We went to Namaste Village because I could not stand the idea of eating at another vegetarian restaurant that had couscous on the same menu as pad thai and pasta. There is no hope for such restaurants without focus. Establishments like these are cropping up everywhere, epitomising this lack with aplomb, menus are a mess of uppity sounding nonsense that only sounds attractive to the uninitiated. Trust me, I have been through the wars man, I’ve been blasted out of the trenches with bean burger bombs, been battered by soggy tempura and have had to climb through marshes of all kinds of technicolour hummus…don’t get me started on meat substitutes, you can’t make me!
Their message is clear and the signs recognisable: We are a new, fresh, responsibly sourced restaurant, and have a menu that is as diverse and incongruent as a patchy gleeman’s cloak. No, I put my foot down, I am not going to enter one of these again.
Maddy, despite her optimism, did understand my reticence. She has dragged me, often kicking and screaming, crying sometimes, across the country to try several new vegetarian/vegan pop-ups. Where, indeed, we have been predominately disappointed by rip shod attempts at a ‘cuisine’ in vogue. After everything, the abject trauma, I have come to the inevitable conclusion that Indians, in my mind, are the best at cooking vegetables. One may argue that this is not exactly true, and that the strength of the masalas and the sauces vegetables find themselves in, adulterate the essential flavours of fresh ingredients. But unlike meat, the taste of vegetables is often far too simple to be eaten consistently on their own without engaging in a deliberate ennui.
My advice always has been that if you do wish to serve good cooking, you would have significantly more success with a chef from a particular cuisine, of a singular focus, that does not have ‘vegetarian’ plastered across his or her resume. Even if you cannot find anyone for your Viet-vegan restaurant, just hire a good chef, tell them to cook vegetables and I’m sure they’ll be able to do wonderful things.
Vegetables in Indian cuisine marry with spices and transform into fragrant and intricate palatal wonderlands that are categorically exciting. Masalas, spiced batters, lentil crepes and rice dishes, each provide stirring gastronomic contributions that unmistakeably demolish the scrambled tofu vomit you find in the restaurants/bistros/gastropubs trending near you.
Growing up, we used to visit Indian restaurants often after church. My dad loves his dosas, vadas and uttapams. My brother and I secretly enjoyed them too but didn’t want to admit as much – if we did, we’d risk going there every Saturday, always and forever.
A short walk from Maddy’s work is a place called Namaste Village. Proudly vegetarian they are, a supposed novelty to those only familiar with Indian takeaway menus. The fact is that the cuisine has always had an incredible veggie core, whether you eat in the North or South of India, there are enough hungry vegetarians in each to swallow countries whole. Their food is astonishingly good, and after having tried palak paneer for the first time recently, Maddy’s consequent religious experience made it easier for me to convince her to change her mind about the first place she suggested.
Namaeste India looks like a re-purposed embassy, from the outside. Once in, you realise it is rather stereotypically decorated, an Indian restaurant in the way of other Indian restaurants, with a lot of reds, golds and Hindu paraphernalia. Tables had table cloths and napkins, Bollywood music played with hushed exuberance in the background, and the faint residue of familiar aromatics saturated the air. They were missing the incense.
I always find it a jarring disturbance of the oriental illusion to find a white staff member at an Indian restaurant. One such person manned the bar, looking eccentric with his spiky hair and black waistcoat and jeans. I am sure the man is a wonderful character with a brilliant work ethic, but there is something ideologically ingrained that seems to require that I be served by an Asian in an Asian restaurant. Added to this is prejudice was also that the guy looked like he was heading for a night out, while his Indian colleague was neatly uniformed and looked the part.
Since Maddy is largely unfamiliar with Indian cuisine beyond the tikka masalas, bhunas and kormas, I proceeded to order what felt like a significant portion of the menu. To start, we had a tasting platter which included fluffy aubergine bhajis, crisp and plump samosas, comfortingly rotund lentil fritters (kachori) and the ever-popular onion bhajis – these last, I am told, are not as good as the ones I make at home on Indian night. With these came a crispy portion Gobi Manchurian, battered cauliflower coated in a simple yet moreish sweet chilli sauce. All were lovely in their own respective crunchy ways, a crisp and flavoursome introduction.
The rest of the food at Namaste came in swift succession. A paper dosa, a plain unfilled lentil crepe, with a mediocre coconut chutney and sambar (vegetable stew), a classic palak paneer and chana (chickpea) masala which were passable iterations of what are traditionally delicious vegetarian favourites, and an unremarkable portion pilau rice. Quite a significant amount of food easily dispatched in hunger, but I would be lying if I suggested the meal at Namaste was anywhere close to best I have ever had.
In any case, it was several tiers better than any vegetarian food I expect to have anywhere else in Norwich, and would gladly go there again if I am forced to go veggie for the day. Namaste Village is my new refuge and I am thoroughly grateful for them.
Location: 130-139 Queens Rd, Norwich NR1 3PN