OPINION

The Philosophy of Indian Food - You Are What You Eat

July 29, 2007
Deepa Krishnan

I was in Manchester last week, at the Old Trafford Stadium, for a conference. At lunch, the tables were groaning with food from Spain, France and the UK. There was also a very popular Indian counter, serving rice and curry.

I wanted to try some of the European cuisines on offer, so I walked around with my plate, looking for something vegetarian. I found zilch. Everything looked great, but had some sort of meat or fish or fowl in it. The closest I could find was a Spanish frittata -  a rich scrumptious looking thing made of potatoes, eggs and cheese, nicely browned and just begging to be eaten.

I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to eat Indian, so I got some of the Spanish thingy on my plate, scraped the egg off, and carted it off to my table along with some perfectly tasteless green salad. At my table were Wendy and Anna, both tucking away into Indian curry. Wendy is English, and Anna is German.

The conversation turned to vegetarianism.

'So, is it a religious thing with you, Deepa?', said Wendy.

'Not really', I said. 'I was born vegetarian, and I've just stayed that way.'

I should have shut my mouth then, and the conversation would have ended, but no, I had to play the culture card.

I grinned and said, 'Besides, its taken me several births to get here. Why regress?'

Anna turned to me. 'Sorry, what was that?'

So I set off on a long discussion about the cycle of rebirth, of progressing from the animal to the divine, and how food plays a part in the journey towards spiritual awakening. We talked of the ascetic food habits of Buddhist and Hindu monks, about the traditional classification of food in ayurveda, taboos and symbolism, and all the little things that make food such an important part of Indian culture.

At the end of the chat, Anna gestured at her rice-and-curry and said, 'You know what, Deepa? In the UK we walk into Indian restaurants all the time, and we eat so much Indian food - but we know nothing about the entire philosophy behind food.'

I smiled and agreed with her, but I thought to myself - it's not that different in India.

The concept that eating simple food is a way to progress spiritually has been lost in the strident holier-than-thou claims of vegetarians. There seems to be, within each little community, an excessive petty focus on establishing purity and superiority over other communities based on food habits. I know many people who will not accept food or even water from the hands of 'lower' castes.

The idea of food as an inner guiding principle, as a personal living choice, is dead.

We've reduced our great philosophies as usual, to superstition and ritual.

Deepa Krishnan has a consulting practice in banking technology. She owns Mumbai Magic and Delhi Magic, companies that offer insightful, off-beat city tours.
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#1
A. S. Mathew
July 29, 2007
04:06 PM

The food we eat play a key role in our health,
relaxation, energy level, sleep and total comfort. St. Paul said in the Bible " we must
eat to live, not to live to eat". In the western
countries, overeating a serious problem and a lot
of diseases are created by the misuse of food. And the American fast food companies are exporting their products to the developing countries like India and promoting sickness of the affluent people. When I changed from a heavy
meal of rice and meat for supper to a light meal of vegetables or soup, I got a good and relaxing
sleep. As we get older, it is better to eat less
and the meal must be lighter, also with more fruits and vegetables. Indeed, food play a key
role, both mentally and physically. Some Indian
food can't be very healthy for regular consumption because of the high level of fat and starch in the food.

#2
Deepa Krishnan
URL
July 29, 2007
09:34 PM

Oh please, let's not bash the 'West' for our problems. We have had fat people on a ghee-rich diet before burgers ever came to India. It is poverty that keeps the one billion thin.

#3
Amrita
URL
July 30, 2007
12:19 AM

Well add me to the list that never really thought of the philosophy of food - mostly because in the people I know said philosophy means something completely annoying like vegan and stuff (sorry vegans, i like you as people but your philosophy annoys me esp when I have to 'cook' for you).

You are what you eat eh? Thank god i'm not what i like the best!

#4
Dev
July 30, 2007
02:09 AM

I find the topic philosophy of food very fascinating and have been intrigued by it for a while. I think we would benefit if you could do a more detailed post on the history and philosophy especially wrt Hinduism.

Devasis

#5
Deepa Krishnan
URL
July 30, 2007
08:24 AM

I ate a Mediterranean meal today that was a) vegetarian b) non-spicy c) non-fried. I'm feeling very very pious.

#6
Amrita
URL
July 30, 2007
11:02 AM

Ahahaha - Deepa ate a salad :D

#7
Deepa Krishnan
URL
July 30, 2007
11:30 AM

Did not too!

I ate the following:

1) Toasted bagel with cream cheese and a tapenade of sundried tomatoes and olives.

2) Lavash with hummus

3) Chocolate chip cookie

Hah! So there.

#8
A. S. Mathew
July 30, 2007
06:29 PM

Deepa Krishnan, I did't bash the western food because I have lived in the west, getting closer to four decades. When I was in Delhi, I was surprised to see the long queue in front of hamburger joints to buy burgers. Now the trend in India is to eat Westrn food which is not good at all for regular use because of the fat and other preservatives used. If the poor people ate them once in a while, it is good for them, but how they can buy a burger of moderate size because they don't make that much money in a day's work. I made the suggestion for the rich
people indulging in western food.

#9
Deepa Krishnan
URL
July 30, 2007
09:16 PM

All I'm saying, Mr. Mathew, is that our own fast food is hardly anything to write home about. Pav bhajis soaked in butter, deep-fried samosas and kachoris and bhajias and bondas - why focus on burgers? All cuisines offer healthy as well as unhealthy options.

#10
Aditi Nadkarni
URL
July 30, 2007
09:30 PM

Deepa #9: Not that I agree with Mr.Mathew completely here but I do think Desi fast-food (just fast-food) allows more healthier options than American foods which are laden with inconspicuous calories that creep up on you (fructose syrups, cheese, sugars. sour cream, oil in the dressing for seemingly healthy salads). And then if you want a healthier alternative, it is more expensive and takes quite a bit of hunting around if one is travelling within the US. I'd much rather prefer a chutney sandwich or a quick papdi chaat which is healthy and tasty. The samosas and kachoris can be baked and lots of veggie stuff is available. The paav bhaaji can be made without butter. In fact Jain paav bhaaji won't even have potatoes. There is so much variety. Dhoklas have plenty fibre and can be made without the tadka.

But a typical fastfood restaurant in the US will have only burgers (mostly meat/ fish, rarely veggie). The healthier you go the less the taste, the more the cost.

You are right: all cuisines offer healthier options but none as wide in variety as the Desi, I think :)

#11
Deepa Krishnan
URL
July 30, 2007
09:54 PM

I agree Aditi, with both you and Mr. Mathew, that burgers are unhealthy and that kids who eat them get fat. But I'm tired of the McDonalds-is-the-Devil brigade. Why can't we think of it as cross pollination of cuisines, instead of as a threat? This sort of cross-pollination has been a part of human history since ages. The green chilli is not Indian. Potatoes are not Indian. Heck, tomatoes are not Indian. We got those from the Portuguese and other traders. We've given curries and kebabs and pilaus and saffron and spices to the world. And now we've given McDonalds the Mc Aloo Tikki.

#12
Dev
July 31, 2007
12:19 AM

Want healthy and don't want to comprimise on taste try a smoked Hilsa a)non-vegetarian (High protein) b)permeated with the flavour of mustard c) loaded with omega 3 fatty acid, vitamin A&D
....Heavenly.

Devasis

#13
Amrita
URL
July 31, 2007
12:23 AM

Dev - hmmm, somebody's missing his mom :D

Deepa - I stand corrected! But um, chocolate chip cookie? You're giving yourself points for butterpalooza? And cream cheese?! It just ate up all the points you won for hummus and the bagel :P

#14
Aditi Nadkarni
July 31, 2007
12:42 AM

Deepa: Sorry. I guesss I was talking about American fastfood in terms of what is available within the US, not American fast-food in India. I have never had American fastfood when in India and hence your mention of Mc-Alu Tikki comes as a delightful news!

McDonald's probably isn't the devil, the devil is the lack of options in the US. Life in the Midwest is giving my tastebuds a slow, painful death!!! :(

I love to cook, really....I love standing over the stove watching curries simmer. Those spices, I swear they are therapeutic. But then there are days when I just wanna sit back and have something somebody else has made. And I don't want that somebody else to be McD.

Amrita: Don't say chocolate! WHAT ARE YOU DOING GIRL???Shush!!

Ok, I'm hungry...I knew this discussion would lead me to the kitchen eventually :D

#15
Uma
URL
July 31, 2007
01:29 AM

Amrita, what DO you like best? (Can you just whisper it in my ear! Might make me feel a little less lonely.)

God knows I've tried to be good and to simplify my food habits for years but it doesn't look like I'm going to succeed in this lifetime. What does that make me?

#16
Amrita
URL
July 31, 2007
02:33 AM

Aditi - just doing my bit for expanding waistlines around the world :P

Uma - my favorite food? its a delicate pink and says oink oink. heh heh. When Babe turns into bacon is when I like him best. (Yes, i went there!)

Oh, and pandering to your taste buds makes you... just like me! And everybody else for that matter except for vegans and those other people whose name I cant remember right now but won't eat fruit until it falls off the tree and stuff.

#17
Uma
URL
July 31, 2007
12:34 PM

Oink oink to you Amrita. Some time back in Goa I saw those cute as hell little creatures playing in the backyard of the house where I lived and swore off them forever but... (and I could kill myself for this) it never happened. I just had some delicious soup this evening made from leftover oink.

#18
smallsquirrel
July 31, 2007
02:08 PM

well you know how I feel, my love of bacon is listed prominently in my author profile. ;P

aditi... I dunno about your claim that no other cuisine offers as many options as indian, tho... true italian cuisine (not the shite in olive garden or found in other countries masquerading as "italian") is varied and offers many options, both veg and non, and is generally very healthy and balanced.

#19
cURRY
July 31, 2007
04:09 PM

ss, Thts utter rubbish!! Italian food has lot of nonveg into it while being cooked and the veg fare is usually just olives, bread and whts that one....bread with stuffed potato lucky without a bacon. Pls accept that Indian food has more to offer, come on let us have some pride in our food atleast...I hate this Italian attitude abt great fashion, cuisine and yet having bunch of arrogant lot of people!!

#20
Aditi Nadkarni
URL
July 31, 2007
05:18 PM

#19 curry: I beg to differ. I have worked with quite a few Italians and all were very warm and friendly people. Not arrogant at all.

SS: #18: I started my comment off by saying that I was refering to fastfood and food available in the US. One of my first primary investigators was an Italian woman and she would bring the most awesome Italian food (vegetarian too!) but I could never find any of that in even the small authentic looking Italian restaurants. Guess I just didn't know where to look.

Actually, after I wrote that comment, I also remembered Mediteranean food. Hummus and Pita?!! Yumm. I love Gyros and Lebanese food as well. So left that out too.

This discussion is not helping my cravings :D

#21
Ruvy in Jerusalem
July 31, 2007
07:13 PM

Deepa Krishnan wrote,

I ate a Mediterranean meal today that was a) vegetarian b) non-spicy c) non-fried. I'm feeling very very pious.

I ate the following:

1) Toasted bagel with cream cheese and a tapenade of sundried tomatoes and olives.

2) Lavash with hummus

3) Chocolate chip cookie


The next time I get to visit "Holy Bagel" in Jerusalem, I'm going to have to tell the proprietor that I have on solid authority from a Mumbai tour operator that good Jewish food is truly holy.

Keep on enjoying good Jewish food, Deepa. Wile I can't testify to how you'll advance spiritually, I can tell you that low fat cream cheese will not clog your arteries like the higher 28% to 30% fat stuff will...

#22
A. S. Mathew
August 1, 2007
10:03 AM

It is great to know that this topic has became an
interesting subject for debate. I know some of my north Indian friends got into health problems while they adhere to the north Indian local diet
which was full of ghee. Whether we make at home or buy from the fast food, if we won't watch, we will be consuming too much of fat and poisonous
preservatives. For the fast food industry, it
does't matter whether it is Indian or American,
their motive is to make profit and to have a
regular stream of repeated customers in front of the cash registers; they will sell us tasty food and the tasty food will turn out to be deep
fried food. Health is wealth, so keep it safe and
preserve with great caution.

#23
Amrita
URL
August 1, 2007
12:14 PM

Uma - the bacon is a good part of the oink, it is! :) As for swearing off... well yeah, I can;t eat anything right off the hoof (and hey, I remember that post! The angsty kid with the blaring music) even chickens and I think they look sort of evil. But what comes in a nice lil package is a-okay by me.

SS and Aditi - i love italian! like, I LOVE Italian! Veg, Nonveg, I don't care. I'll eat it all. I'll even eat mussels if you serve it over pasta and I hate mussels.

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