Once considered a fad and a fringe movement, veganism in India gained momentum rather quickly in the last decade. When Kolkatan Sandra Hendricks turned to a plant-based diet in 2014, most people she spoke to had no idea what veganism was about. Some eight years later, not only are local chefs like Hendricks catering to vegan customers, but F&B giants are consistently expanding their plant-based options.
“People turn to veganism for different reasons, it could be health, animal welfare, climate change or anything else. I used to be a meat-eater, I had grown up on meaty jalfrezis, kormas, cutlets and mash, biryanis. But after my second rescue pet Hachiko came into my life, my perspective on animal consumption changed entirely. Things that I had deemed normal seemed inconceivable to me. I knew I had to change,” Hendricks shares.
Golbari-style kosha mangsho made with plant-based alternatives
Her plant-based cloud kitchen Hachi & Reggie Foods is just a little over a year old and offers some of the most beloved Anglo-Indian, Mughlai and Bengali dishes. The chef has managed to ‘veganise’ Bengali staples such as shorshe bhaapa maach and Golbarir kosha mangsho, and has come up with an irresistible plant-based Kolkata-style biryani. My Kolkata caught up with Hendricks to learn more about her work and her plans and what’s on her plate. Edited excerpts from the conversation…
My Kolkata: What influenced your decision to start a vegan cloud kitchen?
Sandra Hendricks: One of the biggest reasons was the unavailability of food that was plant-based and close to my palate. Eating is not just about consuming food. It’s often about memories and nostalgia. Memories of mom making something when you were ill, like a warm chicken soup. Memories of family get-togethers with rich pulaos and biryanis, kormas and jalfrezi, or memories of being served buttery luchis and kosha mangsho on a rainy day. If you notice, all these memories are connected to foods which are traditionally non-vegan. Very few people remember a salad or shake!
I decided to make vegan food based on recipes we all grew up with. A scrumptious vegan Kolkata-style biryani made with plant-based meat, kesar-soaked potato and hand-ground spices. I also make mince-meat cutlets, Anglo-Indian-style steaks and jalfrezi, Goan xacuti, bhapa shorshe machh using plant-based fish, traditional rich fruit nut and rum-soaked cake, mishti doi and so on. I replaced meat with plant-based alternatives in classical recipes, instead of simply replacing the meat with a vegetable. I also went with plant-based butter, cheese, curd, mayo etc. I wanted to make food people crave but can never visualise in vegan form.
A small part of my decision to start my own kitchen also had to do with the fact that I missed eating a good biryani! Whenever I would order veggie biryani, I would essentially get a pulao!
Hachi & Reggie’s vegan biryanis use hand-ground spices
You turned vegan a few years ago…
I turned to veganism in 2014. I was a hard-core meat-eater. My family was always fond of dogs and cats, especially my mom, my grandmom and myself. So when my daughter forced me into bringing our first rescue dog home (forced because I lived in a flat and had my misgivings about keeping an animal in a flat), I slowly started getting very connected to the pet. And then when I brought my second rescue, Hachiko, home, (my brand is named after him and my granddad, Reggie), I fell in love!
I was a non-vegan and used to poke fun at vegetarians. But after Hachiko, I started viewing animals in a different light. Things that I had always considered normal started affecting me acutely. One morning, during my morning walk, I saw goats being herded to the slaughterhouse. There were babies and big ones too and the men herding them were poking and shoving them with sticks. I just broke down when I saw it.
I don’t know why that happened to me that day, as I had seen this many times before and it had never affected me. During my walks, I see men carrying chickens bunched up, tied by their feet and hung upside down from cycles. It was no longer easy and acceptable for me to see things like these and just normalise them. People veer towards veganism for many reasons, for the environment, for their health or because they are allergic to some non-vegan stuff. I am a vegan for ethical reasons only, which translates into one thing — I am vegan because I love animals. Veganism is about the least harmful way to sustain yourself and that’s my approach. I did a lot of research and reading. I feel like a dog, a goat or a chicken are exactly the same. I can’t treat one animal like a child and treat the other like a commodity.
Sandra Hendricks has 10 rescue pets
You feed around 150 animals every day?
Yes, I started feeding and medicating about 150 street animals and I have 10 rescues at home – many of whom were victims of hit-and-runs or were paralysed or abandoned on the streets by breeders. Every day, I feed animals around Park Street and several parts of central Kolkata, and we cook for them in my house.
A significant portion of my earnings goes towards caring for my animals. This is why I usually cook only on weekends, because I have a full-time day job. Hopefully, I can scale up my operations in the near future so I can better provide for them.
What are the meat alternatives that you usually work with?
I use Vezlay vegan meat a lot because I like its texture, I feel it’s very close to meat. GoodDot vegan meat is another brand I use. I use Veggie Champ Vegan fish, which is unbelievable – I swear you won’t be able to make out the difference between this and real fish (since one of its prime ingredients is seaweed, it is very healthy too). I use a cashew-based curd for my biryanis etc. For other dairy alternatives, I use Emkay Vegan Ghee and Whitecub butter, which are amazing. Now, we have amazing vegan ice creams as well. Brands like Papacream have a good range.
Vegan bhapa maach steamed in raw mustard and signature homemade hand-ground spices
Tell us about the recipes you’ve been exploring…
I usually tend to work with Mughal, Anglo-Indian and Bengali food, because it’s the food I grew up eating. These cuisines are heavily connected to rich non-vegetarian recipes and I specialise in ‘veganising’ them. For instance, creating a perfect vegan biryani with big succulent chunks of meat alternative was a huge challenge. On this amazing journey of trial-and-error cooking, I have discovered that 95% of the taste of a dish depends on our amazing Indian spices and cooking techniques. All my spices are handmade, which means they are ground by mortar and pestle or on the sheel.
I had to perfect the blend of dry-chopped masalas that go into Anglo-Indian jalfrezi, so it can still have the umami-rich meaty aroma and taste. Besides korma, xacuti, kebabs and tandoori, I also make some Bengali traditional recipes like Golbari-style kosha mangsho, which is a big favourite. It needs to have a darkish colour and of course, the feel and essence of goat meat.
My shorshe bhapa maach has confused so many fish lovers, it tastes exactly like fish and many non-vegans who have eaten it, have argued that we are fibbing about using a plant-based fish! Not many people thought I could ‘veganise’ the traditional rich fruit and nut rum-soaked Christmas cake, but it’s now a bestseller. My cakes travel to Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi etc., and are loved by so many because they say that they cannot find this kind of traditional plant-based cake with its authentic flavours intact.
Plant-based fruit, nut and rum Christmas cake
Tell us a little about your customers. Are meat-loving Kolkatans warming up to vegan food?
I try my best to cater to non-vegan customers — because vegans already know what to buy or where to order. If I want to bring about a real change and influence others to live more compassionately, then I need to focus on people who think like I used, and who are sceptical about anything besides meat and dairy. Most of them tell me that if we get vegan food like this, then why won't we eat it? The younger crop of customers are the ones who are explorers and are open to trying out new ways of life if it resonates with them. I am amazed to see the number of people in Kolkata who have transitioned to veganism or are in the process of transitioning.
From my Muslim dressmaker, who is a meat-eater, to the youngsters who get in touch with me over social media to guide them on veganism – the change is so encouraging. So yes, Kolkata now has a number of cloud kitchens that are home-based and vegan. Even big brands are stocking vegan items. Flurys has a vegan breakfast and so many other restaurants and brands are compelled to keep vegan items because there is a demand for them. Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli have launched Blue Tribe plant-based meats. Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh have launched Imagine Meats, which is a brand offering plant-based, ready-to-eat meals. In 2014, when I started, most people I interacted with did not even know the meaning of the word vegan. So yes, the change has been pretty big.
Vegan kebabs by Hachi & Reggie
What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to running a plant-based kitchen?
Trying to convince people who live by the notion that anything plant-based cannot be as tasty as meat. Some people feel uneasy about vegan meat, but are okay with eating meat that actually comes from dead animals. In many cases, the flesh of these animals has worms and so many other disease-causing bacteria, which are obviously much more toxic than what you would find on a plant. Many of us have been conditioned since childhood to not view meat-providing animals as living beings. So, I think the biggest challenge is that it is generally tough to find people with open minds where food is concerned. People are ready to upgrade their gadgets, cars, homes and lifestyle, but not ready to upgrade their eating habits. Here, the younger present generation is far more exploratory, open-minded and ready to listen, research and change if they believe in something. They are also ready to adapt to a healthier and more compassionate lifestyle, because veganism is about causing the least harm possible.
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