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A plea to fellow vegetarian summer travellers

I'm a fussy vegetarian at home, but when I travel, I have only one food rule: Eat local

A file photo of vegetable sellers at the Ima Keithel women’s market in Imphal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
A file photo of vegetable sellers at the Ima Keithel women’s market in Imphal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Last week, while travelling to meat-eater haven, the North-East, I hit the jackpot at a small dhaba outside Shillong in Meghalaya. While the rest of the crew ate the state’s favourite meats, cooked multiple ways, I asked for vegetarian. Any Khasi or Garo food is fine, I told the smiling owner. Soon enough, I was bombarded with mustard greens, bamboo shoots and other exotic local roots and shoots such as latara and soh jri (and, of course, that pan-Indian favourite, potato) that I proceeded to devour.

Meghalaya took me by surprise. Wild fruits such as sohphie and sohphie nam, sour and sweet, respectively; mini garlicky spring onions called jyllang; raw jamyrdoh leaves—a blood purifier eaten in many parts of Asia—in a salad; elongated egg-shaped limes, a staple at every meal; black or brown sesame seeds, roasted, powdered and used in everything, including potatoes, dal and shredded cabbage; and ja stem, gorgeous hill rice cooked with turmeric and ginger.

A few months ago, when we visited Nagaland, the taxi driver ferrying us from Dimapur to Kohima immediately recommended lunch at a Marwari dhaba on the highway after hearing I was vegetarian. I haven’t come to Nagaland to eat Marwari food, I told him irritatedly. “I just thought…," he trailed off. “All Indian tourists eat there."

At the Naga restaurant where we finally stopped, they looked at me fearfully. “We don’t have any vegetarian."

“I’ll eat anything," I said, pointing at something green. That opened the floodgates. Boiled greens, fermented vegetables, dal and spicy chutneys—all dishes the Nagas regard as mere accompaniments to the main meat dishes on offer—were placed in front of me and Nagaland instantly went to the top of my vegetarian charts. After that I learnt to smile and say: Don’t worry. Feed me anything vegetarian.

That same trip, when we peeked into Manipur briefly, I ate an authentic local vegetarian thali at Luxmi Kitchen, after shopping for black rice and photographing the faces of the friendly female shop owners at the Ima Keithel women’s market. Bliss.

I’m a fussy vegetarian at home, but when I travel, I have only one food rule: Eat local.

You, fellow vegetarians, should do the same. It’s time to loosen up, to chill, to stop sniffing fearfully for any lingering smell of those twin evil meats. You can’t spend your lifetime travelling the country, only stepping foot in eateries if they confirm in bold letters: No beef and pork served here. Your kitchen may be the gold standard of pure vegetarian cooking, but if you want to travel across the length and breadth of our nation, a place where—in case you hadn’t heard—over 70% of the population eats meat, you need a new approach.

Last year, I wrote about how it’s not easy being 100% vegetarian in New India. We are members of a group that is increasingly associated with policing personal freedoms. The rest of India looks at us fearfully as we chew our spinach, trying to gauge whether or not we buy only 100% natural Panchagavya groceries from Restaurants and hotels across the country put puri bhaji and idlis on their buffet breakfast menus because they are scared of us. Hell hath no fury like an Indian vegetarian scorned.

Of course, it doesn’t help that our head of state exemplifies the Indian vegetarian’s reluctance to experiment and this group’s deep fear of anything unfamiliar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made scores of trips to several continents since he was elected in 2014. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, he should have experimented with at least 50 different global cuisines. But the stories about his meals abroad are always anticlimactic.

Remember the time he attended a fancy dinner hosted by former US president Barack Obama and declined the compressed avocados, saffron rice and mango creme brûlée on offer? They said it was because of his Navratri fast (that’s another thing, fellow vegetarians, don’t schedule travel when you are fasting and at your fussiest best). Or the time chef Sanjeev Kapoor said Modi is not a picky eater and enjoys experimenting…but then when we saw the menu of the UAE state dinner prepared by Kapoor, it included Coconut Khandvi, Lauki Katchumber and Fafda Chutney followed by a “Royal Gujarati Thali".

In an interview to Gulf News, the prime minister said he happily eats everything offered to him on his travels. But most world leaders know he’s happiest with Gujarati food and he has dined on that cuisine with every biggie, from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to China’s Xi Jinping.

On his Indian trips, Modi experiments with headgear; he has been photographed in everything from a Naga warrior’s headdress to the Assamese Japi. As a vegetarian Indian, I would rather the prime minister publicize a different regional dish every time he visits a state. What better way to understand the vastly different Indias that inhabit one geographic boundary than to eat their food?

I’m proposing a radical change, Indian vegetarians. Say no to tour operators who ensure you will eat a mediocre desi dinner at Hotel Mumbai Magic when you’re in Pattaya. Say a firm no to those ubiquitous Subway or Kamats lunches in cities across the world.

It’s time to throw away those khakras and parathas you’ve packed to go, just in case you can’t find anything to eat at your next exotic destination. Food is a key part of the culture you’ve decided to visit—it unlocks a world of growing-up memories, identity, ethnic secrets. As an informed traveller, you owe it to the world and to your fellow Indians to taste this different slice of life. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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