India has been home to vegetarians for centuries. Many Hindus and most Buddhists do not eat meat, but commentator Sandip Roy says in today’s India, meat is what’s for dinner.
When my friend Lakshmi, a lifelong vegetarian, went to America as a student more than 20 years ago she knew she was in for a hard time. Vegetarian dorm food meant a lot of cheese pizza, french fries, pasta and if she was lucky, grilled vegetables.
After 10 years in San Francisco’s vegetarian mecca, when she returned to live in India a few years ago, she had an unexpected identity crisis.
“I am the new Indian pariah — the vegetarian,” she told me.
Yes, even though there are some 300 million vegetarians here, in the new affluent urban India, meat has become a status symbol. In the U.S. vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice. In India, once, it wasn’t even an “ism” — it was just the way some of us were brought up for generations, a part of our cultural DNA.
Now, says Lakshmi, hostesses need advance warning before she shows up for dinner. And unlike in America, where they would apologize and run to the kitchen to whip up some pasta, she says, “Here it is a no-win situation where you think your not eating meat is such a huge burden on the hosts. Meat is the food. You don’t have a nice meal without meat. The latest thing is — you don’t have any meal without meat.”
I come from a meat-eating family. My comfort food, something I have had every time I left for America, is my mother’s goat curry with rice. But even I am a little taken aback by the mountains of flesh on display in a country where heart disease has become the No. 1 killer.
All-you-can-eat chicken kebabs. Mutton biryani. Lamb shanks. Fish fingers. Some restaurants even serve steak. Sitting at a farmer’s market in Mumbai with his bag of organic greens, food writer Vikram Doctor says vegetables, in comparison, are just a little homely. “People eat vegetarian at home, so they look down on it to some extent. People feel if they have to celebrate they have to eat meat, which is ridiculous,” he tells me.
Even many lifelong vegetarians turn non-veg as soon as they eat out. Restaurants almost never serve the vegetables your grandma used to cook, says Vikram.
Bohemian, an eatery that opened recently in Calcutta, serves nouveau Bengali food. But not the kind of Bengali greens my mom makes. Chef Joy Banerjee serves his kolmi greens in exotic delicacies like crab baked with cheese. The vegetarian menu is limited. He says, “My experience has been that most cooks can’t make vegetarian food. Especially Bengali vegetarian food has a lot to do with timing and understanding of ingredients.”
One place to find vegetarian food, oddly, is Kentucky Fried Chicken, which serves veggie strips and garbanzo snackers cooked, it promises, on a separate stove with its own pots and pans.
It’s not that no one eats their vegetables anymore. They do. It’s just that Indian food used to be about tradition. Now it is about aspiration — the more exotic the better. Taking off next — a chain of emu-based restaurants. Get ready for some emu biryani.