food

"Start with the protein": A celebrity chef's 4 easy tips if you're new to vegetarian cooking.

I grew up eating a lot of meat from a lot of different cuisines. 

Given the option, there was always pepperoni on my pizza and bacon with my eggs. 

My mother was a vegetarian and although there was always a lentil curry (daal) on the table that I dug into with relish, I just preferred some cooked flesh on my plate.

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In my twenties, on a whim, I gave up meat for three months and realised I felt better as a vegetarian.

My dad did ask me how long this would last. I think he was quite worried and disappointed to potentially lose another family member to vegetarianism.

But then I married my veteran vegetarian husband (he is Jain, an ancient Indian religion where they believe in not harming any living things) and I spent the next two decades immersing myself into the world of vegetarian (and Indian) cooking. 

Once we had kids, healthy balanced vegetarian family meals became my culinary focus in the home. 

Then, when I thought there were no challenges left to conquer, my husband became a vegan.

To top it all off, when COVID-19 hit I was trying to keep food interesting for a vegan husband who doesn’t eat too many carbs, a 15-year-old daughter who mostly likes Far East Asian food, my 10-year-old son who would live on pizza and pasta if he could, and last but not least, me!

This is all to say, I have learnt a little about feeding vegetarians and vegans along the way - and there is no reason to think you are settling when following a meat-free diet!

If you're a green ‘green’, and not sure where to start, follow these easy tips and your friends and family will always come back to your table for more.

While you're here, have a listen to Mamamia's food podcast, What I Eat when. Post continues below. 

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1. Start with the protein.

It is important to keep an eye on your protein intake as a vegetarian or vegan, so I always centre my meals around a protein option. 

I’m not sure if this is the right way or a force of habit but as I have vegetarian children, it is important to me that they get enough protein as well as vegetables.

There is an array of vegetarian protein options and plenty of ways to cook with them! Pick your favourite and add vegetables and carbohydrates that complement the protein. My favourites include lentils, beans and paneer.


In Indian cooking these proteins aren’t just used for curries, we also stir-fry lentils and beans with simple spices, stuff them in bread, make batters out of them or steam them into fluffy cakes. 

Paneer is a firm white cheese that is really delicious even though it is simple and barely seasoned. 

It has a wonderful texture, can be used raw or fried, cubed or crumbled, and is very versatile and absorbs flavours really well. At home, I often substitute this for firm tofu for my vegan husband. 

Chickpea curry is a classic Indian dish and is packed full of protein. 

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Start your vegetarian food journey with my easy but delicious chickpea curry recipe, found here

2. Vary the veg.

As soon as I rely on a favourite too much, the family stops loving it. So, I have learnt to vary the meals.

Also, according to Ayurveda (the ancient Indian science of how to be healthy), every ingredient is doing something different for and in your body, so even though a vegetable might seem like a vegetable, they all differ subtly for what they are healing or building in the body. 

So, I try to vary the vegetable and even the colours on the plate to maximise our range of vitamin and mineral intake.

This isn’t as complicated as it seems. I do a weekly shop with a variety of coloured veg and find a way to use it in the week. 

This can be as easy as a steamed veg side, a colourful slaw, a stir-fry, gratin, hidden in a bean burger or of course, in a traditional Indian dish. 

You can’t go wrong with BBQ classics when cooking for big groups. I love tandoori-style BBQ (see my recipe here). Whip together an easy vegan slaw to accompany the veg by chopping up your go-to slaw ingredients (I use carrot, cabbage, red onion and coriander) and mix with equal parts vegan mayo, sugar-free soy yogurt, grated garlic and lemon juice. 

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Add charred sweet corn, or some fried brown mustard seed to take it to the next level!

3. When cooking for big groups, remember to keep it simple.

Cooking for lots of people is a whole other skill set! 

As an Indian, I saw my mother cooking enough to make the table (and the guests) groan, but you need a PhD in efficiency and timing to make sure everything hits the table hot and perfectly cooked at the same time. 

I replicated her style, but it did make having friends over more painful than it should have been. 

As I had children and weeks were busy with them and work, the weekends became precious and I wanted to be outside with the kids and not inside in the kitchen while they were in front of the TV. 

It was time to stop trying so hard and keep it simple.

The goal is to feed everyone delicious food and get people having a good time - everything else needed to be stripped out! 

Now, I never make starters, I have a few little nibbles on the table to munch on with drinks, but all the effort goes on the one main course and the guests come to the table hungry.

Choose one show-stopper that everyone loves and serve some simple sides alongside.

My ‘go to’ centre piece for my table is a vegetable or paneer biryani topped with crispy fried onions. It’s always a show-stopper, especially when served with a pomegranate and mint raita!

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4. Be inspired!

I still eat fish, chicken and meat when I want, but not at home and not with the children - but, in reality, I don’t miss it.  

The world of vegetarian food is so vast and so delicious with so many cuisines to choose from and so many places to get inspired by.

You can try a new dish once a week for years. You might not love everything, but I promise along the way you will pick up new favourites that stay in your family repertoire for a while to come, and keep you healthy and happy as a full-time or part-time vegetarian!

UK-based chef Anjum Anand is well known for her unique approach to health and wellbeing. She is an expert on Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science on how to be healthy, and has written eight books including the health focused Anjum’s Eat Right for Your Body Type. For more from Anjum, check out  her website or follow her on Instagram.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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