Exploring the Vegetrail
<p>Who says vegetarian food is boring? Well, non-vegetarians mainly. And they usually say it only in the context of restaurant cuisine. <br /> </p> <p>What we need to realise is --- yes, wait for it! --- That most Indians are essentially vegetarians. <br /> </p> <p>While you look shocked, let me explain. <br /> </p> <p>In the West, most, if not nearly all meals are based around meat, chicken or fish. The vegetables will only be a side-dish. Even the Italians, who are known for their European vegetarian cooking, eat pasta only as a first or second course. The main course is generally non-vegetarian. And as for pizza, that’s a snack, not a meal-time dish. <br /> </p> <p>In India, on the other hand, our approach to food is totally different. We eat around three or four dishes at the same time. Sometimes, one of these dishes will be non-vegetarian. But just as much attention is paid to the vegetarian dishes --- the subzis, the dals, the farsan, etc. --- as as it is to the meat dishes. You could conceivably, not eat that one meat dish and still have a perfectly good meal. <br /> </p> <p>This is as true of Muslim households as it is of Hindu (except in Pakistan where they eat meat with everything). And in many Hindu households, even the non-vegetarians will not necessarily cook meat at every meal. Let’s take the example of Punjabis, who most of us regard as diehard non-vegetarians. In many households in Punjab, meat is only cooked three or four times a week (out of 14 meals). <br /> </p> <p>So why then do we have this sense of meat as being exciting while veg is boring?<br /> </p> <p>It is almost certainly because, through the ages, we have eaten so little of it at home. <br /> </p> <p>When we go out, we don’t want to order dishes that we could easily make at home at much lower cost. When we pay restaurant prices, we want to eat something different. And that often means non-vegetarian food. So we order dishes we would not normally make at home because they are too difficult or time-consuming: tandoori chicken, biryani, butter chicken, crab butter-pepper-garlic etc. <br /> </p> <p>In the process, the message goes out that meat is glamorous and veg is boring. <br /> </p> <p>But the truth is that the fame of any cuisine does not rest on a few restaurant dishes. It rests on the food people eat at home. When foreign chefs come to India they get past the butter chicken quickly. It is the delicate spicing of our vegetarian dishes that they appreciate. If you have eaten vegetarian food in the West, then you will know how dull and boring it is. Indian vegetarian food on the other hand is uniformly delicious. <br /> </p> <p>Because we take our vegetarian food for granted, we never realise how difficult it is to get it right. Even the really complex restaurant dishes require skill. Any fool can cook a fast-food hamburger. But to know when a dosa batter has fermented to exactly the right level requires skill. To toss a crisp paper-thin dosa on a tawa requires a steady and practiced hand. To make idlis by the thousands --- as so many of our restaurants do every day --- and to ensure that each one is light and fluffy is no easy task. <br /> </p> <p>So stop focusing on butter chicken (which is actually very easy to make) and focus on the art and skill passed down by our ancestors. That is the real genius of Indian cuisines; that is what makes our food so special. <br /> </p> <p>So veg is not boring. Far from it. In fact, it is our heritage, the cuisines of our forefathers and our descendants.</p>
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