If you thought vegetarian food without onion and garlic would be bland and boring, check out Higher Taste in Bangalore.

Even for a lifelong vegetarian like me, the idea of Higher Taste's “Satvik Cuisine” was a bit hard to get excited about. No onion, no garlic, said the description. And, as I understood it, onion and garlic besides asafoetida were the indispensable flavouring agents of vegetarian cuisine. The ‘three redeemers' of vegetarian food, as my carnivore friends joked. So, wouldn't this restrictive cooking translate into bland, boring, lacklustre fare? How could they sustain a 90-cover restaurant serving lunch and dinner with a-la-carte and buffet options? Higher Taste at ISKCON Complex, Bangalore, turned out to be a wonderfully pleasant surprise. With a couple of exceptions, the food was enticingly aromatic, richly flavourful, and utterly delicious. And, very zestful too!

Done just right

Amid contemporary-style interiors and to the strains of recorded music — American devotees singing Krishna bhajans — we sat down to our a la carte meal. The starters Inji Vadai (masala vadas), Kakori Sheekh Kabab (barbecued vegetables and greens) and Kavipoo Varuval (marinated cauliflower florets, deep fried) were delightfully crisp and spicy. And mercifully non-greasy! Tiranga Paneer Tikka (marinated cheese cubes) was done just right. The mocktails — Radha Rani's Favourite (hey, this is ISKCON) and Kesar Sikanji (lemonade with saffron, dry fruits) — were refreshing but not so innovative.

In between courses, we read the food wisdom displayed in leaflets on the table; English translations of Bhagavad Gita verses on food. Indian philosophy recognises three personality types: satvik (gentle), rajasic (restlessly active), tamasic (dense). Taking off from this, satvik food is wholesome; pure vegetarian with no onion, garlic, caffeine or eggs; freshly cooked; using fresh ingredients eschewing those that excite animal passions and cause anger or agitation. Satvik cuisine results in a calm mind, healthy body, and non-violent nature.

An exciting main course including signature items, followed. There was the piquant Mangai Kilangu Thodukari (green mango-potatoes curry), several Idiyappam varieties (string-hoppers) and Vetrilai Thakkali Sadham, an unusual pulao using betel-leaf and tomato! Mohana Kalavai (toor dal sambar laced with cream) and Arisiparuppu Sadham (ghee-oozing, flavoured rice and lentils) were show-stoppers.

Executive Chef Aditya Fatepuria let us in on their secrets. “In Kalavai, toor dal is cooked slowly in tender coconut water. Later, tender coconut pieces are added. It's finally seasoned with curry leaves, red chillies, mustard seeds. For Arisiparuppu, five lentils are cooked separately to soft consistency, and all added with masalas to rice. The whole is seasoned with dollops of ghee.”

Desserts included Nendrapazham Dosai (tropical-banana dosa). And the signature, ground-betel-leaf specked Paan Ice-cream. How were they made? But Fatepuria wasn't telling anymore. He only smiled mysteriously. He had divulged enough!

C.C. Das — Trustee, Akshaya Patra Foundation, and ISKCON Governing Body Member, who also oversees Higher Taste — allayed some of our curiosity. He told us the curries use — in different proportions — five fundamental masalas, each a combination of 15 to 18 spices. The staples are flavoured with karuvepilai podi and pepper powder. The eggless pastries and ice-creams are products of ISKCON's bakery.

Researching recipes

This satvik menu was the result of two years of research into age-old Indian recipes including Chola-period cuisine, he revealed. These ancient recipes were adapted to Vaishnava cooking style i.e. pure vegetarian food that uses fresh ingredients, slow cooking, and eschews onion, garlic and mushroom.

But vegetable au-gratin, noodles and pasta in Vaishnavite cuisine? Das explains that ISKCON has an international presence, so the menu reflects international tastes. Mexican, Chinese, Italian, French... are all represented in this eclectic spread. “We have a Food Lab where we worked for years to adapt global cuisine to Vaishnavite style.”

Das says that there is nothing exotic or hard-to-achieve about satvik cuisine. You can have it at home. How? “Use fresh ingredients. Don't cook for a week; or even for two or three days in advances. Food ceases to be satvik once three hours old. Stored-and-reheated food is horrific. Use the flame diligently; slow when necessary. Don't fast-forward the cooking process or overcook anything. Cook with love and a calm, happy mind. Also with devotion to God if you are a believer. The cook's purity of mind is a cardinal component in satvik cooking. The cook's emotions are transferred to the food. So, food cooked with anger or negative emotions becomes unhealthy, even poisonous. Food that doesn't follow these principles is not life-giving, it has no prana!” After all, he added: “We are what we eat. And food that doesn't use fresh ingredients, is reheated, and cooked with negativity harms mind and body.”

Mood influences food. And food impacts personality and attitudes. With that final piece of wisdom we ended our Higher Taste experience; as much of a delightful culinary experience as an interesting philosophy lesson.

Quick facts

Higher Taste, ISKCON Temple Complex, Chord Road, Bangalore.

Tel: (080) 22766501.

A-la carte meal for two: Rs. 1,000 approx.

Buffet: Rs. 330 a head, all-inclusive.