Local chef Hari Pulapaka has never been one to shy away from engaging Central Florida's food community on sociopolitical causes. When it comes to immigration policy, food waste and sustainable farming, the outspoken chef and former owner of DeLand's Cress Restaurant has, in fact, embraced his role as a provocateur. Now, with his latest book — Dreaming in Spice: A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey — the 54-year-old forages the world of plant-based dining and establishes himself as an advocate for vegetarian and meatless diets.
The book, a follow-up to 2018's Dreaming in Spice, centers around Pulapaka's claim that Americans aren't exposed to enough "thoughtful" vegetarian food. He makes his case in an 11-chapter narrative that's brutally honest, wryly funny ("There is no 'r' in masala") and, at times, pedantic and esoteric — the section devoted to connecting cooking and mathematics in particular. Yet the experiences and observations Pulapaka recounts — the road trips, racist encounters, accolades and disappointments — are tinged with a raw emotional candor, a candor that often turns reflective.
"I have taken a deep dive into myself as a human being," he writes, revealing that after being a vegetarian for the first 21 years of his life, he began eating meat after moving to the United States. He stops short of saying why, stating only that the reasons were "complex and numerous" and that when compared to his native India, vegetarian food in this country, including veg fare served in restaurants, is "generally pretty lame."
It's a harsh, possibly even unfair, indictment, but Pulapaka has never been one to mince words. "I conjectured that this reality was either a direct result of cultural and culinary habits, or a complete lack of knowledge regarding flavor development," he posits. So, armed with his theory, Pulapaka sets out to right the apparent wrong by steering readers toward the second section of the book — a Promised Land of innovative and international plant-based recipes encompassing everything from chutneys and marinades to curries and street food. (His award-winning poutine recipe is reason alone to buy this book.) He even goes so far as to recommend substitutions for recipe ingredients. No ajwain in your pantry? No problem. Just use dried thyme instead. Ran out of shiso? Some lemon zest and mint will do just fine. He even offers egg and dairy alternatives for vegans.
The recipes, rated from "Basic" to "Intermediate" to "Pro" with informational snippets included for each, are concise and straightforward so as not to intimidate the home cook, be it in a preparation of Ethiopian misr wat, Moroccan zaalouk or Indian khichdi. The flavor spectrum of the recipes is impressively broad, but Pulapaka saves the best for last — a vegan degustation menu presented in 15 "acts" toward the end of this odyssey. It starts with a chilled vichyssoise with warm monsoon corn and concludes with a caramelized onion and raisin bisteeya. The multicourse menu is at once original, thoughtful in its progression and, yes, sinfully vegetarian.
Through it all, I couldn't help but wonder why Pulapaka gave up being a vegetarian, and if writing this book necessitated a personal reckoning of sorts. Apart from the medical, environmental, ethical and financial benefits Pulapaka expounds on, his wife Jenneffer has been a practicing vegetarian for three decades. Perhaps I'm missing the point — the book, after all, isn't an anti-meat proclamation, nor is it a conversion manifesto. It's about a journey, to which the book's title alludes, and how the road to a vegetarian diet can be a long and winding one. "I don't expect carnivores to give up meat because of the dishes in this book," Pulapaka says. "However, if someone reduces their meat consumption because of this book, then I will have succeeded."
If that's the stick by which Pulapaka measures success, well, then, his success is all but guaranteed.