It is time to once again talk about my favorite topic, food, but more specifically about eating how people in India eat. Now, I enjoy meat but unlike a lot of people, I don’t feel that I have to have it in order to survive. That being said I don’t typically go specifically to restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans because they tend to be more expensive despite the ingredients themselves not being that hard to come by. Not so in India where most people tend to not eat meat though having eggs, cheese and yogurt are commonly acceptable depending on adherence to Hindu reverence of cows.
Yes in India food and religious beliefs are extremely intertwined, with ahimsa (no harm to living things) being an important tenet of Buddhism later adopted as part of Hindu beliefs; in fact cow slaughter is outright banned in many states which in turn fuels frustration and anger among Muslims. India’s Muslims also adhere to their own dietary obligations, requiring animals such as cows to be slaughtered in the halal (permissible) manner. Pork is in effect virtually eaten by no one while chicken is one of the only meats that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs..ect. all eat though to different extents.
The long-standing tradition of vegetarianism in India means that acceptance and adoption of Western fast food has not been as extensive as many other countries. Instead the curry in all its forms and variations remains an integral part of Indian cuisine. Every religion and culture eats some form of curry and even within cultures there exists a myriad of different curries from sweet to salty, seafood to eggplant and thick or soupy. Each of India’s states use their own unique blend of spices and I was able to eat a different type of curry every day while still only scratching the surface.
Despite much of India’s cooking dating back thousands of years, there is also significant influence from the 16th century’s Mughal conquest of India which brought in many Persian cooking styles as well as ingredients. Common dishes such as biryani, kofta and kebabs came from the Muslim rulers of the Mughal dynasty and still remain important to North Indian cuisine. Typically these dishes are quite decadent, savory and meat-intensive. Still many variations on these dishes exist that substitute meats and other decadent ingredients for inexpensive vegetables.
While in India, I was introduced to many dishes by my cultural guide Laxmi who taught me about many different and unique foods that I probably would not have tried otherwise. Almost always the thali (set), with its 3 or 4 types of curries, dessert and rice, would be our lunch for the day. It was in India that I came to understand how vegetables can be cooked to be delicious and fulfilling in-themselves even without meat. It was there that I also learned that aside from the hard-work, time and patience that go into making the perfect curry, the key ingredient in transforming the flavor of vegetables is using plenty ghee (clarified butter) and of course spices.
After 2 months of eating vegetarian food, aside from one time eating chicken from a Panjabi place and lamb korma from a Muslim restaurant, I had lost a good amount of weight. For that matter I was able to experience India on a more personal level and came to greatly respect Indian traditions much more. My vegetarian days in the end didn’t last, meat is too big a part of other cultures to not eat and frankly vegetarian food in other countries just isn’t done as well. But if vegetarian food was even half as good or cheap as it is in India, I’d definitely consider trying it again.