Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Veggie heaven

Recently I saw this poster of a tiger for the Incredible India tourism campaign:
(Not all Indians are polite, hospitable and vegetarian)
I burst out laughing, thinking of all the *very* polite, *very* vegetarian Indian IT professionals I know. If you're working in financial services, or information technology, or BPO, chances are, you'll have met some of these guys. Armed with laptops and packets of MTR ready-to-eat veggie upma, they periodically set out to conquer the West, but return gratefully to India (and the delights of home cooked food) at the first chance that presents itself.

I shouldn't laugh, though. Until recently, I was one of them. Every time I travelled, it was bread, fruit and cheese until I came back home to rice and chappati and my blessed dals and veggies. As my forays abroad grew more frequent, I learnt to hunt for Italian, Mexican, Lebanese and other cuisines, gradually becoming more and more successful in fending for myself.

These days, I'm no longer travelling abroad as much. Instead, I watch with interest (and some amusement!) as tourists of different nationalities, tastes and interests, grapple with Indian food.

Almost every tourist is surprised by the sophistication and variety of the vegetarian cuisine they encounter. The most frequent thing I hear is "Lord, I could be vegetarian here forever!" (and the happiest, loudest cries of delight seem to be from American vegetarians, don't ask me why).

The excellent veggie thali meal at Hotel Sunbird in Bharatpur

I confess I am baffled by how widely popular vegetarian cuisine is in India. This is totally in contrast with other countries in the world, where vegetables are something that you force yourself to eat.

The markets here are full of interesting vegetarian options - for example, walk into any market in Delhi and you'll see something like this:

Fresh vegetables arrive daily at the market, and eagle-eyed men and women come shopping in the evening inspecting them with practised easeDifferent varieties of leafy greens are popular - these are chopped and added to wheat flour to make spicy flavoured parathas, or pureed to make saag, ground into chutneys, or simply used as garnish
Sprouts and beans of different types are cooked with onions, tomatoes, garlic, green chillies, ginger and coriander to make amazingly tasty dals
The markets are proof enough - Indians eat a lot of vegetarian food, with sprouts, legumes, vegetables and milk products dominating the meal. Even "non-veg" Indians eat a lot of vegetarian food. The frequency of meat / chicken / fish dishes differs from house to house; in some cases it is once a week, whereas in some houses there is a daily non-vegetarian dish. Most Hindu homes have vegetarian breakfasts, with non-vegetarian food typically reserved for lunch or dinner.

Meat does not comprise the main dish in India in the sense that Westerners understand it - there is really no Indian equivalent of a large steak. In non-veg households, the star of the meal is a meat or chicken side-dish/curry, which is eaten with rice or roti. Or the meat is added to a biryani or pulao.

In comparison with people from other religions, Christians and Muslims eat more non-vegetarian food, including at breakfast. But even their diets have a significant vegetarian component. The only places that do not have a predominantly vegetarian cuisine are our coastal regions where fish is a standard element of literally every meal.

So anyway, where did this vegetable and legume diet come from?

I am told it's plain economics; that Indian diet has many vegetarian elements because most Indians cannot afford a meat based daily diet. But when you look at China, or any of the countries of the Far East that are just as poor as India, you see that their cuisines are dominated by non-vegetarian food. The Vietnamese, for instance, have similar per capita income as India, but have 5 times as much meat in their diet. Clearly there's something else going on in India.

There is a view that this is the influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Pshaw, I say. The Jains and Buddhists make up only a very small number of Indians; and there are not enough of them to create any food trends. Besides, almost everywhere in the world, Buddhists eat lots of meat, fish, and indeed, if the Far East is anything to go by, anything that moves.

Among Hindus, it is only the upper caste Brahmins who have religious reasons to be purely vegetarian. The vast majority are not required by religion to be vegetarian (except on certain festival days and occasions), but they still eat a lot of vegetarian food. Is it religion that drives the daily menu of a house towards many vegetarian foods? In part, yes, but I really don't think it is the full picture.

I think I'm going to settle for a more prosaic explanation, unless any of you can educate me otherwise. We eat so many vegetables and pulses and legumes simply because that's the way it has always been. "We are like that only". Whether we are "veg" or "non-veg", we make the most of the wide variety of veggies in the market. We cook them in interesting ways, cut them into pickles, we roast them, we mix them with dals, spice them up, mash them into chutneys, fry them into finger-licking snacks, and we thoroughly enjoy all of it.


melbournemangai said...

Nice post..:) I am a silent follower of your blog. I am settled in Melbourne, Australia. My colleagues and friends here are quite surprised by how I could eat only vegetables, pulses and cereals. But that doesn't surprise me at all. That's the way I have been brought up and I dont regret one bit! May be I should send them this blog link...;)

Unknown said...

I don't think I agree that religion requires Brahmins to be vegetarian. I have asked this question several times and ask you too, Deepa,- where is vegetarianism prescribed in Hinduism, whether for Brahmins or otherwise? Which text says so? From my knowledge, not one of them does. This was a Jain influence and has nothing to do with Hinduism.

Incidentally, some Brahmins also are non-vegetarian - coastal ones and Kashmiri pandits.

Also, when you realize that if everyone on the planet was vegetarian, there just wouldn't be enough food to support all of us, not counting having to provide food even for the animals who would then be around.

Super Babe said...

"We eat so many vegetables and pulses and legumes simply because that's the way it has always been" I think that's mostly the answer, especially since there doesn't seem to be a "looking down on those who are vegeterian" (ie, "can't afford meat") like it is the case in Mexico (you eat meat because you can afford it... and well, because it's good, too).

As a vegetarian who loves Indian food and has been to India, I have to say, I was in heaven while we were there. Lots of options and, best of all, I didn't have to cook anything! :)

Anonymous said...

I had to look up what 'pulses' are; that term isn't used around here...

When I was in India one thing that surprised me was that some vegetarians do not eat garlic; why?

Shobna said...

When driving through Mudumalai, I came across a group of monkeys who ate peanuts and raw carrots - they expertly scraped the carrot and ate it. There were many carrot vendors and many cars that had stopped by were feeding the monkeys with carrot. We drove ahead for some distance and came across another group of monkeys many cars here but no carrot vendors. We gave one monkey a carrot, it looked at it, sniffed it, frowned at it and let it drop. These monkeys eat only groundnuts.

I like to think that the monkeys provided the answer to world food habits - proximity, availability and tastefulness. Though it still doesn't answer how neem leaves csme to be chewed.

PhaniRamesh said...

Hi.. I am phani..Actually I am searching for searching some places to visit in and around shimla.. then i found ur blog.. I am very happy to c ur blog.. a lot of information is available here.. can u please tell me the places to visit in detail in and around shimla.. i am newly married boy from tirupati.. I want to come with my wife.

devashish said...

Nice Post and veered to your blog while going through Mumbai Magic. Since I am currently living in Cyprus (Europe) for almost 2 years and before coming here have been a strict vegetarian in India I think the reason for us being predominantly
vegetarians is because we are spoilt for choice. Most Europeans as I have seen here, can happily have Ham for breakfast, lunch and Dinner. While we need "at least" 4 dishes (Roti, sabji, dal, chaaval)for our main course. Now consider the possibility of having four different varieties of meat on table of almost a billion people morning, afternoon and night. Undoubtedly I think you will agree that pure economics dictates against such a choice.

Paritosh said...

Hey Deepa,

I reached your blog, while googling for living standards in Delhi. For once I am not furious at Google for giving unrelated results :).

I read all your posts, and found them amazing. The way you write about every-day occurrences with a historic background to them, makes the posts enjoyable (I couldn't find a better word).

Keep up the good work!


BetweenLines said...

That's what I miss about India. Going out to any restaurant and not worrying about having to scan the menu for the hidden vegetarian possibilities. With all the talk one is hearing here in the US about going meatless on few days atleast , India has a lot to offer by way of turning vegetables into a meal by themselves.


Not eating meat is supposed to imbue us with 'sathvik' qualities, is how I understand the matter.

But the rate at which real estate is gobbling up precious space where vegetables are farmed, I wonder how long we can remain vegetarians.

Haddock said...

I think only in India can we come up with so many varieties of cooking the same vegetable, and each state has its own preperation.

Maria said...

I love the picture that you showed of green leafy vegetables. May I know where that is?

I'm new to India and the only vegetables I keep seeing in the markets are eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, some gourds, tomatoes and beans. I love leafy vegetable stir-fried Chinese style but where do I get them apart from INA (not been there yet though).

Deepa said...

The vegetable photos are from Chittaranjan Park. There is a fish market there; and adjoining that there are vegetable sellers.

Divya Shankar said...

Nice post. As said earlier, your blog post covers diverse topics just like the diverse platter, a pic of which you have posted :)

I guess we have been like this in our diet for long, must say are very creative with our food, cook/boil/deep fry/shallow fry etc , there are variety of spices that bear their origin in India. So we don't prefer raw/bland stuff the way Western ppl do.

Anonymous said...

I guess you will want to add a twitter button to your website. Just marked down the blog, although I must make it manually. Simply my advice.