People are bemused to know that neither my pizza nor Irish Coffee have milk cream or cheese and that there are such a host of delicious options to choose from," says the former graphic designer. "Great food sans cruelty is entirely possible and we are an example; in just about a year and a half we are all set to break even."
Why is Pune Leading the Vegan Movement?
Manoj Oswal, former member of the Animal Welfare Board of India and founder of the Pune Unit for People For Animals has lots to share on why Pune is the fastest growing vegan hub of India. "For starters, Pune is home to activist organisations like the advocacy group, Vegan Outreach, Animal Equality and Beauty Without Cruelty. To add to this, the city has been witness to some amazing street campaigns spearheaded by fiery and devoted activists like Darshana Majumdar, founder of Living Free Pune for the last five years. This has at least initiated the conversation around veganism. Four years ago, the first Vegan Restaurant called the Real Green Cafe started in Viman nagar and then moved to Koregaon Park. It worked for the creativity of its cuisine as well as the warmth of its decor and novelty of approach. Soon after came Kompassion, Back to Basics, Granny's Bowl and now there is Bell Peppers," he says.
However, Oswal is realistic enough to concede that by themselves the vegans are not enough to drive the traffic and help the restaurants break even. "Vegan food is traditionally and rightfully considered to be low fat, organic and cholesterol free. There are also plenty of options for those with gluten allergies. Then there are a sizeable number of people who simply love to experiment with good and different food," he says.
It helps that the entire set up of restaurants like The Real Green Cafe (Koregaon Park) is just so winsome. The welcoming orange wall with hand painted graffiti, reused glass bottles, open kitchen and messages over the pillar are chirpy and inviting. What's more, the menu is a textbook example of creativity and compassion. From the tossed veggies to the meaty balls and spaghetti to the dairy free ice-creams, each dish is a winner. The grilled sandwiches are a great choice too, loaded with vegan butter, nut cheeses and fresh veggies.
On her part, Palak Mehta, founder of VeganFirst.com, India's first vegan publication and solution space for the vegan and vegan-curious community points out that restaurants like these perform the crucial function of bringing the community together and helping it network. "While Vegan First publishes news, create recipe videos, recommend restaurants and products, the actual on-ground availability of Vegan food is a must," she says.
To that end, Vegan First helps organise a host of vegan recipe events and dos. "For instance, we did this vegan food event with the Italian restaurant Dario's wherein the owner helped curate an alternative menu with vegan products. We were expecting 30 to 40 people at the most, but to our pleasant surprise, the program was choc-a-bloc with vegans from Pune and Mumbai. This just goes to show the potential of the movement and the great backdrop provided by a city like Pune."
As Oswal rounds off, “It's not just the dogs and cats who deserve our protection but also fish, poultry and cattle. So even as Pune is in the news for pet-friendly cafes and humane pet boarding spaces, it is fitting that we have vegan restaurants as well. Nothing demonstrates our respect better."
On the anvil is a food truck that will take a host of vegan continental, chinese and Indians snacks to the foodies of the city. Mishra promises this will be street food to live - not die for! "Veganism is after all about life, not death," she concludes.
Also read: How to make vegan cheese and vegan smoothies
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