Vegetarian living, sort of

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I must speak the truth. I’ve been to both Lahore and Karachi and greatly enjoyed the food but – I’m sorry – you Pakistanis don’t know the sophistication of vegetarian cooking. Please don’t be offended. Let me explain, but I can’t do that without talking of my mother.

The aroma of rajma chawal – kidney beans softened in tomato-onion gravy and served with plain boiled rice – always reminds me of maa’s warm, rough hands. The air in her kitchen dances in mild excitement every time she prepares kela ka kofta – salted dumplings made from grated raw bananas, deep-fried with chickpea batter, and cooked in a tamarind-flavored broth. Maa’s famed makhana ki kheer – lotus seeds simmered in thickened milk – is a dessert that she condescends to make only if someone in the family is feeling sad.

But my mother does not cook cows. A god-fearing Hindu, she considers the bovine beings as mother incarnates. The thinking is: just as we suckled our mother’s breasts for nourishment in infancy, we depend on these cows for milk in our later years. Therefore many of us recoil with horror when fellow humans slaughter their “mothers” to feast on beef steaks.

Besides cow meat, Maa’s kitchen does not admit chickens, goats, crabs, fish, or even an egg. A stern vegetarian, she carries her prejudices to an unreasonable extent, which makes it difficult for her to dine in restaurants offering animals on their menu.

Maa’s baingan ka chokha is legendary among our relatives and demands a nightlong vigil. Whole eggplants are laid out on a bed of glowing coals and turned regularly till the smooth blue skin is charred to reddish-brown flakes while the inner flesh has grown mushy and smells of ash. The dish’s creator has never tasted her greatest delicacy. The eggplant somehow reminds maa of the back of a live chicken in mid-jump!

When I am reading old copies of America’s Saveur magazine and come across evocative descriptions of an oyster meal in Greek islands, or encounter a fine recipe for making the perfect ham, there is a fleeting pang of helplessness. As long as I live with maa, these printed words would never translate into interesting culinary experiences of trials and errors. I could never try them in maa’s kitchen.

There are occasions when I am weighed down by repressed desires, as if being denied the everyday pleasures of life. To add to the frustration, one of maa’s abiding legacies has been an involuntary impulse in my subconscious to associate eating non-vegetarian food with immorality. On every opportunity of temporarily satisfying my lust for spiced flesh, I am tugged by guilt as if maa has been betrayed.

Sometimes I crave freedom from the tyranny of her kitchen.

Meanwhile, maa has started showing signs of ageing. My memories of her younger days are gradually fading, but I can still recollect the times when she would stop talking to father for days. Invariably, the reason would be the discovery that he had happily indulged on a chicken curry – secretly – with friends. For maa, this was as lecherous as spending night with a dancing girl.

Following the uncovering of such infidelities, the house would sink in gloom. Maa retired to the bedroom, father became irritable, while the servant would prepare indifferent meals. But now maa has grown more resigned. No such censure awaits me. She has accepted that her dictates are powerless outside the home, and that she could only love but not control her grownup children.

Maa’s fundamentalist attitude towards Hindu vegetarianism influences our social life, too. Unlike many middle-class Hindus, she has never betrayed any distaste towards Muslims. Neither has she kept separate teacups in the sideboard, nor she objects if we invite Muslim friends home. But maa will not eat in a Muslim home. She always looks for inoffensive ways to excuse herself from dinner invitations of Muslim acquaintances. It is beyond her to swallow the world’s tastiest vegetarian morsel if cooked in a pot that possibly had a goat boiling in it the other day.

But it is important to visit these friends during festivals like Eid-ul-Fitr. On such occasions, our considerate hosts serve store-bought raisins or cookies to mother, indiscreetly hinting that the savories have nothing to do with their kitchen and that it was okay to nibble on them.

These gestures always make maa comfortable, and it was in one of these hospitable homes that she met her dearest friend – a Muslim lady whom she never fails to praise as “a hardcore Mussalmaan who prays five times a day but so good that she has never ever touched non-veg food!”

In 2006, I visited Pakistan for the first time. It was a culinary eye-opener. I had egg parathas with chicken pickles for breakfast, curried partridges at lunchtime, kofta kari – ground beef balls stuffed with almonds – at dinner buffets, and wok-fried goat’s testicles in Heera Mandi!

But I did not regret returning home. All those delectable cows, lambs and birds could not stop me from yearning for the calm pleasures of maa’s arhar ki daal – yellow lentils boiled in lightly spiced water and flavored with a pinch of crackling fennel seeds.

Ping me if you ever get a visa to Delhi. I’ll invite you to maa’s kitchen. Then you will realise what a true homely vegetarian food is like.

 

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. What about chicken taste in india…………………………..
    Sorry to say ………..they don't know how to cook nonvegetairian dishes………….
    For Instant…… if india has develop taste in vegetarion stuff becuase of their values ……..same in case of pakistan, they have rich in taste in their chicken dishes………………

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