Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food, Glorious Food

(Written in Mumbai – February 5th)

I’ve long liked the idea of going vegetarian.  Well, in theory at least, as I have often lacked the discipline to actually do it.  I think it is a much more eco-friendly way to live, as livestock agriculture is often a blight, consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels and water, stripping the land of trees and plants that keep the soil together, creating waste that can be harmful to human health, and leading to health problems if over-consumed.  If everyone ate as much meat as North Americans do, there wouldn’t be enough land on the planet to produce it all.  Not to mention how unfriendly it is to the animals themselves — you can’t tell me that a veal calf or a battery hen has a very happy life.

Fish, often cited to me as the “green” alternative, isn’t necessarily any better, with many species fished to the brink of extinction and beyond, and other animals caught up in the maelstrom of commercial fishing practices.   Take, for example, long-line fishing, which catches unwary gulls and albatross who swoop down to steal morsels and end up getting dragged underwater and drowned.  And don’t even get me started on the collateral damage to dolphins from other fishing practices.

So I like the veggie idea.  I’m just not always very good at putting veg ideals into practice, when I get distracted by the lovely smell of bacon or something.  Here in India, though?  It’s a piece of cake.

Beef, of course, is off the menu in most of the country (although I hear it may show up occasionally in Goa), and bacon is nowhere to be seen.  You can get chicken or mutton, but I can live without either of those without any hardship, and I’m not a big fish-lover at the best of times.  Who needs any of that, anyway, when vegetables, beans, grains and rice can taste so darn good?  Spices are intoxicating and flavours satisfying without any hint of animal flesh involved.

I’ve had Indian food many times before, but I’m discovering new things here at the source that I didn’t know about previously.  Like dosas, crispy lenti-flour crepes stuffed with a variety of fillings, or thalis, sampler plates letting you taste a range of dishes.  Dal (lentil) is everywhere, as is aloo (potato), and vegetables of a thousand different varieties make it impossible to get bored.  Breads are made from many other things besides wheat (rice, lentil and gram flour too), and the range on offer from chapattis to rotis to paratha to naan is astounding. Add to that the fact that so many things are fried in ghee (clarified butter) and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for tasty vegetarian fare.

The beverages are interesting, too.  Oh, you can stick to boring old Coca-Cola if you like, but far better to enjoy a lassi (yoghurt drink, either salt or sweet) or a fresh lime soda.  If you fancy the harder stuff, try a cheap and cheerful Kingfisher beer or assault your palate with some strong Indian rum; there’s even Indian wine on offer, though I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to try it.  The only thing I hate is having to buy bottled water everywhere (talk about being unfriendly to the planet), but unfortunately it’s necessary; I’ll take my water without a side of e-coli, please.

Cheese is lacking, though.  The only kind on offer is paneer, a kind of cottage-cheese-y substance that I like about as much as I like cottage cheese (which is to say, not at all).  No peanut butter either; I don’t understand why so much of the world hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that squishing up peanuts creates a delightful spread.  They even grow peanuts here, it would be easy to produce.

As i get further south, beef may make an appearance (in Goa) and I hear that there’s an abundance of tasty seafood on offer in Kerala.  I’ll stick to the fish, though, if I have it at all (darn that pesky shellfish allergy).  

Or maybe I’ll just go veg, all the way.  It’s easy to do, here, even though the Scotsman and the Italian guy in my group look at me in horror when I say I haven’t eaten meat this trip (the Italian says that’s why I’m so white).  And the planet — and its animals — may thank me.  

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