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Mushroom soup for the vegetarian soul

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Amulya Shruthi

It was my third day in class I at a new school. My first friend, Farah Naaz, opened her rectangular stainless-steel tiffin box, and then its smaller rectangular compartment. She clapped her hands in glee, poked at the immiscible mass in there, licked her finger, and squealed, “Goat brain!”

I was disappointed: The brain did not look anything like the brains I had seen in cartoons. It even managed to look harmless, somewhat like my mother’s tomato pachadi. It seemed incredible that something like this innocuous mass could faze, even terrify, my cockroach-bashing, mali-thrashing grandmother.

Vegetarianism was handed down to me like knock knees and unmanageable hair. It is so ingrained in our family that my ajji, like several other sweet, middle-class Kannadiga grandmothers, cannot get herself to say “non-vegetarian”, and refers to the whole class of meat as “NV”. She does not have patience with fish, poultry, red or white meat: It is all a tut-tut brand of “NV”, pronounced envy.

I grew up in a milieu that encouraged this NVing. Meat-eaters were talked about in hushed voices. Houses were leased on the basis of whether tenant families cooked meat or not. The nearest butcher shop was about 2km away, far from the main road. The neighbour’s roosters clucked about, gratefully untouched. “Non-veg jokes” exchanged between slightly older children were literally so.

Maybe it was the zeitgeist, unconscious censorship, or just coincidence, but looking back, even the imagery of food in the domestic comics I read seemed sterile. Unless the story demanded it, food illustrations in Tinkle comics (and by extension, Amar Chitra Katha) were mostly vegetarian. Suppandi visited the market and returned with legumes and gourds peeking from his basket. His employer ate from thalis where rice was a tiny white mountain and rotis were ellipses accompanied by circles of non-committal sabzis (vegetables). Raja Hooja preferred fruits. Raghu hated his spinach. And Uncle Anu’s club got by with chocolate, pav buns, and browning cut apples.

In a New York Times article, author Lara Vapnyar writes of dreaming about exotic things to eat in Cold War Russia. And like her, in a pre-Internet age, my trysts with meat were those of vicarious adventure and fantasy. Meat was a “foreign” idea that I discovered in glossy interior decoration magazines left behind by NRI (non-resident Indian) aunts. Here, I saw Thanksgiving turkeys with socks and skin like honey-glazed tote bags. I devoured Enid Blyton stories where “bacon” and “ham” mingled with my own breakfast of toast. I was fascinated with how Archies’ Jughead with his half-mast eyes polished off hot dogs topped with zigzagging mustard. I wondered: Was a hot dog really a dog? A Dachshund in a bun?

I would carefully examine what the characters in Asterix ate on each adventure: shiny double-humped camel meat in Persia, delicate quail on a galley to Egypt, cold cuts looted from pirates and loaded up on a magic carpet to India, chains of sausages in Belgium. My mind boggled at Obelix’s staple boar glistening on a spit. I was tickled by Tom, Disney’s AristoCats, Top Cat, and other cat-toons that dug up fish bones as the universal sign of destitution.

This curiosity with meat was not unique to me. My mother, aunt and I were keen followers of Khana Khazana, a TV cookery show that demonstrated an impressive range of NV recipes. I remember my mother would evade moral conundrum by watching the ingredient section on mute.

I’m certain, also, that we weren’t the only NV-curious family. A look at the menu in the glamorous A/C deluxe side of a darshini (stand-up eateries in Bangalore) reveals much about the middle-class vegetarian’s complex feelings for meat, and the preoccupation with wanting to recreate meat in the vegetarian world: Gobi 65, Paneer Tikka, Veg Biryani. In Mumbai, I found the Jain Omelette that substitutes eggs with besan (gram flour) and proves that besan is best in laddoos and face packs.

The classic vegetarian’s first brush with meat is usually “by accident”; by way of a “chicken something” construed as gobi manchurian. Some see this as serendipity. Some reach for mouthwash. I tasted my first bit of meat as a consenting adult, without much ado, and found chicken to be wildly overrated, but mutton wonderfully distinct. I decided I don’t quite like the texture of meat. I’m happily a staple vegetarian, but I’m curious about all the things people eat. And so, today, my bucket list includes unambitious items like pepperoni (why did I bother), eggs benedict, escargot, caviar (never again), bratwurst, Goan sausages, pho, soap, and chalk.

I like quoting a friend who says that once you’re an adult, congenital vegetarianism is a choice. When I eat out, I find that vegetarianism is harder. At most popular upscale restaurants in Bangalore, only about 30-35% of the items on the menu are vegetarian. And that includes the French fries offered as starters. This is not a case for vegetarianism, or against the secondary treatment of veggies by evil restaurateurs (I usually forgive them when I get to dessert). But it’s surprise: that living in a world which loves its non-vegetarians, I was so insulated from meat.

Maybe my vegetarianism runs deeper than my genes. I recall how in class VII, at the library, I came to question Chicken Soup For the Soul: I mean, what’s wrong with cream of mushroom?

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