Who knew that being a Buddhist and a vegetarian could be so difficult?
As the years pass, finding vegetarian food is becoming easier, and the variety of choices available outside the home has also increased. In the early 1990s, locating vegetarian momos (thought by the editor of this magazine to be a contradiction in terms) in Kathmandu was as difficult as finding veg samosas in Dhaka. Being a vegetarian by choice is much easier than being a vegetarian by religion. I never did mind cooking meat, or sitting in a steakhouse eating salads. Those who are vegetarians for religious or cultural reasons, however, often cannot do this, and it must be difficult to always have to carry one’s food. The last decade has been a good one for vegetarians, as health consciousness has been on the rise, as has the fad for Buddhism. More and more global youth icons are vegetarian, so there are new modern role models over and above the Shankeracharyas. New technologies, including devoted websites, have also allowed veggies to track down hard-to-find vegetarian joints. In the parts of India and Nepal where the cheaper beef is taboo, eating meat is indicative of affluence. Carrying meat bought from the street-side butcher’s through the neighbourhood in transparent plastic bags is definitely a show of one’s spending power. The hierarchy begins at chicken and moves upward through mutton to fish, prawns and more exotic seafood. Pork has limited acceptability in many communities, though upmarket Chhetri families revel in hybrid boar – skin, fat, meat and all! The type of meat served at festivities and feasts is important and indicative of social strata. In the Kathmandu Valley, communities for whom buffalo meat is acceptable eat meat more often than do communities where the hierarchy begins at chicken. This also explains the heavy meat-eating in Bangladesh and Pakistan, where consumption of beef, affordable to almost everyone, is not met with general disapproval. For the rest of us, the advent of cold storage and the improvement of supply chains have made most vegetables available perennially. One can now find greens in abundance in Kathmandu, and dishes of exotic plants are available in many restaurants. The city’s Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Tex-Mex, Korean and Italian restaurants serve a variety of leafy delicacies. In the Thamel tourist district, there is an Israeli restaurant that serves only vegetarian food, and there and elsewhere Chinese restaurants serve meat substitutes made of soy and other protein-rich foods. Traditional cuisines of the Nepali hills – from Newari to Thakali – do not use a wide variety of vegetables, as their repertoire is largely restricted to what used to be available in local markets. Most East and Southeast Asian cuisines, on the other hand, incorporate wider varieties of vegetables and greens, often mixed with meat and seafood. The demand for vegetarian food by a staunchly vegetarian Indian community added the introduction of other Asian cuisines, which has made Nepal’s cosmopolitan capital a haven for good veggie eating. Unlike in India, where restaurants have to adapt to the Indian palate in order to succeed, in Kathmandu success lies in authenticity. The acceptability of vegetarianism and respect for this lifestyle choice is on the increase. One is no longer ridiculed for ‘eating grass’, or considered poor for not cooking meat at home. Changes in eating habits due to health concerns and vegetarianism’s newfound contemporary associations have made it easier for the once-harassed veggie to live with respect. It would be interesting to undertake veggie tours in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the movement is also said to be slowly gaining ground one hears.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).