The concept of a supper club is certainly unheard of in this part of the world and for obvious reasons; it is practiced more by our western neighbours. Commonly seen in different parts of the UK, restaurants and clubs provide supper and some form of entertainment to customers.
As interesting as the idea is, it made perfect sense to our local animal activist Rubaiya Ahmad who was initially offered by one of the partners of the “British Curry House” to develop a vegan menu after their chef had left.
“I remember my friend Lou Tasker mentioning the concept of supper clubs during a conversation we were having and how it could be used to promote veganism, and then conveniently the owner of this restaurant whom I had known for some time approaches me to set up a vegan menu. But I was not interested in making any such long term commitments” she said.
The fact that a part of the name of the restaurant coincidentally included the word “British” made it too obvious to ignore that the universe was definitely sending Rubaiya Ahmad a message; to promote veganism in the form of a supper club. But what would make people willing to give up their lazy Friday evening for a vegan meal?
“Every day vegan food can come off as a bit of a bore as it could very easily be a meal of rice, vegetable curries and lentil soup without the addition of meat or dairy products. So I needed to excite people, by developing a 3-course meal consisting of commonly meat, cheese and yoghurt dishes, but veganised, hence I went with Mediterranean,” she said.
In addition, there were some challenges but none that required severe long pauses of head scratching and nail biting. As the restaurant's staff were not trained in the concept of vegan, they needed to be motivated to learn, and that too just for one night; it helped that they were very eager. All the kitchen equipment had to be sterilised as they are generally used to prepare meat products.
Through the Facebook page “Dhaka Vegan Supper Club-Event 1”, word spread quickly that for just Tk 1000 each, people could register and enjoy a vegan meal on 9 March at Dhanmondi, Road #2, at the “British Curry House.”
Rubaiya Ahmad could be seen holding up to both her chef/host duties on the night of the event-- mingling with the guests, describing each dish that came out, and gone the next minute into the kitchen to send out the next dishes.
For starters, guests received chilled apple ciders. One sip and your taste buds would be charged by the combination of cool fizziness, from the carbonated element and cinnamon undertones of the drink. This was followed up with Hummus, Baba Ganoush, a Tomato-Parsley salad and tandoori roti. As the guests ate, none seemed to miss the yoghurt that was substituted with cashew yoghurt in the Baba Ganoush.
The main course, consisted of koftes on a bed of saffron rice, moussaka and tzatziki. Rubaiya Ahmad served healthy “chunks” of the moussaka for each portion; layers of eggplant, potatoes, zucchini, soy keema separated with tomato sauce and topped with a cashew nut crust. The rice had subtle saffron hints and was addictive when combined with the koftes and tzatziki. Oh that tzatziki! Thinly sliced apples and pomegranate seeds floating in a deceptively delicious yoghurt like sauce.
As a non-vegan it was hard for my tongue and brain to comprehend how Rubaiya Ahmad managed to substitute core ingredients like meat, cheese and yoghurt in the aforementioned dishes.
The answer to all my confusions came with a proud smile, “I used soy meat for the moussaka and koftes, and the yoghurt in the tzatziki is actually made with coconut milk and cheese from cashew nuts”.
My brain could not process how those flavours could work to mimic dairy and meat products so well; was this just clever cooking or the works of a hypnosis drug that she had slipped in the welcome drinks to fool everyone's senses?
For the final course she served a semolina fruit cake and chocolate walnut brittle. The combination worked like a warm hug, while the fruit cake was creamy, not too sweet and fragrant, the chocolate brittle felt like a generous dollop of 'chocolatey' goodness with walnut chunks in every bite. Interestingly enough, I could taste a hint of chilli powder in her chocolate brittle, which did not leave the tongue burning but gave this brittle the ever so slightest kick of heat need to complete the dish and bring the evening to an end.
As the servers cleared out the tables, she sat down to talk. There was tiredness, but also relief and content with how things had gone. When inquired about how she felt the dinner had gone she replied, “We had about 20 guests registered for the event but six more people showed up, booking the place till full capacity and most of them were not non-vegans. We also broke even on the grocery bill which was completely unexpected. Tonight, was not about making profit, it was about introducing people to plant-based meals and how it can be interpreted in different kinds of food like tonight's Mediterranean cuisine.”
Since Dhaka, till now does not have a fully functioning vegan restaurant, “The Dhaka Vegan Supper Club” will act as a travelling restaurant that can pop up anywhere on a monthly basis and anyone can host it alongside and learn a thing or two about Vegan cooking.