Saturday, September 6, 2008



In Indian history the caste system defined who ate meat and who did not. The Brahmins...the highest on the scale, and those who dedicated their lives to learning of the Vedas and Sanskrit prayers and the practice of religious rituals and ceremonies were the only ones allowed into the inner sanctuary of the temples. They didn't eat meat,fish,eggs, onions and garlic.
They maintained great cleanliness and believed that even the shadow of an untouchable defiled them and they had to bathe again at the very least, to get rid of the taint.
They were vegetarians.
The Hindu vegetarian has always included milk and milk products in their diet. Milk is used in temples to bathe the deities, from time immemorial.
Cows were worshipped as sacred for the milk they gave.
The other three castes: the Kshatriyas or warrior class, the Vaishyas or business class and the Sudras or untouchables, all ate meat,fish, eggs...but not beef.
These were the non-vegetarians.
The last three classes all observed special festival days, dedicated to the various Gods, when only vegetarian food was eaten. Most families also had one day a week, when they did not eat meat.
30 years ago when I came to the States as a bride, we were among those who did not eat meat on Saturday.
The first time America friends invited us to dinner was on a Saturday. As it is the responsibility of the invited to mention any special dietary needs, I told our American hostess we didn't eat meat on Saturday for religious reasons. My statement was followed by a shocked silence.
Then she said in an anguished voice, "If I make four salads will that be okay? I don't cook vegetables."
I persuaded her that one salad would be more than enough but she wasn't happy about it till I offered to bring a vegetable dish.
In those days, those who did cook vegetables, often poured in chicken/meat stock to do so. Salads were sprinkled with bacon and if we didn't ask what the base of our vegetable soup was in a restaurant, we often had beef stock.
We met many happy Hindus who had started eating beef when they came here as they wanted to fit in. As one friend told me very seriously, "These are American cows we are eating...only the Hindu cows are sacred." It took me a whole week to stop laughing over that one.
Another American told me, "You don't have to eat the chicken. If you eat the curry...that's vegetarian, isn't it?"
While we changed almost every other thing, including being non-vegetarian on Saturdays;America's party night, we still don't eat beef...
Not knowingly that is...
We didn't know that McDonald's French Fries were fried in beef/animal fat and heartily ate those for years every chance we our ignorance we offered them to all the strictest vegetarians who visited us from India. They enjoyed them tremendously. Later when the fat controversy made this fact public, we mentally apologized to everyone over and over again for this MAJOR religious affront. Of course we dared not do it in person as it would have made the spiritual load for all these good relatives very heavy.
For years we made and offered everyone gulab jamuns made of wasn't till my mother came here at 75 and started reading the fine print on every container and can that we realized our delicious gulab jamuns had beef fat in the Bisquick. even today many cans that claim to be Vegetarian Refried beans have beef fat in them.

People are much more aware of what a vegetarian is these days in the USA. Now there are vegans, ovo-lacto vegetarians and many other kinds.
Growing up in India in an Army family, we automatically provided for vegetarians and non-vegetarians at every dinner party. At official Mess parties there would be separate tables for these two categories. Chicken and lamb and eggs were what was served most commonly. Pork was unclean for the Muslims and beef for the Hindus so these two were not served on these occasions.
At first, here in the US, I was a little taken aback at first by the lack of vegetarian fare on restaurant menus...that has changed in the last five years.
On the personal front every one seems to have one kind of vegetarian in the family.
There is less fuss if a vegetarian is coming to dinner, but I still get comments like, "But I don't do vegetables", or when I say I do eat meat and fish, "But aren't all Indians vegetarians?"
If you get the former remark, just offer to take a dish along. If you are the latter group who don't do vegetables (and I don't think there are many who are in that category these days), just remember a vegetable pizza or lasagna with a salad is great meal for a vegetarian not a vegan. If you are still perplexed , suggest a restaurant where everyone can get their own food. The main thing is to enjoy the get together without fussing that makes the guest feel guilty about their lifestyle choices.
If all else fails, ask them over for dessert and coffee...most vegetarians do eat desserts that have eggs in them now.

The main thing about a Hindu vegetarian is to remember that for religious reasons it is important and courteous not to mix the food you are making for them with any non vegetarian food.
I cringe when I see a pizza maker using his hand to place a meat topping on a pizza and then the same hand, unwashed, picks up the vegetables for a vegetarian.
We have some ways to go to understanding the Hindu vegetarian better but we've come a long way from French Fries done in beef fat.

Subhash stopped by the blog to leave a comment and remind me of GELATIN...another thing we didn't understand the composition of, for a number of years.
According to Wikipedia: 'Gelatin is a protein produced by partial hydrolysis of collagen extracted from the bones, connective tissues, organs, and some intestines of animals such as the domesticated cattle, and horses.'
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group: "Kosher gelatin can be made with fish bones, and/or beef skins. Contrary to assumptions, it is also considered kosher to use it with dairy products. Kosher law is very complex and the bones and hides used in gelatin production are considered pareve. The general meaning of pareve refers to foods that are neither milk nor meat, and many people assume this means that the product is vegetarian. However, OU pareve certified ingredients can have animal products, such as fish, eggs, and gelatin, in them."
Unfortunately some yogurts, Skittles, Starburst and Milky Way Bars also contain gelatin so the Hindu Vegetarian would need to read labels carefully!
Vegetarian gelatin is made from agar-agar. China Grass can also be used as a setting agent similar to gelatin. It is derived from seaweed.

Thanks to Subhash's reminder, I added Gelatin to this topic.


Cynthia said...

Thank you for this article. Very educational.

Subhash said...

I realized this only after coming to US. Chicken stock is used in veg soup and fried rice. So i stopped eating in restaurants other than Indian

Rennet is a product used in cheese make out of young calves stomach. Stopped eating cheese and pizza outside. Dont eat in Italian restaurants.

I dont know how much more i am going to find out after reading your article. Oh yes, I never used canned beans or Bisquick. I too read the fine print, and prefer to go to Trader Joes to get stuff. I am PURE VEGETARIAN.

Thank you so much Geeta didi.

JagHimamshu said...

Thanks a lot for the recipe!! I'm going to try it out soon. I keep running out of the gulab jamoon mix anyway.

The article was quiet interesting. I haven't ever bothered about these details as I've always been a non-vegetarian and I come from a very non-traditional family.

Judi said...

Thank you so much for the details! I'm American and have invited a lovely Indian (Hindu veg) family for lunch next weekend. I want them to feel welcome and at home. :)