Tuesday, August 07, 2007

You are what you eat - the philosophy of Indian food

I was in Manchester last week, at the Old Trafford Stadium, for a conference. At lunch, the tables were groaning with food from Spain, France and the UK. There was also a very popular Indian counter, serving rice and curry.

I wanted to try some of the European cuisines on offer, so I walked around with my plate, looking for something vegetarian. I found zilch. Everything looked great, but had some sort of meat or fish or fowl in it. The closest I could find was a Spanish frittata - a rich scrumptious looking thing made of potatoes, eggs and cheese, nicely browned and just begging to be eaten.

I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to eat Indian. So I got some of the Spanish thingy on my plate, scraped the egg off, and carted it off to my table along with some perfectly tasteless green salad. At my table were Wendy and Anna, both tucking away into Indian curry. Wendy is English, and Anna is German.

The conversation turned to vegetarianism.

'So, is it a religious thing with you, Deepa?', said Wendy.

'Not really', I said. 'I was born vegetarian, and I've just stayed that way.'

I should have shut my mouth then, and the conversation would have ended, but no, I had to play the culture card.

I grinned and said, 'Besides, its taken me several births to get here. Why regress?'

Anna turned to me. 'Sorry, what was that?'

So I set off on a long discussion about the cycle of rebirth, of progressing from the animal to the divine, and how food plays a part in the journey towards spiritual awakening. We talked of the ascetic food habits of Buddhist and Hindu monks, about the traditional classification of food in ayurveda, taboos and symbolism, and all the little things that make food such an important part of Indian culture.

At the end of the chat, Anna gestured at her rice-and-curry and said, 'You know what, Deepa? In the UK we walk into Indian restaurants all the time, and we eat so much Indian food - but we know nothing about the entire philosophy behind food.'

I smiled and agreed with her, but I thought to myself - it's not that different in Mumbai.

The concept that eating simple food is a way to progress spiritually has been lost in the holier-than-thou stance of Mumbai's vegetarians. There seems to be, within each little community, an excessive petty focus on establishing purity and superiority over other communities based on food habits. Several upscale localities in Mumbai are becoming exclusive vegetarian enclaves, by refusing non-vegetarian tenants, and by discouraging the sale of meat and other 'impious' food. I know many people who will not accept food or even water from the hands of 'lower' castes.

The idea of food as an inner guiding principle, as a personal living choice, is dying. We're reducing our great philosophies as usual, to taboos and rituals.


Neha said...

"We're reducing our great philosophies as usual, to taboos and rituals." - couldn't have said it better. we always say how our culture and traditions have stood the test of time and survived, I wonder if they'll survive us though.

Anonymous said...

Many religions have seen the original philosophy and ideas get lost in rituals, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

"The human stomach is not a burial ground for animals"

Deepa said...

Clearly they didn't teach you about Darwin :)

CanisLupus said...

Vegetarianism, Reincarnation and some kitschy philosophy!!! Were you taking a pi$* on the poor white sods! must have been a dull weekend in Manchester!

Have a thought. Assuming you enjoy a drink once in a while, could you also tie that in to the spiritual, philosophical ,karmic outlook that made you achieve the pinnacle of the reincarnation cycle. Have to send in my assignment for creative writing class next week ;)

Deepa said...

Good god, I don't really believe that I've reincarnated into a 'superior' Brahmin after several vegetarian births. Maybe you just don't get my writing? Or did you miss the cheeky grin when I talked about regressing?

Manchester was fun. The people I talked to were my friends, and 'poor white sods' is in very bad taste.

Anonymous said...

it is strange that you feel that the idea of food as a personal living choice is dying - aren't more and more people are turning vegetarian in the west - guided by some notion of choice...?

Deepa said...

Charu, I was saying it is dying in Bombay.

Anonymous said...

very good article.

Jai said...

'You know what, Deepa? In the UK we walk into Indian restaurants all the time, and we eat so much Indian food - but we know nothing about the entire philosophy behind food.'

the above is really interesting. why don't we educate ourselves on it more? wouldn't it be great if we could eat somewhere that could teach us a little on what and WHY we are eating.

food for thought. (excuse the pun please)

vandana said...

It is still very hard to get vegetarian food in the West. Even the cheeses are made with the scrapings of calf intestines!!!
Vegetarianism should be more about humane choice. That's what makes you a better person, when you feel another living creature's pain.

Unknown said...

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