Indian Veg 92-93 Chapel Market, London N1
Ethics are shoved down your throat at Indian Veg. But there's still plenty of room for the all-you-can-eat buffet
Most of what passes for ethical eating is nothing of the sort. Take Fair trade, local and organic food. Fair-trade products often raise farmers' incomes; but they also reward over-production of a crop for which there is little demand, depressing prices in the long term. Local produce often soaks up more "food miles" than supermarket grub, and generally means denying farmers in poor countries your money. And organic farming requires far more land. It may use fewer pesticides, but pesticides aren't always bad. They kill pests. If you think it's healthier to eat organically, despite the lack of evidence, fine – but don't deny precious GM crops to the world's poor.
Each of these varieties of ethical eating is complicated. Vegetarianism, though, is not. When it comes to eating ethically, herbivorous humans are morally superior to carnivores like me. They don't provide the demand for an industry that causes mass pain and suffering to highly sentient beings. And as for the planet, well, as the biggest press cutting in Indian Veg says, "UN Chief: Go Veggie to Save the Planet".
This small food hall, formerly known as Bhelpoori House and now in its 25th year, is a shrine to vegetarianism. Covering the walls are data, tables, graphs, mottos and information about vegetarianism – that, and pictures of pretty Indian women in saris. Veggies are happier! Go veg to boost your sex life! Ten tips for dropping meat!
It's all-you-can-eat from a buffet for £3.95. On entering, we are supplied with a table, knife, fork and tissue. The banquet is laid out in a horseshoe structure by the window. On the right is a salad and sauce bar. The sauces are a thick mint and yoghurt, or thicker and syrupy mango chutney. There are two basic salads: the first is mixed cabbage with a bit of sugar and yellow food colouring; the second is red and white cabbage with lettuce and carrot. The first is dazzling and sweet without being sickly; the second extremely fresh and not too filling. Two basic onion salads – one diced onion and mint, the other red and white onion with carrot – are both pungent and strong.
On the left of the horseshoe are crushed papadum, puri (fried whole-wheat flour with a touch of salt) and two types of onion bhaji. One is mainly onion rings, fried in a moreish gram-flour batter with garam masala and curry powder; the other emphasises the batter, with fresh coriander and coriander powder in the mix. Both are spicy rather than hot.
The main attraction is adjacent to the window. Here, kept hot in constantly refilled metal buckets, are rice, curry and dahl. The latter is an excellent, sour mix of seven lentils with tamarind water. The rice is either pilau (with cardamom, a few cloves, cinnamon and a bay leaf), brown rice that is not far off quinoa in texture, and plain white. Each is hot and fluffy.
There are three curries; the best is peas with paneer – cubes of fried soft cheese, less rubbery than haloumi, and made in-house. This comes in a beautiful coconut cream, but regrettably appears only on Wednesdays and Fridays. The other two are potato with turmeric and onion; and mixed vegetables (chickpeas, carrot, green cabbage, spinach and lentil) cooked with curry powder, turmeric and onion.
Without the option of the paneer, you might feel the curries lack variation. They are not especially hot, are reliable rather than delicious, and have an intense, well-seasoned flavour. They have been made by the same chef for 24 years, who joined just over a year after Mohammed Noure-Safa – who came to England from Bangladesh in 1972 to study accounting – set up the place. Noure-Safa is a Bengali Muslim, but the food is irreligiously orthodox sub-continent (Indian Veg is licensed, but hardly anyone seems to bother with alcohol). The hyper-efficient service is run by his nephew, Mohin Uddin. There is the occasional homeless person, spending his recent winnings on as big a meal as he can manage, and you sometimes feel the table next door is hosting a delegation from Greenham Common.
But mostly it's just middle-class folk wanting to feel good about themselves. To that extent, it's hard to miss the note above the counter as you pay: "Congratulations, you've had a cruelty-free meal". With a full belly and change from a fiver to spend in Chapel Market, that strikes me as not the only virtue of this ethical eatery.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Indian Veg 92-93 Chapel Market, London N1, tel: 020 7833 1167 Lunch and dinner all week. £3.95 per person without drinks
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If you can overlook the ambience, the veggie fare at this Gujarati canteen near the university is exceptional, and lunch is great value
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