The whole jigsaw puzzle about vegetarians and vegetarian food goes awry in India, more or less. You see, it’s like this: in every other part of the world, vegetarians are a tiny minority, and because of that, they are perceived as exotic birds who subsist on impossibly rare ingredients. Truth be told, they are privately thought of as faddists, albeit mysterious ones. All that changes in India. Nobody has actually done a head count of the ratio between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but there’s no gainsaying that vegetarians and their implied religiosity, have the high moral ground.
Not only that, but vegetarians are also considered to be much easier to cater to and a whole lot cheaper into the bargain, subsisting as they do on dal and a handful of vegetables in season. Or are they? Every restaurant manager has his favourite horror story about vegetarians. “So in walks this vegetarian table, pores over the menu and asks me whether I had something in paneer.” And this is in a Chinese restaurant. Now that’s the problem with vegetarians in this country. Far from being perceived as either food faddists or exotic creatures from another planet, they are seen as country hicks who will eat just about anything as long as it’s paneer.
But any restaurateur in India worth his fleur de sel knows that for the well-being of the restaurant, he needs to look after the vegetarians. And that is where the problem lies. For Indian food is structured in favour of non-vegetarian patrons. Not only do they order chicken, mutton and seafood – the triumvirate of meats favoured in the country – they also order a dal and a vegetable to round off their order. In comparison, the vegetarian customer only orders dal and vegetables, so the average per cover (the vital APC that all restaurants worldwide compute each day) remains resolutely lower than the APC for non-vegetarian customers.
The inexplicable part of it all is that Indian food is the only cuisine where vegetarians are slated to remain second class citizens; Japanese food has a special branch called Shojin Zen cuisine, that more or less developed from the Kyoto region of Japan; more specifically out of the famous Buddhist temples in that prefecture. Today, vegetarians can visit Megu at the Leela Palace New Delhi and sample epicurean vegetarian delights that make use variously of tofu, edamame beans, seaweed, a cornucopia of mushrooms and sesame paste. “Since the day we opened our doors, we have never had a vegetarian customer who was not gratified by the sheer choice in our menu,” claims the Manager, Rajat Kalia. Both the chefs who head the kitchen: Chef Saito as well as Chef Achal Aggarwal have more or less specialized in in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. “This kind of rarified vegetarian food is a gastronomic adventure in its own right and is not a palliative for those who cannot eat meat,” informs Kalia. The average per cover for vegetarians dining at Megu is lower than for meat eaters simply because meat eaters have some options like wagyu which, being a highly priced ingredient, pushes up the non-vegetarian APC.
On a recent trip to Turkey, a group of us were taken to every level of restaurant, from the most grand to the strictly functional. The vegetarians among us were nervous to start out with: would they get anything or would they have to subsist on bread alone? After day two, they pronounced Turkey the most vegetarian-friendly country outside India. In common with most of the Mediterranean region, almost every appetizer was vegetarian; and while most main courses had a component of fish or meat, the stewed vegetables were so delicious that any of us meat eaters could have dined well on them. Most significant of all, vegetarians were not second class citizens in restaurants in Turkey.
Nothing illustrates the quandary faced by the Indian vegetarian better than the extremely pointless “mock meat” or “vegetarian chicken”. A product that has been conceptualized in the Chinese speaking regions of South East Asia for the market conditions of those regions, it is made with wheat gluten and coloured and shaped to resemble various meats. Thus, you could buy life-like prawns with a slightly rubbery texture, a pork chop, shaped appropriately and so on. Those who have recently turned to an all-vegetarian diet for religious or other reasons, thrive on mock meat: the safe non-meat. It looks like meat, it even tastes like meat, but it is not meat. To an Indian, however, anything that resembles a prawn is an abomination. And so, mock meat which did the rounds a few years ago, was shunned by meat eaters who could easily eat the real thing as well as by vegetarians who were afraid that it was the real thing! ends