It’s a nice autumn morning in October, and most people in Zurich are enjoying a rare sunny day. The top floor of Haus Hiltl, the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, is buzzing with fun collaborations. Indian chefs Vicky Ratnani and Thomas Zacharias are bustling around the spacious kitchen, cooking unusual dishes: makhanecowardMushrooms and Millet YakhniCasserole (This has become more relevant this year after the United Nations declared 2023 the Year of Millets), and black rice Payasam With coconut milk. Hiltel’s own chefs work seamlessly together, exchanging ideas, techniques and banter.
The cook-out is special in other ways, too. Last October, Switzerland made a big push for vegetarianism as a sustainability concept with its SwissStable Veggie Day campaign. Not only is everyone in the country encouraged to become vegetarian on the first of the month, but more than 1,200 establishments, including fast food chains and traditional Swiss food establishments, offer only vegetarian menus. For Hiltel, currently run by Rolf Hiltel, the great-grandson of the founder (hence the Guinness World Records tag as oldest continuously operating vegetarian restaurant), the campaign is more validation of all that it stands for.
“It is quite gratifying to see a place like Hiltel in a meat-centric country like Switzerland,” says Ratnani. “It buzzes all day, all week. With global flavors – the variety on offer is not only great [it combines Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and Swiss influences] and inventive dishes – but theirs is a separate buffet: you can eat as much as you want and you only eat what you eat [the price is based on the weight of one’s plate], It reduces wastage as the food is cooked thoughtfully. ,
For this 125-year-old storied restaurant, the collaboration is in line with its constant innovations and campaigns. Like doing its bit to combat food waste by joining the ‘Too Good to Go’ campaign, through which it offers all unsold food at 50% off one hour before closing every day.
Ratnani finds that her cooking experience has been beneficial in showcasing Indian flavors with local ingredients. , makhane [fox nuts] The future is popcorn and I wanted to give it a twist by making coward With a sauce of local tomatoes and basil as well as local mint. For Casserole, sustainability was the main consideration, as millet is rich in nutrition and also gluten free. Autumn is mushroom season and this was a perfect pairing with millet,” says the chef. “For dessert, the idea was to make it dairy-free with black rice with local berries. Finally, it shows how ingredients from India and local Swiss products can come together beautifully.
meat without a butcher
The establishment, located just a short walk from the bustling shopping street of Bahnhofstrasse, doesn’t try to push boundaries with its often vegetarian food, but instead gives it an edgy vibe, a punk rock type of situation that makes diners like the hip and cool. Invites you to provide adjectives. Case in point: the grassroots vegetarian slaughterhouse. An oxymoron on the face of it, the idea is to challenge convention, spark curiosity and urge exploration. Called Vegimetzg (German for vegetarian butcher), it is a concept deli, spread over two floors, designed to look like a butcher shop. Brightly lit display cases showcase sausages, burger patties, cordon bleu, tartar (Hiltel’s take on tartare) and more. Everything is made from vegetables and meat substitutes such as tofu, tempeh, cilantro, cheese and soy. There are also vegetarian and vegan wines (which do not use gelatin or fish bladders in the filtering process).
And to think it all started with arthritis! In the late 1890s, 24-year-old German tailor Ambrosius Hilt settled in Zurich; He was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis and told to give up meat. He began to frequent the only vegetarian cafe on Sihlstrasse. He not only fell in love with the food, but also the place and the chef. As luck would have it, he later took over the management of the restaurant, then bought it and also married the chef, Martha.
In the 1950s, Hiltel expanded its offerings as Ambrosius’s daughter-in-law Margrit traveled to India and brought back not only bags of spices but also recipes and introduced Indian cuisine. Stories of Margrit preparing certain dishes in the kitchen only at night so that she can keep the recipes a secret. Gradually, the restaurant attracted celebrities including former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Hiltle underwent another major change, modernizing its offerings as Europe became increasingly aware of vegetarianism. Along with it were pressed juices, a salad bar, an expanded menu with hundreds of dishes from over 60 dishes, an informal buffet restaurant, a more formal à la carte restaurant, and a cooking academy to teach Hiltel’s cuisine.
But for Rolf Hiltl, a flexitarian who very rarely eats meat, the heritage is intrinsic. “Most of our customers are local, and at least 80% are not even vegetarian,” he says. The appeal, he feels, is not just the menu which is brimming with inspirations from around the world, but also the local dishes and interpretations which have worked so well. “A lot of times diners don’t even realize it’s vegetarian, or miss the meat. I think that’s a good thing,” says Rolfe, whose personal favorite on the menu is her bestselling Channa Spices.
He believes that the interest in Hilt and its offerings has increased after the pandemic. There is now an emphasis on more plant-based food and ingredients, ensuring that over 80% of the buffet is vegetarian.
They’re also minimizing sugar, gluten, and other allergens, and sourcing locally as much as possible—which means imported ingredients like avocados are out. But the restaurant has perfected ‘matar-til’ which is equally good. Above all, however, Rolf is acutely aware of his heritage and his responsibility. “We’ve served millions and millions of dishes over 124 years without killing an animal,” he says. “And we will remain so.” Millions and millions of dishes in 124 years without killing an animal,” he says. “And we will remain so.”
Freelance writer based in Bangalore.