Leeds used to be a fantastic place in the late 80s and early 90s, with Fat Freddy’s Café, independent health food shops all over the place, loads of secondhand bookshops and a thriving alternative scene. Since then, it has been suffering from a development organisation which has pushed anything vaguely interesting out of the city and replaced it with the same old national boredom. The beneficiaries of all this have mostly been the hordes of civil servants and financial sector workers moved up from London, rather than the locals. One effect of this is that Leeds these days has fewer vegetarian restaurants than its much smaller neighbour Bradford, and my visit this weekend involved only one of them. Fortunately, there are a number of vegan-friendly places, including the vast majority of curry restaurants (they tend to use vegetable ghee because it’s cheaper and takes longer to go off).
One unusual veg-friendly place is Darvish, a Persian tea house to be found a long way out of town in a fairly deprived area on Roundhay Road near where the Fforde Green pub used to be. I’ve been there twice – it’s a favourite of my sister-in-law who first took me there. There are a number of interesting starters and pickles – Kashke Bademjan is a delicious pate made from aubergines and walnuts, though to make it vegan you will have to ask them to not dribble it with yoghurt. The hummous is superb, with a vicious garlic note. There are five vegetarian main courses, all of which appear to be vegan. The first time round, I had the chello khoresht ghormeh sabzi, which was a little disappointing, consisting of spinach and kidney beans. It’s something you can buy in tins in the local international supermarkets. This time round, I chose the vegetarian khoresht and it was a great call. The dish is clearly related to the one that’s called “guivech”, or some similar name, in Eastern Europe, which is to say it’s ratatouille, but nice.
Another unusual veg-friendly place is Little Tokyo (no website right now), close to the market in an enclave of interestingness that has strangely been allowed to remain, which purports to be a Japanese restaurant. They even go so far as to advertise for staff in Japanese, but really it’s better to describe the place as “Japanese-style”. For a start, they put sugar in their iced green tea, something which is Not Done in Japan. But one of their failings in authenticity is the range of vegan food on the menu. The bento are expensive, but are my usual choice. But as £13-15 is not what I wanted to spend on a Saturday lunch, I opted for the veggie curry and a new item on the menu, fried beancurd rolls filled with shiitake. The curry contained some interesting vegetables, such as renkon (lotus root), and was pleasant enough, but I suspect was made from the medium-hot Golden Curry roux. The sauce was also a wee bit thick for Japanese curry. Next time, I will hang the expense and stick with the bento. The beancurd rolls were so good that I plan to work out how to make them for myself.
The third place I went to was the venerable Hansa’s, a Gujarati institution threatened by the developers. Usually, I am boring and go for the vegan thali, the best option if you are not familiar this particular Indian cuisine. This time I went for the patra, followed by dhokri. Patra consists of green leaves spread with a spicy gram flour batter and rolled up, Swiss roll style, before steaming then slicing and frying. You can get it in tins, but you’ll be put off if you try the tinned stuff first. Dhokri is something I’ve never seen before – a curry made with gram flour pasta and pulses. Gujarati cuisine is not noted for being particularly hot, at least by the standards of Indian food in the UK, but for having exquisitely aromatic spices. It should be noted that, in this case at least, “lightly spiced” means “this will knock that cold you’ve been incubating right out of your system”. It also happens to have the complex spice blend you’d expect. Delicious, but when we left, it turned out we’d been in there two-and-a-half hours!
As suggested above, there are plans to re-develop the block where Hansa’s is to be found and many of the tenants had been pushed out, including Beano Wholefoods. The credit crunch seems to have created some difficulty for this plan, thankfully, and new businesses (reasonably interesting ones) seem to be moving in. The council’s preferred redevelopment plan right now seems to be the wholesale destruction of Chinatown (too many interesting shops, you see). Still, you should get to Hansa’s sooner rather than later, just in case or, if you can’t, there’s always the cookbook: Hansa’s Indian Vegetarian Cookbook: Popular Recipes from Hansa’s Gujarati Restaurant