Not so long ago, Abu Dhabi's vegetarians sought refuge in the teeming South Indian restaurants that line the busy alleyways of downtown Salam Street. Cheap, but not necessarily cheerful, non meat eaters of all nationalities relied upon the curries offered here for their spicy curds fix.
A profusion of hotel restaurants competing to win customers has created many more options for vegetarians dining out, so ordering a side dish as a main course is almost a thing of the past. But the absolute minimum requirement for great vegetarian cooking is freshly sourced ingredients, which is perhaps why – in a city where so much is imported from so far away – more heavily spiced regional cuisine has proved such a salvation.
This is changing, according to Matteo Fontana, restaurant chef at Circo at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi. “With the trend of eating more healthily, you’ll find many dishes suitable for vegetarians in most Italian restaurants, including Circo,” he maintains.
Fontana buys staple ingredients from farms in Al Ain, which operate outdoors as the seasons permit, before moving into greenhouses for the summer months. He procures and serves mostly locally sourced vegetables all year long, although he admits that there are some ingredients, such as truffles and certain delicate varieties of melon, that will never be available locally.
"It is somewhat difficult to find fresh vegetables here. Many items have to be flown to get to our kitchens and, ultimately, our tables," counters Suzanne Husseini, the Dubai-based celebrity chef and author of The Modern Flavors of Arabia, who was in Abu Dhabi recently to promote a Ramadan menu at Market Kitchen in Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi. "I buy vegetables that have travelled in small quantities and use them quickly in their prime. I also love to shop on Fridays at the local organic markets to support the commendable efforts of local farmers that have managed to make the desert bloom."
In keeping with demand for simply cooked food that highlights the quality of ingredients, many restaurants are now applying protein-based cooking techniques to vegetables – searing, charring, grilling and oven-roasting to add richness and complexity that satisfies the tastebuds.
Even vegetarians like to feel full, Husseini says. “I always offer something as satisfying to my vegetarian and vegan guests as my meat-eating diners, such as my roasted cauliflower steak with citrus tahini sauce, so everyone leaves the table happy.
“No one leaves my table hungry, or I haven’t done my job,” she insists.
While vegetarians are now better served in the capital, eating dairy-free can still be a challenge. “Abu Dhabi restaurants have a lot of work to do before anyone could call them vegan-friendly,” laments Abu Dhabi-based vegan Kathryn Anderle. She admits that things are getting better, but progress is slow. “Don’t even ask how hard it is to be a vegan at a Friday brunch,” she jokes.
Alongside limited choice, unfair pricing is a source of frustration for Anderle. “Some outlets that advertise vegetarian or vegan options just take the meat out of the sandwich and call it vegetaria’ or vegan – or worse, some charge extra for the vegandesignation.”
Anderle also finds the general lack of effort maddening. “Shops just send people away with no coffee, rather than investing in a Dh14 carton of nut milk that might service several customers,” she says.
Cultural differences add another layer to the problem. “Once I asked a server for no animal products and then asked for a tofu substitute. The server said that tofu was made from soya and soya has milk in it [because of the word ‘milk’ in soy milk],” says Anderle.
“This was a new one for me. I had no idea how to clear up her misconception. And then I realised my own language contributed to the problem.”
Although Indian food has become a tried and tested fall-back for hungry vegetarians, Anderle points out that it is a nightmare for vegans. “Indian restaurants tend to use a lot of ghee and yogurt and, with the servers’ limited English language skills, few understand the difference between vegan and vegetarian.”
Purity of ingredients may have to take a backseat for some time to come, as vegetarians and vegans learn to navigate what’s still a fairly nascent meat-free food scene. Still, there has never been a better time to enjoy vegetables centre-plate in the capital – just don’t expect the ordering process to always be simple.
Roasted cauliflower with citrus tahini sauce
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
1 head of cauliflower
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons,
Zest and juice of ½ orange (save some zest to garnish)
1 cup water
3/4 cup tahini
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, mashed
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
½ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup slivered pistachio nuts
▶ Preheat the oven to 220°C. Take the whole head of your cauliflower and cut (core included) into four thick slices. Place the slices on a large baking sheet, coat with oil and season with salt. Roast until golden and crisp, and cooked through. Turn over halfway, being careful not to break the cauliflower. It should take about 20 minutes. Mix the lemon juice, orange juice and zest, water and tahini to make a creamy sauce. Once done, leave to one side.
▶ In a deep skillet, heat the olive oil, and sautée the onions and garlic until light golden and soft. Pour the tahini sauce over the cooked onions and bring to a simmer until the flavours mingle and it thickens slightly. Taste to adjust seasoning according to taste.
▶ Serve drizzled over the roasted cauliflower and garnish with toasted pine nuts, slivered pistachios and orange zest.
From When Suzanne Cooks by Suzanne Husseini (Motivate Publishing, 2010)