“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
Anthony Bourdain’s dour diatribe on the “evils” of vegeterians and vegans is hardly unwonted. The internet is rife with mean-spirited assailments against people who choose a plant-based diet that includes fruits, cereal grains, seeds, nuts and vegetables and may or may not exclude dairy products and eggs. Reciprocation in kind is also well represented on the Internet by vegetarians and vegans who lambast the carnivorous cravings of meat-eaters.
This lack of civility and parochial discourse is usually reserved for politics and ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) who can’t concede any merit whatsoever about the opposing viewpoint. It’s not enough to disagree with someone else’s opinion or choice, dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives.
So, just how do you resolve differences of opinion without resorting to name-calling? The answer may lie in an article published in the Society page of the New York Times Sunday edition on May 5, 1918 which posited that “soap-boxers emitting hatred and trust” may be having trouble with their stomachs which sometimes direct human action more than the mind does. The writer observed that where there are points of disagreement, a good dinner usually settles them.
The question then becomes just where to have that dinner. Obviously in the case of vegetarians and meatatarians, it would be a challenge worthy of a sagacious Solomon. For me, it’s enough of a challenge to get some of my friends and colleagues to try something new and different, something outside their comfort zone–somewhere like Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine, a world vegetarian cafe which touts itself as “the place for healing cuisine.”
Most of my colleagues equate “healing cuisine” with medicine and believe vegetarianism should be practiced exclusively by rabbits. Their idea of world cuisine is pizza, tacos and egg rolls. Fortunately my friend and fellow Air Force retiree Randy Lake (who risked merciless taunting from our crew in ordering a veggie burger at the Stone Face Tavern) and his beauteous better half Bonnie, like me, welcome a periodic respite from the mundanity of the “usual suspects.” They were more than eager to visit Annapurna with me.
Annapurna is a Sanskrit (the ancient language of the Hindus) word that literally means “complete food.” As the goddess of food and abundance, Annapurna is also responsible for the nourishment of the family. This isn’t nourishment in the American sense of caloric overachievement, but in the Hindu traditional sense and medical treatise for healing and prolonging life called Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is a 5,000 year-old system of healing and well-being. “Ayur” means “life” and “veda” means “knowledge,” hence the knowledge of longevity. Ayurveda offers healing, rejuvenation and self realization through balanced foods, herbs, yoga, massage, aroma and meditation. Ayurveda teaches how to pay attention to how and what is eaten and to take responsibility for our health.
Ayurveda prescribes purity of food (Sattvic) for healing and maintaining good health. Sattvic food incorporates the six tastes in every meal: sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, salty and pungent.
Interestingly, in the west, it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods. The Sattvic recognition that there are six discernible tastes should be a siren’s call to all adventurous foodies.
As Randy, Bonnie and I found out during our inaugural visit to Annapurna, the depth of flavors in virtually every bite will certainly invigorate and stimulate seemingly every one of your ten-thousand taste buds. Even if you don’t consciously attempt to discern each of the taste sensations, you’ll swear you’re tasting them in every mouthful. Of course adventurous, exotic and taste awakening sensations don’t mean as much if the cuisine doesn’t measure up in deliciousness.
At Annapurna, deliciousness is part and parcel of every dining experience. It’s Indian cuisine to the nth degree and an order of magnitude better than most vegetarian cuisine. It’s cuisine that provides pleasure in every forkful, a sensual delight in every meal. The Alibi described every platter at Annapurna as a “delicacy.”
First-time visitors need not despair about what to order, especially if you’re already somewhat familiar with Indian cuisine. The menu is extremely user friendly with vivid color pictures of many entrees as well as inviting descriptions of the entrees. To the greatest extent possible, the food is locally grown and is always freshly prepared every day. That is an amazing feat considering the breadth of the menu, a multi-page compendium of Ayurvedic deliciousness.
An Annapurna dining experience is not only meat-free, you won’t find white flour, white salt, white sugar, sodas or alcohol and with the exception of homemade paneer (a traditional, unaged, non-melting farmer’s cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other food acid) and a traditional milk-based chai (a tea brewed with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs), you won’t find much dairy either.
The menu changes seasonally–another Ayurvedic principle based on the seasons knowing what you need during each quadrant of the year. In addition to the mostly traditional Indian cuisine, the menu also includes some “western” or rather “westernized” entrees such as pizza, sandwiches, veggie burgers, lasagna, wraps and even a brunch burrito.
One of the very best ways to acquaint yourself with the menu is by ordering one of the sampler plates. Fortunately the first three items on the menu feature three grand sampler plates with an impressive array of delicious dishes. The Thaali Plate, for example, includes a cup of each of the restaurant’s vegetables of the day, a cup of Dal (a yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), a cup of Sambhar (a spicy, brothy yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), Basmati or brown rice, Chapati (flatbread) and your choice of chutney, yogurt or raita. This is a stellar plate with a lot going on. It will put a smile on your lips and bring warmth to your heart.
The South Indian Sampler Plate is referred to on the menu as a “combination for the curious.” It features one miniature masala dosa (an Indian crepe filled with a spicy vegetable mixture), a piece of Vadai (a deep-fried cake akin to an Indian hushpuppy), a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis (soft, fluffy white, round discs made of rice and lentil batter which might remind you of dumplings) and a side of coconut chutney. Every bite of every item is absolutely delicious, a joy to eat.
The menu refers to the North Indian Sampler Plate as “a combination for the hungry.” It features a cup of Saag (a spinach and mustard leaf based curry dish) with two paneer, a cup of Mataar (a creamy, spiced tomato and pea soup) served with three paneer, a cup of the bean of the day and your choice of Basmati or brown rice as well as one Chapati, one mini dosa or three Puri (a puffed, savory fried bread. Mataar Paneer is my very favorite Indian dish and Annapurna’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever had, so flavorful, so soul-warming that days later it still pervaded my mind. If the menu didn’t offer so many other intriguing options, this sampler platter could become a habitual favorite.
“As easy as ABC,” an idiom which describes something that’s very easy is an apt name for one of the least complex items on the menu. “ABC” in this case stands for Avocado, tempeh bacon and Cheddar cheese which along with spinach, tomatoes and chipotle dressing form a wrap which might have you thinking “BLT.” That’s in large part due to the tempeh bacon (sometimes referred to as fake-on) which has the flavor and consistency of bacon with far fewer calories and fat. Served with salad and your choice of masala fries or a cup of the soup of the day, it’s Annapurna’s version of an American classic–sandwich and fries.
A far more exotic culinary adventure can be had with a Masala Dosa, a South Indian crepe/pancake made with rice and urad dal (a whitish lentil), rolled and filled with a spicy vegetable mixture that includes carrots, potatoes, onions and more (perhaps lentils). Indian spiciness is not nearly the same as the spiciness found in New Mexican food. While this entree has some piquancy, it’s spice-based and not chile-based and doesn’t have the “burn” of New Mexico’s official vegetable. The spicy vegetable mix is intensely spiced and strongly flavored in the most pleasant sense. The Dosa is whisper thin and crisp. At about ten inches in length, it may at first glance appear daunting in size, but it’s light and substantial at the same time so finishing one shouldn’t be a problem for even smaller eaters.
Annapurna’s menu is eye-catching for its surprises. It’s a rare vegan restaurant and even more rare Indian restaurant in which you’ll find Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Pizza, Pancakes and even Burritos. A line-up with such diverse items seems more appropriate for one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants which server every conceivable item under the sun, but none of them well. The difference is that Annapurna’s rendition of the aforementioned items is very well executed…and that’s no longer a surprise to anyone who frequents this outstanding restaurant.
Take, for example, the gourmet pizza. Its canvas is a wheat-free and yeast-free herb crust. (As an aside, Nations Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, reports that the most popular pizza toppings in India are pickled ginger, minced mutton and paneer.) Standard toppings are a house-made classic marinara, organic mozzarella, zucchini, eggplant and onion. Optional toppings include portabello mushroom, tomatoes, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, green chile, roasted bell peppers and tempeh bacon. With perhaps the exception of tempeh bacon, doesn’t that sound like a pie you might find at a pizzeria?
You don’t even have to close your eyes to imagine it’s a pie from one of Albuquerque’s fine pizzerias. Your eyes and nostrils won’t deceive you; it looks and smells like a very good pizza. Better still, it tastes like a very good pizza. My inaugural offering included three optional toppings: green chile, tempeh bacon and Kalamata olives. The combination of a tangy sauce generously applied on the pie and a nicely roasted green chile made for a lively flavor tease. The tempeh bacon, while not bringing to mind a fennel-kissed sausage or Canadian bacon, imparts a porcine smokiness to the pie. The crust doesn’t have the chewiness or char you might find on a pizza, but it holds up well against the weight of all the toppings.
The lasagna, a favorite of my friend Señor Plata, is very much reminiscent of lasagna you might find at an Italian restaurant. It’s constructed from thick pasta, a house-made marinara, butternut squash, zucchini and eggplant baked golden. Señor Plata orders it with mozzarella, but vegans can opt to have it sans cheese. Served in a casserole dish, it arrives at your table some twenty to thirty minutes after you order it and it remains steaming hot throughout your meal. Several Duke City restaurants offer a vegetarian lasagna, but Annapurna’s is the best.
Lovers of breakfast at anytime, even low-carb diners, will be thrilled to find Annapurna serves pancakes–a short (but definitely not small in circumference) stack of gluten-free pancakes made from scratch with a batter containing freshly ground cardamom served with organic maple syrup. The pancakes are delicious with or without the syrup but purists might miss spreading butter on these tasty orbs. Nearly the circumference of the plate in which they are served, they’re easily big enough to share, but you might not want to because they’re quite good.
My Cotswolds friends in England might accuse the colonists of heresy if they saw the ingredient list on Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie. Traditionally made with a mashed potato crust and lamb mince, Shepherd’s Pie is as English as the Queen’s jewels. Taking liberties with this popular English standard, Annapurna’s rendition is made with lentils, carrots, celery and greens smothered in a sweet potato topping baked until golden. With all due respect to my English home of more than three years, Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie is better than any I had in England.
Annapurna is owned by Yashoda Naidoo, a former accountant who pursued her passion for healing food and launched the first instantiation of her restaurant in 2002 near the University of New Mexico. Today there are three Annapurna restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, including one in Santa Fe. The most recent to launch is on North Fourth Street in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
Annapurna Chai House
5939 4th St NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2011
1st VISIT: 25 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Thaali Plate, South Indian Sampler Plate, North Indian Sampler Plate, Mango Lassi, Masala Dosa, ABC, Gourmet Pizza, Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Cardamom Pancakes, Greek Wrap