Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Kastoori, Tooting

Here's a sweeping statement to pointlessly antagonise a great many people - vegetarians in the UK, on the whole, do not really like food. At least that is the impression I often get. I'm not talking about those who just avoid red meats, or even those who eat a wide variety of fish and seafood but avoid game and poultry. These are moral or ethical decisions and are often perfectly sensible - I mean even I have "issues" with fois gras and veal although not quite enough to stop me ordering them at every opportunity. Strict vegetarians - those who fill their miserable empty days with salads and nut roasts and bloody Quinoa - these are people who see food only as a necessary evil. The kind of people who love the attention they get being able to grumble about the poor choice at whatever restaurant they happen to have been tricked into going to, and then proceed to pick at their meal half-heartedly all evening while muttering about their waistline. Stick-thin health freaks who survive on wheatgrass smoothies and wear their vegetarianism as a self-righteous badge of clean living, and yet have to supplement their apparently perfect diet with artificial protein pills and vitamins. Vegetarians do not, on the whole, like food. Anyone who really enjoyed eating would stay away from wheatgrass, for a start. And don't even get me started on vegans.

So much the same can usually be said of vegetarian restaurants. First of all, there aren't that many of them, as most British vegetarians would rather stay at home with a pack of Linda McCartney sausages than be seen to eat in a public place. And secondly, they are usually glorified health food shops with a self-service counter groaning with soggy cous cous salads and cowpats of spinach quiche, with the same odd smell of ludicrously expensive dietary supplements, fennel seeds and sadness.

Kastoori is different. You know it's different because when you sit down at a table in what is at first glance a bog-standard local curry house, you are presented with a menu which contains none of the usual suspects of high-street dining - Masala, Korma, Vindaloo, etc. Instead you notice exotic ingredients like green bananas, dosas and puris, each with a short description of the flavours involved and perhaps a short explanation of the history of the dish. Many are family heirlooms, carried over from their roots as forced exiles of Idi Amin's Uganda and mixed with further influences from their native Gujurat. What you don't notice is the lack of meat.

We started with what is fast becoming a locally famous house speciality - Dahi Puri. Described on the menu as "Taste bombs", they were bite-sized crispy pastry casings with a chick-pea, spiced potato and yoghurt sauce inside. You are told to eat them in one go - it gets very messy otherwise - and as the flavours dissolve in your mouth I defy you not to close your eyes and moan with delight. They are simply incredible.

After we'd come under fire from a couple more taste bombs each (sorry), the mains arrived - a thick aubergine curry containing huge black chillis and plenty of coriander, (not always available - this is one of the rotating daily specials), panir cheese stuffed with mint and coriander in a lovely creamy sauce, and a Dosa so big it actually overhung both sides of our table, served with a rich coconut chutney. All of it was nothing less than excellent, especially the Dosa which had a quite unexpected vinegary/herby taste and despite its generous size disappeared very quickly. I'm no expert on Gujurati cuisine but I know practiced, expert cooking when I see it, and Kastoori has yet to disappoint on that front.

As if vegetarians needed anything more to be self-righteous about, they also have one of the most exciting restaurants in South London to call their own. But let's not do Kastoori a disservice by calling it vegetarian. It is a brilliant restaurant by any standards.


Kastoori on Urbanspoon


Interval Drinks said...

While I suspect the intro was written purely to be provocative, I really must object to this commonly-held idea that veggies don’t like eating very much. I do, rather a lot. I’m just not overly keen on eating meat. I like discovering new flavours, new tastes, and being adventurous with what I consume. As you’ve pointed out, with good vegetarian cooking you don’t even notice the absence of meat – it’s just that, in this country at least, you don’t often encounter good vegetarian cooking.

I suppose this is because a decent vegetarian meal requires a greater degree of creativity to be memorable, but most places view that as a chore not a challenge. Oh and I’ve never purchased any Linda McCartney products in my life and never intend to.

Great blog by the way, I enjoy reading it a lot. Kastoori sounds fab, can't wait to check it out.

Chris Pople said...

It wasn't written *purely* to be provocative, though I admit there was an element of that :)

You may love food, but amongst vegetarians I believe you're in the minority. However I'm quite prepared to be proved otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I'm a stick-thin health freak vegetarian who has nothing better to do to fill my miserable empty days than to post comments on someone else's blog. Though I personally don't see the need to slag off someone else's values and way of life for the sake of it, I do agree with some of the points in this article. I do not on the whole enjoy food. And that's mostly because of being subjected to a choice of one abject meal on the menus of most restaurants. High time meat eaters learned to open their eyes and enjoy vegetarian food, and to live and let live as far as veggies are concerned. Hopefully Kastoori is a step in the right direction for food lovers of all persuasions.

Charlie said...

Woo! Kastoori is awesome. I'm a confirmed carnivore, but Kastoori is probably my all time favourite curry house ever.

Anonymous said...

I personally love good vegetarian food because I feel like they have to be a bit more inventive with the flavours and highly seasoned which I love. I do admit that my enjoyment of a good veggie meal in enhanced by the feelings of guilt free low calorie satisfaction. I can recommend a really good veggie restaurant in New York, delicious and inventive and I think it might even be vegan! It's called Angelicas Kitchen.

Anonymous said...

I hate to agree with you, but I do. All the vegetarians I know - and I know a lot - are just not that into food. It makes me sad.

But since a beloved vegetarian is coming to visit me soon (!!), please review more vegetarian friendly restaurants if you can. I dread the thought of 9 days stuck at those 'all you can eat for £3' places, where the only acceptable thing are the spring rolls.

Chris Pople said...

Fatima - actually most restaurants in London are vegetarian "friendly". For example some of the best courses at Pearl (see review) were vegetarian. It's just very very rare to find a 100% vegetarian restaurant that's any good, like Kastoori. Not a lump of tofu to be seen!

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I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.


Anonymous said...

I love your blog, but I think some of your vegetarian-baiting is a bit mean! It's possible that there are ethical vegetarians who absolutely love burgers but try and avoid them because of the obvious ethical concerns.

If you're saying that empirically there are few of these, that's probably true, but it's certainly not the case that someone has to dislike delicious animal-based foods to be vegetarian.