The finest meal I have had was in the Admaru Mutt, a home for priests connected to the famous old Krishna temple in Udupi. The year was 1994; and I had come to the neighbouring town of Manipal to attend a seminar on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 125th birth anniversary. The seminar was organized by the Kannada writer U. R. Ananthamurthy, and it was at his initiative that the participants were taken to the Mutt for lunch.
Manipal, and Udupi, lie in-between the sea and the Western Ghats. The terrain is staggeringly diverse, and the plant life too. Over the centuries, humans have taken advantage of nature’s bounty to nurture a suitably varied cuisine. The wild mango found in the Ghats lends itself to a fabulous pickle. Another achaar special to the area is made from bamboo shoots. The rainfall is heavy enough to favour the jackfruit, an item rare elsewhere in India, here eaten in the form of salted chips or a spiced curry. All other vegetables known to humans are grown here as well. So are a great number of pulses. These are eaten with a soft and aromatic rice, made from a salt-resistant variety of paddy raised in fields close to the sea. Meanwhile, the district’s cattle range freely in the forest¬; their milk, and its derivatives, therefore have a freshness and sweetness missing in more arid or more contaminated environments.
In theory, every resident of the Udupi district can take advantage of this natural and cultivated diversity. In practice, it is only the priests who have the time, and the leisure, to make the most skillful use of their surroundings. Sustained, in every sense, by those who labour on field and office, they accord equal importance to the satisfaction of the palate and to the study of the scriptures.
For Ananthamurthy’s guests, the Admaru Mutt had prepared their ‘special’ lunch, which had as many as forty-two items listed on the menu. We squatted on the floor, a banana leaf in front of us, as the younger priests brought them to us one by one. On my left sat a Bengali scholar to whom a meal without any meat was an eccentricity reserved for unfortunate widows. On my right was a Sikh sociologist, in whose carnivorous culture what we were being served was known dismissively as ‘ghaas-phus’—grass and such-like rubbish. By the end of the meal they were as satisfied as I.
I was reminded of that meal in Udupi while reading a recent issue of the New Yorker, where an American critic had reviewed Eating People, a polemic by Jonathan Safran Foer against the ways in which animals are reared, slaughtered and eaten in the United States. The reviewer noted that the book ‘closes with a turkeyless Thanksgiving. As a holiday, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But this is Foer’s point. We are, we suggests, defined not just by what we do; we are defined by what we are willing to do without. Vegetarianism requires the renunciation of real and irreplacable pleasures. To Foer’s credit, he is not embarrassed to ask this of us.’
Pity poor Foer, for whom—as for very many other Westerners repelled by the barbaric treatment of farm animals—vegetarianism is wholly or perhaps one should say merely a matter of moral choice. One reason I had enjoyed the feast in the Admaru Matt so much was that I had just spent a year in Germany, where to be a vegetarian meant being served boiled cabbage for lunch and baked potatoes for dinner. In Spain and Scandinavia my fate might have been even worse. Despite the fables about French cooking, the only country in Europe that can turn out a decent vegetarian meal is Italy—but how long can one live on pasta and pizza?
Ironicallly, it is even more difficult to be a vegetarian in Pakistan. As is well known, in recent decades the state and its ruling elite have increasingly abandoned the syncretic culture of South Asia in favour of the monochromatic monotheism of West Asia. In the desert, there is a limited number of plants that can be grown; these, besides, are needed to feed the goats and camels on which the humans in turn are sustained. The eating habits of West and Central Asians are ferociously carnivorous, and in coming closer to these places politically, the Pakistanis have also intensified their scorn for vegetarians, whom they were in any case inclined to look upon as effeminate and unmartial.
The homeland of Jonathan Safran Foer is somewhat better served in this respect. Once a country of immigrants from Europe and Africa, the United States has, in recent decades, seen millions of Asians move to its shores. The Midwest and the South are still heavily meat-centric, but in the cities of the east and west coasts a vegetarian has the choice of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Nepali, and Indian restaurants.
In these places the vegetarian can survive, after a fashion. This is not to say that what, outside India, are called ‘Indian restaurants’ do anything like justice to the multiple cuisines of the sub-continent. What one gets here is standard North Indian fare—a black or yellow daal, with random dishes mixing paneer with a limited number of vegetables (chiefly peas, potato, and cauliflower). Speaking as a South Indian, I should state that in my extensive travels in Europe and North America, I have never ever smelt or seen the Andhra pesarattu, the sanas of the west coast of Karnataka, the appam of Kerala, or the puliyodarai of Tamil Nadu, or, indeed, their accompanying chutneys and curries. However, I am not a Southern chauvinist, and enjoy a Gujarati thali, which I can get in Ahmedabad or Mumbai, but not—or at least not yet—in New York or London.
The art and skill involved in Indian cooking is hard to explain to a foreigner. It uses a greater variety of grains, vegetables and spices, and a greater variety of techniques as well. The most celebrated European chefs know only to bake and grill, but Indians have for centuries soaked, ground, fermented, steamed, fried as well as baked and grilled ingredients and dishes. The flavours themselves range from the soft and delicate to the aromatic and spicy. It may only be in the quality of their desserts that European chefs exceed their Indian counterparts.
Like the finest art and the finest music, the finest food has its genesis in hierarchical and class-ridden societies. However, in the year 2010, one does not have to be a Mughal Emperor to admire the Taj Mahal, or a rich landlord to appreciate the khayals and thumris once performed by courtesans for their master. Likewise, the great and unsurpassed glories of Indian vegetarian cooking are now available to us all.
Back in the 1990s, I used to make a living as an intellectual migrant worker, teaching for a term every other year in an American university. I stopped doing this in part because I wanted to travel more within India, and in part because I missed the vegetarian cuisines of my homeland. In school and college, I ate meat, but gave up the habit in my thirties. I found that eating too much chicken and mutton coarsened the tongue, limiting the pure pleasure one otherwise got from eating sanas, or appam, or puliyodarai, or dhokla, or thepla, and whatever else is served with them.
For the typical American, Spaniard, Nigerian, and Pakistani, the embrace of a vegetarian diet is equated to joylessness. Here, one might choose to stop eating animals, if one is compelled to do so on ethical grounds. In fact, the aesthetic reasons for becoming a vegetarian are even stronger. I have spoken already of the beauties of South Indian and Gujarati cooking, but one of the best meals I have had was in the home of a historian in Assam. For here, like the Western Ghats, the fabulous diversity of the landscape sustains a comparable diversity of cultivated and cooked plants.
Contrary to Jonathan Safran Foer and his reviewers, being a vegetarian is really a lot of fun. One merely has to choose the right place to become (or be born as) one.
THE AESTHETIC CASE FOR VEGETARIANISM
(published in The Telegraph, 20/11/2010)
by Ramachandra Guha