Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Memoirs – Confessions of a Grass Eater
Living a vegetarian life in Lahore.
[Text by Maryam Arif; picture by Asad K]
Lahoris are often offended when you tell them you are a vegetarian. It is an insult to their intelligence. How can anyone voluntarily give up the meat delicacies that constitute our cuisine? Surely you must crave Mohammadi Nehari, Behari Kebab from Bundu Khan, Seekh Kebab, Siri Paye, Macchi of Mozang Chungi and the mouth-watering abundance of Food Street.
Many times people do not really comprehend what it means when you tell them you do not eat meat, and respond with, “So have chicken, at least.” Eggs I can understand, that I debate myself and settle for the arguments in favor of eating them, but chicken? (!) My befuddled expression is met with eye-rolling, sneers and all sorts of judging. Some look down on you from their meat-eating position of superiority, while others resent you for being snobbish, elitist or just plain weird.
Being vegetarian in Pakistan is highly suspect, Indian-like; even though most Indians I know ask for beef kebabs first thing they come to Lahore. Yet in our minds vegetarian = Hindu = Indian = weak. The popular thinking is that meat gives us an edge over them grass-eaters across the border. Carnivores are stronger and taller; even light-complexioned than herbivores. Isn’t that so? It has to be (!) The ultimate argument is of course that healthy children, growing bones and intelligent minds need loads of animal protein and animal fat. That kidney beans and olive oil substitute just fine I dare not say.
There is no way you can pass the “Why are you vegetarian?” test. When God has declared it okay to eat certain animals, how dare you refuse goat testicles, cow feet and buffalo brain? I give my ten-minute spiel about animal rights, health consciousness, environment-friendly practices, greed versus need, cost-benefit analysis, simplicity, self-restraint, feelings of guilt, anger and shame over economic disparities. All my arguments meet with the ultimate roadblock: “O yaar, but it tastes too good!” So does boiled rice with daal – not without the fried fish. Aaloo Raita? – only with Chicken Pulao. How about pakoras? – tikkas are better! Wadyasaytathat??!!! (What do you say to that?)
Pakistanis never learn to love their vegetables. Greens are usually seen to be a curse, a last-resort, an enemy. Khichri (rice and daal mixture) for example is only for when you have an upset stomach. Karelas are for the diabetic grandparents. Children are fed concoctions of peas, carrots and potatoes with methi leaves thrown in throughout winter because those are the only vegetables in season. Of course veggies are not worth mom’s creative innovation in the kitchen.
We take for granted the simple pleasures of life that are so rare to find in other parts of the world – Saag and Makki ki roti, Aaloo Gobhi, Baingan ka Bharta, Missi Roti, Kachnar, Puri Channa, Fried Bhindi, Aaloo ke Paratha, Til Wala Naan, Parathas with achar and the list goes on.
Since meat is valued far more highly than any vegetable, as a guest be prepared to be served with massive quantities of Desi Kukar (murgha) in Punjab, Sajji (roasted meat cooked in a special way) in Balochistan, Chapli Kebab in N.W.F.P. and Chicken Biryani in Sindh. The fact is if you are vegetarian, you are pretty much a social outcast. So you may as well throw away those wedding invitations, and stop going to those dinner parties. You’re just going to be a source of annoyance to your hosts. Even staples like rice and bread are usually meat-infested – Keemay Wala Naan and a dozen varieties of biryani and pulaos.
While Pakistanis are a little suspicious of those who prefer leaves over goats, they remain friendly and hospitable. While Korma, Achar Gosht and Degi Chargha (another word for chicken – that tells you a lot!) are a part of the Pakistani experience, they are, I like to think, not a central part of our identity, not the defining element at any rate. It is possible to be Pakistani and vegetarian. It is a tough struggle, but so is life.