I attended a very interesting event held by the Economic Times last week in Bangalore. It was the first ‘ET CEO cook-out’ where they invited 3 expat CEOs to cook for and share their favourite recipes with a small group of Indian corporate types. Much bonhomie and a wonderful dish of ‘sea bass’ down, I started reflecting on the whole evening. And reached ‘Non-vegetarian’.
‘Non-Vegetarian’ is one of the commonest words in Indian food conversation. Funnily enough, in all my travels, I have never come across this word anywhere outside India. ‘Vegetarian’ yes. ‘Vegetarian Food’ across the world means the active presence of vegetables in food. But nobody outside seems to have heard of ‘non-vegetarian’.
Food in all cultures outside India is predominantly based on meat or fish. Take Asia. North, East & South-East Asia are all pork & seafood lands. West Asian food is kebabs and pilaf and other aromatic delicacies of meat. Or Polynesia and the Pacific Islands where fish swimming in coconut milk is pretty much the staple. Of course, the west (Europe, North America & south America) are all meat & fish food cultures too. So is every other part of the world, leaving aside the faddish vegan cultures in California or London.
India is different in food. While 3 out of 4 Indians above the age of 15 are meat & fish eaters (so says the 2004 Baseline Survey Report of the Census of India) , a significant minority, concentrated particularly among the historically advantaged classes are ‘pure vegetarian’ in their food, by which I mean, they do not eat meat or fish. It is this significant number (though numerically still in a minority) of ‘pure vegetarians’ in India that makes us so different from the rest of the world in our food. Is this the root reason why we Indians still find it very difficult to integrate fully into other societies, often even after staying there for decades? I don’t know.
Outside Race, no element of a culture so determines its cultural identity as its food. And any outsider that can easily take to a society’s food will soon become an insider. If not, he is doomed to remain outside the culture, looking in through a window.
Hey, don’t get me wrong on this. I am not passing a judgment on the merits or otherwise of vegetarianism. I am merely observing that the vast difference in the food mores of Indians, particularly the preponderance of ‘pure vegetarians’ in the diaspora, possibly makes it difficult for Indians to integrate into a world civilisation.
And while on this subject, I also think that this inability to truly integrate makes us relatively ‘adversarial’ in our view of other people & cultures. Remember the concept of ‘mleccha‘ that we held on to for many centuries. In ancient, insular India, travel abroad & associating with foreigners was a process of accretion of impurities and much penance had to be done after such travel to regain our ‘normal purity’. I wonder whether vestiges of such ideas remain in us, deep-rooted and mostly dormant, but there nonetheless.
Incidentally, I also wonder whether this type of uniquely strict ‘food aristocracy’ where advantaged classes deign to avoid certain types of food, is at the root of our rulers’ inability to empathise with the vast majority of our own people. Is this the real reason for our inability to uplift the vast majority of our own people even after 60 years of independence? Is this why China can progress so fast in bringing huge masses of its people from poverty to ‘medium prosperity’, while we are still talking (and only talking) of the aam aadmi? I wonder.
All this thinking has made me hungry. I have now absolutely decided to soon visit the Bewakoof chain in Giridih, Jharkhand for Mutton Curry & Rice at 23 bucks a pop. The last time I was in Giridih was 27 years ago and Bewakoof they tell me is a relatively recent innovation.
Here is my post after attending the last ET do in Bangalore.