How India Taught Me I Could Be a Vegetarian
On a sunset camel safari deep in the northern deserts of India, I found myself peeling potatoes and splitting peas as I shared a conversation with Kheta our desert guide. On a simple bed of coals he produced a meal of vegetable pakora, chapati, and bushman bread. Although the food was basic, the moment itself was more complex than that. We ate with our bare hands squatting around a fire as our guides beat on the drum and sang songs passed down through generations. An intimate experience, facilitated by food.
I found myself at a crossroads in India. A self-professed carnivore, I consume meat as often as allows and then some. Travel only increases this desire with the irresistible lure of cheap and tasty street food. A fresh kabob cooking over the glow of hot coals in a dingy alley somewhere in the third world is my idea of fine dining. However, with the majority of India embracing vegetarianism and wanting to connect closer with the culture, I embarked upon a vegetarian journey of my own.
I ordered blindly at first, often uncertain of what would emerge on my plate, but curious about this new vegetarian world. Food is its own language and with each new dish I tried I became more fluent. I avoided the websites and books for recommendations and instead walked around each new town in search for a place brimming with locals.
More often than not this led me to a shack with dirty walls and floors, where a sheet serves as a door to the kitchen and flaps wildly exposing the sweaty chef cooking in a dimly lit and unventilated room the size of a closet. Unlike the tourist restaurants nothing here is catered or doctored to western palates, you are given full access to the authentic tastes of India.
Sometimes I found myself simply pointing at what someone else was having. Other times, I would ask the server for a recommendation. More than not, I would point to something on the menu that I had never had before. The bottom line is that I was seldom disappointed. The variation and combination of different dishes kept me more than satisfied for over two months as I explored the boundaries of Indian cuisine daily.
One of the first dishes I tasted upon arriving in India was chana masala. Distinctively Indian, yet not too foreign to my taste buds. It was a perfect introduction. If you’re looking to mix it up without scaring off the kids or the guests, try this simplified version of the Indian favorite. While you’re waiting, serve up some vegetable pakora for a light and easy-to-make snack. Enjoy!