IT is apparently a myth – sacred cow even – that the Indian diet is predominantly vegetarian, though it’s a minefield trying to pin down the exact demographic region by region, religious community by community. All we know at ToM is that the sub-continent’s spices and seasonings provide us with some of the world’s most alluring veggie tastes.
Indian Tiffin Room, Bundobust, Amma’s Canteen, Lily’s of Ashton are all up-front about their plant-based leanings but what of the more mainstream, non South Indian or Gujerati restaurants? We investigated the menu at Asha’s, where from signature venison samosas to some decidedly opulent mains such as duck vindaloo, via the best fish curries in town, the target audience isn’t obviously vegetarian.
Yet look a little closer, even on the specialist tandoor menu, and a veggie’s eyes might light up (less so the hardcore paneer eschewing vegan). Meat-free cuisine is obviously close to the heart of the Manchester Asha’s head chef Ashwani Rangta (above), raised in Simla among the Himalayan foothills but with a global cv. In his words: “My diverse professional experience around the world has enabled me to develop the specialised skills required here at Asha’s – a restaurant that truly represents the multiple regional cuisines of India.
“So, of course, at Asha’s we have carefully crafted vegetarian dishes – from tandoori malai broccoli to aloo matar ki tikki… and then we have paneer kathi roll and aloo chaat as lunch option. Punjabi vegetarian cuisine is known as Vaishnav – the lentil dish dal makhni is the most popular. Hare baingna ka bharta, palak paneer and bhindi do piyaza are firm favourites of our regular dinners.”
So that was our trial dinner sorted, allowing for us translating what it all means. Did we miss the meat and fish? On this occasion definitely not.
Always irresistible at Asha’s is the colourful quartet of chutneys and relishes and here’s there’s no carnivore/veggie conflict of interest with mint and coriander, apple, tomato and pineapple flavours.
Tandoor ovens I associate with chicken and fish, certainly meat kebabs, so to find three separate vegetable kebabs on the list was an eye-opener. You can pay £14.95 for the whole trio of broccoli kebab, paneer ka soola (a carom-seasoned shashlik of cottage cheese, green peppers, tomatoes and pineapple) and aloo matar ki tikki, where tangy chickpeas are served with pan-fried potato cutlets rammed with peas, the latter better than Bundobust’s similar vada pav. Moister – and without the burger bun.
The image is of a reduced portion, a pattern followed throughout the meal when we stuck to dishes served as sides, so we could flit across most of the veggie offering. Small plates are well suited to veggie. The prices are for full-size mains.
The Indian fresh cheese, paneer’s not for vegans. Poor them it’s so delicious with the right spicing. It’s better in a palak paneer, in a rich cumin-tempered spinach gravy (£11.95), white morsels peering out of the dish’s brilliant green.
Dal makhni (£9.95), is a fellow Asha’s signature dish, slow seethed black lentils with tomato cream and butter, leading it away from vegan. A little goes a long way. In contrast bhindi do pyaza (£11.95) combining okra and onion is very moreish; so too the substantial subz kehkesha (£9.95) where a garnish of pomegranate arils and almond flakes adds sophistication to a mess of cauliflower, potato peppers and green peas. Spicing throughout is unthreatening. We started to regret the absence of some proper chilli heat.
If I had to pick a favourite dish it would definitely be the oven-roasted and mashed aubergines called hare baingan ka bharta (£11.95) where finally green chillies, ginger and cumin kicked in. We ordered extra naans to mop it all up.
To drink we considered the traditional lassi, but Asha’s bar offering is too tantalising. No cocktails from the basement Bollibar this time and, after considering bottled Runaway pale ale (a great nod to local craft brewers) we shared a Peter Lehman Rielsing (£36) from South Australia. All that lime and acidity cuts through the Indian spicing with a scimitar.
Asha’s, 47 Peter Street, Manchester, M2 3NG. 0161 832 5309.