When emails and SMS messages leave my computer and cell phone during Dasain – the post-monsoonal Nepali carnivore carnival – wishing everyone a sacrifice-free holiday, much electronic venom is inevitably spat in return. In Kathmandu just two decades back, to be a vegetarian by choice was to belong to a species difficult to understand. When I returned in 1989 after schooling in Kalimpong and Calcutta, finding vegetarian food at a Newar bhoj, or feast, was as difficult as in the steakhouses of Texas. Sweetmeats would be piled on my plate as substitutes for all the dishes that were either prepared of meat or meat sauce, or cooked in animal fat.
So, I started eating a few dishes in which the meat was well altered, such as the ubiquitous momos or tender barbeques. When asked whether I was a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, I would answer that I was a ‘non-bone-etarian’, which meant that I ate anything that did not have the look of meat, and did not come with spare parts such as bone, fat or thick – and I mean thick – skin.
In Kalimpong, we had grown up as vegetarians partly because, as Shakyas, we were perceived to be practicing Buddhists. In my ancestral town of Patan in the Kathmandu Valley, however, one could not be both a Shakya and a vegetarian. My desire to learn and understand the vast range of Newari cuisine thus led me to remain a ‘non-bone-etarian’ until I learned enough to cook for myself, without necessarily having to taste.
The questions one is asked with regard to vegetarianism in Nepal are not about religion, but rather about how one substitutes for protein intake. Vegetarianism in Nepal is associated with deficiencies in diet and, therefore, health. Many of my cousin-sisters who had been adamant about not eating meat gave in to family pressures and started to do so during pregnancy. When my Gujarati wife – a Jain, and thus a vegetarian as a matter of faith – proceeded to bear and nurse a child without touching meat, some of my relatives thought that we were in for serious health troubles.
Even highly educated, widely traveled Nepalis join many Americans and Europeans in asking about protein supplementation. In contrast to a Hindu-dominated India, where that religion has a strong vegetarian association, in the erstwhile Hindu Kingdom it was until recently difficult to maintain a Hindu identity by being vegetarian. The worship of Shakti in Nepal and Northeast India made animal sacrifice – and therefore meat-eating – an integral part of life, particularly during festival times. The same Shakti, reflected more as Amba in North India, requires one to be vegetarian during the 10-day Dushera festival. In South India, on the other hand, where vegetarianism is usually directly related to faith, animal sacrifice has been substituted with the breaking of coconuts painted with faces. This brings up the perhaps controversial question as to the correlation between animal sacrifice and education.
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.