- Being vegetarian in Pakistan can be an utterly alientating experience
I’ll start with an anecdote that should seem unusual, but isn’t. It’s happened several times.
Going through the ‘Salads’ section of any major restaurant’s menu, I’ve learned to not be surprised at the presence of meat in every salad. Chicken Caesar salad. Thai beef salad. When meat isn’t in the name of the salad, it’s certainly there in the fine-print description underneath. A few days I asked my server if the chef can prepare a salad without meat. “No meat, just chicken?” he asked. No, not even chicken. My poor server did not have a script for people who stubbornly refuse to partake in any and all animal flesh.
And neither do most of my friends and relatives. When I ask my host for a vegetarian option, I get a confused look that asks why I’m even there. In Pakistan, a ‘dawat’ doesn’t begin until a chicken clucks its final cluck. A butcher’s counter is the altar of good times. What’s the point of an ‘outing’ if you’re eating nothing but veggies?
Pakistan is no stranger to wholesome vegetable-based foods. In many parts of Pakistan, one can conceive biryani without meat but never without potato. Who hasn’t enjoyed a homely fiesta of daal maash and chapati, or the mouth-watering delight that is saag with makai ki roti? Who hasn’t over-indulged in rajhma-chawal as the ultimate comfort food, or had chickpea palau with a side of mixed achar. Who hasn’t torn bits of fresh naan on his drive back home from the tandoor, not complaining about the lack of meat?
The hardest part is being constantly made to apologize for one’s environmental or moral values. I’m sorry, I just don’t want to hurt animals to put food on my plate. I’m sorry if you feel like I’m judging you. Yes, I’m aware of the potential health problems that can be caused if I’m not careful with my meal plans. No, I’m not doing this for attention. Are you ‘seeking attention’ when you ask for halal food at a restaurant abroad? If I’m willing to respect your religious values, why must I be made to explain my own values and conscientious food choices? I don’t quite feel like I need to
All of our scrumptious delights from maithi aalu to daal chawal are utterly irresistible until you put the ‘vegetarian’ label on them. The moment you do, these foods lose their desi wholesomeness and begin to taste like a foreign conspiracy. ‘Vegetarian’, as in Hindu? Or ‘vegetarian’ as in the egregious Western trend that’s turning our Muslim children into protein-deprived, animal-loving cowards who wince at the sight of a goat bleeding to death on our front porch? We’re all in for a family-sized platter of delicious parathas and aalu anday, but what’s this unearthly ‘vegetarian’ nonsense that these out-of-touch liberals keep whimpering about?
The association of meat-eating with ‘masculinity’ was inevitable. Men aren’t men until they’ve killed something. What’s manhood without a bit of blood, torment, and sacrifice? Oh, and not a sacrifice of one’s own, but of some unsuspecting gentle beast minding its own business in the meadow. A man needs his big and juicy steak, never mind a wealth of vitamin and minerals that come exclusively from vegetables and fruits.
It’s just nature, you see. As if slaughterhouses and supermarkets sprung naturally from the earth to supply an environment-destroying overabundance of animal flesh, a massive chunk of which will expire unconsumed. As if those same supermarkets don’t also supply a cornucopia of fresh fruits, vegetables, and vegetable-based foods capable of fulfilling all our nutritional needs. I suppose I’ll just forward my complaints and grievances to Ms Nature then? Nature made no comment when humans began defying gravity to fly through the air at 900 kilometers per hour; but human innovation just surrenders and flat-lines before our craving for fried chicken, doesn’t it?
“But what about your health?” is what me and my medical degree are both tired of hearing. What is it about my chicken-less Greek salad that makes meat-eaters see morbidity and death? There’s no vitamin, mineral, or essential amino acid that you cannot find in fruits and vegetables, considering that you’re consuming a healthy variety and not living on canned mushrooms alone for six months. Yes, improper consumption carries the risk of anemia and poor musculoskeletal development, but vegetarians don’t need to be constantly told about them. When I see a person eating chicken karahi at a wedding, I don’t rush to him on the risk of salmonella. Why would you assume that your vegetarian friend is always two finger-breadths away from a fatal nutritional deficiency? About 38 percent of the India’s 1.3 billion population is vegetarian, mostly by choice, and nature doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge against their ‘omnivorous’ existence. Somehow, they find a way to live and grow in numbers.
Being vegetarian in Pakistan can be an utterly alienating experience. While hanging out with non-vegetarian friends at homes and restaurants, I often feel like I’m eating ‘alongside’ them and not ‘with’ them. Even when vegetarian options are available (cucumber salad and water don’t count), it’s always a bit uneasy watching others sharing platters and handis, while I eat from my own separate pot of mixed vegetables.
The hardest part is being constantly made to apologize for one’s environmental or moral values. I’m sorry, I just don’t want to hurt animals to put food on my plate. I’m sorry if you feel like I’m judging you. Yes, I’m aware of the potential health problems that can be caused if I’m not careful with my meal plans. No, I’m not doing this for attention. Are you ‘seeking attention’ when you ask for halal food at a restaurant abroad? If I’m willing to respect your religious values, why must I be made to explain my own values and conscientious food choices? I don’t quite feel like I need to.