Springing a leek

The writer describes how, after a few bland days of pushing carrots around her plate in Copenhagen, she discovered the patron saint of vegetarian travellers

Published - September 26, 2015 06:39 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

I am not particularly fussy about food, eating anything that did not once walk, crawl, swim or fly. So, in all these years of travel to phoren lands, my vegetarian juggernaut has rolled along on a fairly smooth path.

More often than not, I have managed to find something satisfying on either quality or quantity measures, sometimes even both at the same time. There’s pasta and pizza, soup and salad, hummus, falafel and a range of mezze designed to delight vegetarian souls, and at a (painful) pinch, there is even Indian food.

Even in Slovenia (yes, Slovenia, not Slovakia, thank you for asking), I found an astonishing array of veggie options, including a creamy mushroom soup served in a bread bowl, succulent salads with grilled cheese and vegetables, spicy eggplant and red pepper dips with bread, and their own kremna rezina cake.

Falsely lulled by such experiences, the abovementioned juggernaut kept moving till it came to a juddering halt a few months ago in France. Meal after wretched meal, I found myself staring at a plate of raw vegetables (salad: first course), followed by a plate of boiled vegetables (mains: second course). I returned to India, skin glossy but spirit broken.

To be fair, we ate all the time at gourmet restaurants (some with a Michelin star or two set firmly in sight), so I suppose I ought to be grateful they did not set le dogs on me for rejecting their meat.

I had not recovered from the French trauma when I headed to Denmark in early July. I braced myself for the salads that lay ahead, with simply no hopes of finding anything else. After all, it is a Nordic country whose tall, blonde men and women are descendants of Vikings, those fearless explorers who drank their enemies’ blood from mugs made of their skulls (the enemies’, of course, not their own).

Copenhagen started off on a promising, literally sweet note, with coffee and cakes at La Glace (laglace.dk/en/). The friendly people at this 150-year-old confectionery insisted on giving us a taste of practically every pastry under the roof, from the quirkily named “Lucky You” to the lemon mousse and white chocolate concoction called Hans Christian Andersen (after the country’s famous literary son).

I walked out somewhat uneasy in the mind: did my lovely Danish hosts expect me to ride out the rest of the trip on that sugar rush? But no, for dinner that night, they had thoughtfully ordered a flaky leek strudel. Aha, I said, there was hope for me after all.

In hindsight, I should not have made those appreciative noises, for things went rapidly downhill then on. The next evening, at another restaurant, I found leek strudel staring at me again. As also my associate from the local tourism board, pleased expression on his face.

This reminded me of the time when I had just got married, and word spread like wildfire within my extended family that the new son-in-law liked eggplant (the humble kathirikkai ). And so it happened that every house we visited, we had eggplant in every possible form, at every possible meal (including once at teatime under the guise of bajji ). He swore off kathirikkai for a few months hence.

Anyway, since I had frowned at leek strudels, it was back to boiled vegetables for me. It was only after a few days of pushing around unsalted, unseasoned carrots from one end of my plate to another, that the patron saint of vegetarian travellers, who has a thoroughly demanding job, finally smiled on me. And I discovered Copenhagen Street Food (copenhagenstreetfood.dk/en/).

This enclosed market — a sheer stroke of genius — has stalls and vans selling, well, street food from all over the world. From garlicky fettuccini to artisanal burgers via Colombian rajma chawal , this cheery space left me spoilt for choice at lunch (I chose the via option, in case you are interested).

Smiling some more, my patron saint led me another time to SimpleRAW (simpleraw.dk) in the hip Vesterbro neighbourhood. My decision to eat there was what is called a no-brainer; dinner plans for the group involved a steakhouse in the former meatpacking district. I had simultaneous visions of beef soaked in blood and cauliflower soaked in nothing.

The food in SimpleRAW was not simple or raw, in the manner of a few limp lettuce leaves thrown together half-heartedly. It was complex, cooked, but never heated to more than 42 degrees, so I could actually taste the underlying ingredients. I enjoyed a happy, solitary meal at SimpleRAW, reading on my Kindle, tucking into a platter of chilli hummus, Portobello mushroom paté, chilled avocado salad and Danish rye bread.

By then, I was not surprised by anything Copenhagen was throwing up on the food front. So I was unfazed when I walked into Verandah (verandahcph.com), which called itself a modern Indian restaurant, and found both the décor and the food truly light. No exotic sitar music or greasy red gravy for miles.

It was a surreal experience, eating aloo chaat and drinking aam panna alfresco by the canal, as the sun adamantly refused to set even at 10 p.m. on that warm Scandinavian summer evening.

I smiled in a contented manner, from the discovery that there was life beyond boiled cauliflower, even in the unlikeliest places. I just needed to look hard enough.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a travel writer and photographer from Bengaluru.

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