I don’t get it, I really don’t.
Much as I try, my esteemed readers laugh at me when I suggest that there is a fair amount of vegetarian cooking in this column. At shopping malls, dinner parties and literature festivals, strangers walk up to me and tell me what they really think of my vegetarian claims.
“Perhaps, but you know you write so much about meat, that’s the impression I get.”
“I am sorry, I must have missed it.”
“You are joking.”
I admit my proclivity for meat, of course, and being cavalier in my approach to the concept of vegetarianism.
I can’t help it. It is how I was raised.
I have written about my childhood eating trotter soup or paya for breakfast in the northern lands of Karnataka, once part of the kingdom of Hyderabad. I have written about my early working life cooking sausage masala and kheema and eggs as comfort food. I have written about growing up in a family that got nervous whenever vegetarians were coming to dinner. And I have written about the mortification of declaring that I would never marry a vegetarian and then doing just that.
Now, on the wrong side of 50, I have changed—but no one appears to believe me, not even my wife.
I can eat entirely vegetarian meals day after day (well, two days in a row), and while I can appreciate some features of a vegetarian diet, I do not claim to have adopted a new, moral approach to meat-eating. I do believe, however, that some life balance is in order.
By the way, even vegetarians require balance. For example, Mahatma Gandhi writes of being “reduced to a skeleton” in 1917, after he excluded milk from his diet for six years. He believed both milk and meat “bring with them the defects of the animal from which they are derived”.
Jacques Élisée Reclus, a French writer and geographer, wrote in 1901 that he turned to vegetarianism after witnessing “barbarous acts committed by flesh-eaters against the beasts they eat”. In a essay titled On Vegetarianism, he described one of the strongest impressions of childhood—the forcible killing of a pig “by a party of villagers in revolt against a dear old woman who would not consent to the murder of her fat friend”.
“The village crowd burst into the pigstye (sic) and dragged the beast to the slaughter place where all the apparatus for the deed stood waiting, whilst the unhappy dame sank down upon a stool weeping quiet tears.”
I had no such epiphany, and I have no culinary taboos. In pursuit of my goal of balance, I have learnt to cook a variety of vegetarian food, from cuisines as diverse as Tamil, Chinese and Moroccan.
Alas, after indulging me in the first flush of marriage, the wife now regards my expanded vegetarian oeuvre with some suspicion, and you, dear reader, never seem to believe that I do or can cook vegetarian food.
So, let me try this again: This column will purely be about plants, herbs and all things vegetarian. It helps that this week we are getting several guests for dinner who avoid meat and fish, so I feel adequately challenged.
I must confess that despite cooking Sindhi and south Indian vegetarian food, I am most comfortable cooking vegetarian from either the Maghreb or the Mediterranean. This could be because the simplicity of their cooking appeals to me but a big reason is that the wife—who is somewhat finicky in the vegetarian cuisines she accepts—likes these or basic Indian vegetables and dal.
So, on a bright Bengaluru morning, I set out to trawl the grocery store, an increasingly rare occurrence in these days of home delivery apps, which I frown on (unless it suits my purpose, of course). I get a frisson of excitement when I see shelves of fresh herbs and vegetables, freshly delivered in the morning. I usually end up buying a lot of things that I do not intend to use immediately but here’s the thing: If I do not get the ingredients I want, I end up modifying the menu to ensure that I do use what I get.
That is just what happened. I did not find parsley but I did find sage. It was the last day in town for my in-laws and Sindhi kadhi and chawal (rice) had been organised. They are largely vegetarian and love comfort food, so the least I could do was rock their boat ever so lightly.
They would have been happiest with the kadhi and chawal, but they are hopelessly locked into praising anything I might cook at best or maintaining a diplomatic silence at worst—those are the special privileges accorded to sons-in-law in Sindhi families. It’s very nice, my mother-in-law said. My father-in-law? He maintained a diplomatic silence.
Grilled eggplant in yogurt sauce
Half tsp honey
2 medium eggplants, about 200g each
3 tbsp mint leaves, finely chopped
1 tbsp sage, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
One-fourth tsp cinnamon powder
One-fourth tsp cumin powder
Half tsp chilli powder (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Whip the yogurt with a fork until smooth. Add the mint, sage, garlic, cinnamon, cumin (and chilli powder, if using), honey and set aside.
Slice the eggplant into thin roundels, add salt, lay out on absorbent paper and wait for water to leach out. Pat dry. Baste with olive oil and grill on a pan or in oven until done.
Lay out in a plate, dress with yogurt sauce.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.