No cuisine is so closely associated with vegetarianism as Indian. From amazing tropical vegetables and comforting dahls, to tangy street food and fragrant dishes like Mangalorean potatoes, the choice is truly mind-boggling.
It’s a common assumption that most Indians are vegetarian, but their eating habits vary according to community and region, so you can’t generalise. According to the 2006 Hindu-CNN-!BN State of the Nation Survey, 60 percent of Indians are omnivore.
This means only 40 percent are vegetarian, out of which almost a quarter are ‘pure vegetarians’ who don’t eat eggs. That is still a higher figure, I suspect, than any other nation, and there are several reasons why vegetarianism is so central to Indian cuisine.
The cost of meat
Meat eating in India is seen as aspirational and glamorous, and is associated with wealth and luxury. As it's so expensive there, many eat it only on special occasions, add it sparingly to side dishes, or may cook one or two items as part of an otherwise vegetable-centric spread.
The geographical factor
Vegetables, grains and beans have been growing in abundance in India since 1000 BC – more than anywhere else in the world, according to some historians. It’s a densely populated country, so it makes sense to use every bit of valuable land to grow food crops, rather than use it as pasture.
The role of religion
Hinduism and its off-shoots, Buddhism and Jainism, advocate 'ahimsa' or non-violence. The three religions believe in the underlying unity of all beings and the notion of reincarnation. The concept of 'karma' states that if a living being lives its life ‘correctly’ – such as by eating vegetarian food – it will be reincarnated at a higher level (i.e. as an upper caste human); and at a lower level, such as an insect, if it lives its life ‘incorrectly.’ So even insects are seen as capable of possessing the human soul.
Jains have an extremely strict dietary code that involves, among other things, not eating root vegetables, as roots and bulbs are essential for keeping plants alive, and pulling them from earth may kill insects that live in soil. Most Buddhists are not vegetarian, but they believe it is wrong to kill animals.
Cows, in particular, are revered by Hindus because they efficiently turn fodder into milk, produce dung for manure and fuel, and pull plough and carts. This is why many omnivore Indians have traditionally shunned beef.
Throughout history, highly respected figures ranging from Emperor Ashoka and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to Mahatma Gandhi actively promoted a meat-free diet. The infamous incident of tallow-greased cartridges, a factor in the Great Mutiny of 1857, shows that vegetarianism in India is a culturally sensitive issue.
Here in the UK
Ashok Modi, the Director of Malabar Junction restaurant in central London even has separate kitchens for cooking vegetables: “Being a fussy vegetarian, the idea of meat cooking along with vegetarian food didn’t appeal to me. I wanted fellow vegetarians to feel at ease, and to enjoy the food… knowing (that it) is cooked separately from the meat.” Back in India there have even been calls for separate supermarkets, apartment blocks and neighbourhoods.
It must be emphasised that not all Indians are vegetarian because of religious reasons. In a culture where many have grown up in meat-free households, they have simply never acquired the taste or enthusiasm for meat.
Which are your favourite Indian vegetarian dishes? Let us know in the comments box.
Also worth your attention