Avatara in Dubai is the first vegetarian Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star
We catch up with Rahul Rana, the award-winning chef behind this ayurveda-inspired menu…
A vegetarian Indian restaurant that serves dishes without staples like paneer, mushrooms, onions and garlic, is no mean feat. At Avatara in Dubai, not only has chef Rahul Rana stepped up to this challenge, his menu has also recently been awarded its first Michelin star. The only vegetarian Indian restaurant to be part of the prestigious Michelin Guide Dubai 2023, Avatara has dishes like Sea Buckthorn Thukpa, Mango Sambhar Gelato and Turnip Steak. In an interview from Dubai, Rana tells us more about the tenets of his cooking and how he is trying to break preconceived not ions about vegetarian fare. Excerpts from the interview:
Congratulations on this win. How does it feel to be awarded the star and be part of this year’s Michelin Guide Dubai?
Winning a Michelin Star for their restaurant is the biggest dream of any chef in the world. I only had one aim — to offer the best, most unique dining experience that resonates with me and my beliefs. I am overjoyed to know the Michelin inspectors thoroughly enjoyed it and awarded us with a Michelin Star.
Tell me about Avatara and the concept behind it?
Avatara showcases a modern avatar of techniques, philosophy and the story of soulful Indian food. The perceptions around vegetarian food have been that of limitations. The idea is to breakthrough these perceptions and curate a unique dining experience that showcases the endless possibilities that vegetarian food can offer.
What are the challenges in taking Indian vegetarian cuisine to a gourmet level?
When it comes to vegetarian food, people feel restricted. Creating a vegetarian menu is quite difficult in restaurants that serve non-vegetarian food too. If you’re vegetarian and visit any restaurant, you’ll always pick dishes which are made of paneer because you feel hesitant to give the other vegetables a try. At Avatara, we want to curate a unique dining experience that showcases the endless possibilities vegetarian food can offer. We do not serve paneer and mushrooms. Doing a 16-course pure vegetarian degustation experience is quite challenging. Also, we don’t use any mock meat products in the restaurant, as we don’t want guests to merely visit us to satisfy their craving for meat. We are truly giving them an experience by treating our vegetables, fruits, lentils, grains and millets with supreme care and cooking them with great flavours and texture.
What kind of food did you grow up eating and how does that influence your style?
I was born and brought up in the holy town of Rishikesh, in the foothills of Himalayas. Being a tourist hot spot, Rishikesh is brimming with a variety of different cuisines and dishes. Having had exposure to such a vast culinary scene from the very beginning, I started to have a keen inclination towards food and cooking. At Avatara, I have been able to fully showcase my talent, thought process and skills while preparing each and every dish.
How did you get into this industry?
I grew up eating the local food from Uttarakhand and that truly helped me understand the culture and
cuisine of my land. In that region, most of the teenagers’ first preference is to join the army and the
second choice is to become a chef. So, I grew up with the same mindset. I tried several times to join the army but then found a place for myself in a culinary school. I started studying culinary from Shri Ram Institute of Hotel Management in Dehradun and then I commenced my culinary journey from Ananda in The Himalayas, which i s known for its wellness principle of ayurveda. Before coming to Dubai, I also worked with the finest modern European restaurants in India, like Indigo and Olive Bar and Kitchen.
Are there any chefs or restaurants that you consider an inspiration?
I have learned the depth of Indian food from chef Himanshu Saini and I am still learning from him. The way he has presented Indian cuisine at Tresind Studio is truly commendable. I also really admire the technique and cooking style of chef Prateek Sadhu, his food looks elegant and soulful and the research with which he prepares his menus and dishes is inspiring others too to learn and understand the gastronomy of India. Masque in India is one of my favourite restaurants and I am very happy to see chef Varun Totlani putting up a great show.
Also read: Chef Nayanjyoti Saikia shares exotic recipe
What are some of the key dishes on the menu and the ingredients you use?
Our first course on the menu is known as Naivedhya which I am never going to change from the menu. Naivedhya means offering to God. In Indian culture, whenever we consume food, we first offer it to God and then we eat it as a Prasadham (god’s blessing). In this course, we serve makhan malai (freshly churned butter) with popping rock sugar and saffron. One of my favourite courses on the menu is derived from my hometown in Uttarakhand — Gaith Ki Dal. Horse gram is one of the most nutritious lentils. Whenever I travel to my home, my mother makes delicious parathas with this lentil. We also serve a unique interpretation of Chole Bhature – horse gram curry with finger millet bread, pomelo salad, sesame chutney and jakhiya aloo (wild mustard tempered potatoes).
How does a vegetarian Indian restaurant work in Dubai? What kind of guests do you usually get and what are their reactions to the cuisine?
It takes a lot of ef fort to run Avatara, especially in this part of the world where predominantly the demand for meat-based products is higher than average. We use a lot of ingredients that are not grown or even imported at scale in the UAE. So, we have to stick with self-importing them at huge costs and making sure that all ingredients stay fresh and are consistent in quality. As for our guests, we initially expected them to be largely from vegetarian communities from India like the Jains and Pandits. However, a majority of our guests are from Europe along with many Japanese guests too. Our guests are awestruck by the flavour profile and are usually amazed at the visual appeal of these Indian vegetarian dishes.
Avatara is located in Voco Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai.