Opinion | The problem of the vegetarian lunch
Cooking vegetables is not a strong point in the columnist's family, but there are moments of inspiration
It is never a problem when my parents come over for lunch or dinner. Like me, they are partial to dead animals. One non-vegetarian entrée, a vegetable or a salad and chapatis or rice are enough to satisfy the Halarnkars.
We are, you see, simple people.
So, when the wife said they were coming over, I shrugged and said I would roast a whole chicken or something equally simple.
“They are vegetarian today," she said, fixing me with a look that said, “Ha ha, now what genius?"
I was, momentarily, stumped. The wife is vegetarian, but after the honeymoon years of marriage—when she was starry eyed about her husband learning to cook vegetables especially for her—she has been underwhelmed by my culinary abilities relating to plants.
My first instinct was to call off lunch, but I could not possibly be so wimpish.
She arranged for the cook to make some sort of—god help us—“mixed vegetable curry", so of course I had to do better, especially because the wife does not regard the Halarnkars as being capable of eating or cooking proper vegetarian food.
To be sure, we were nervous when a Sindhi vegetarian joined the meat-eating Goan and Maharashtrian Halarnkars. In the early years of marriage, my mother would flit about nervously when her daughter-in-law was expected for lunch and spectacularly overcompensate by producing four or five vegetables to give her a choice and make her happy. Of course, this had the opposite effect.
The wife is notoriously irascible and does not like to be made happy. She has been known to cast an unimpressed eye on a Halarnkar vegetarian spread and ask for something that isn’t there. My mother has now learned to let her call the cook directly and order whatever she wants, which is usually rajma.
Vegetarians, rightly, are irked when meat-eating families like mine flutter around when they visit. We do tend to make a bit of a fuss, and make it evident I suppose that we are on unfamiliar territory. Forgive us, I say, because we do not know any better.
Honestly, my brother and I ate little that was vegetarian growing up—if you exclude the daily spinach that my grandmother threatened to dump on our heads. My brother’s vegetarian intake, even today, appears to be limited to chopped onion tossed with lime. I am happy eating vegetarian—so long as it does not become a daily thing.
Living in the south makes eating vegetables easier. There is so much choice and so much variety that there is always something you will like. I would hesitate to eat a thali in north India—paneer or potato? Please spare me—but in the south I enthusiastically partake in the pachadis, the palyas and the related smorgasbord of plant life.
My parents, both in their 80s, do eat more vegetarian food than ever, but their choices are limited. When I pop over for lunch, they are poking around at a potato or bhindi or beans—any one—accompanied by sliced carrot and cucumber. I focus on the Bombay duck, prawn pulao or similar main course, available every day.
My mother, like most Maharashtrians, is vegetarian on Thursday, but a couple of years ago she added on Monday and Saturday. My father, in solidarity, tried to follow suit, but she was not impressed, telling him that he needed to eat meat regularly to overcome frailty forced on by illness.
But every now and then, endearingly, he tries to stay vegetarian for his wife. Instead of trying to break his will—not very difficult if you wave fresh fish under his nose—we decided to be different and keep the meal all vegetarian.
Since the wife had her “mixed vegetable curry", I was free to experiment, and nothing delights me more than to experiment on my parents. Being parents, they are not likely to say, “this is terrible", ever. If it’s really bad, they might keep quiet, and if I ask, my mother will always ask how I made it. My father, at most, might say, “Last month’s paneer was better."
So, I experimented, using random vegetables lying around the fridge. My speciality has always been quick food, and carrots, broccoli and mushrooms are particularly amenable to speed. Many Indians tend to overcook their vegetables. Perhaps they like them that way. I like them light and crunchy.
What surprised me were the comments. “These vegetables are excellent," said my mother. My father, who rarely comments on anything vegetarian, said they were “very good". I was taken aback. The lord works in mysterious ways.
Broccoli, carrot and mushroom with sesame seeds
1 small head of broccoli, broken into florets
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large cup of mushrooms, chopped
2 tsp fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp smoked paprika (or Kashmiri mirch)
1/2 tsp fresh black pepper
2-3 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
Salt to taste
Steam broccoli and carrot for 2 minutes in a microwave steamer. Heat sesame oil in a wok. Stir-fry the garlic until soft. Add the mushrooms, toss for a minute. Add paprika and stir, drizzling in vinegar when it starts to stick. Add salt, broccoli and carrot. Mix well, drizzle the remaining vinegar and finish with pepper.
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.
He tweets at @samar11