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Ever craved a really vegetarian meal where there was no egg in the cake, no gelatin in the ice cream and no chicken seasoning in the vegetarian soup?
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Strict vegetarians cooking meat
Anthony Bourdain, who is famously dismissive of vegetarians, has said that he finds the practice acceptable only among Hindus for whom it's a matter of religious belief. Imagine how impressed he would be to know that there are strict vegetarians out there who suspend their preferences and beliefs to cook meat.
Some of the more well-known members of this small set include chef Suvir Saran, who owns Devi, a Michelin star Indian restaurant in New York, and cookbook writer Pratibha Karan, who has written books on the deeply carnivorous cuisine of Hyderabad. Most of them, however, seem to be women married to meat-eaters. After marriage, they take a brave plunge into the bloody, miasmic experience of cooking meat and fish, all for the love of their husbands and children.
Take Vranda Suvarna, a jewellery designer living in Mumbai who is Vaishnav by birth and married to a meat and fish-loving Manglorean. The first time she cooked meat was in 1979, when she was pregnant with her first child a year after getting married. Pregnancy is usually the season for queasy constitutions. But Suvarna decided it was the right time to show her family that she could hack non-veg. "They thought I wouldn't be able do it, " she said. "It was a challenge. I took the help of a neighbour. "
Suvarna said she has no trouble cooking, cleaning or cutting meat and fish. The only thing she can't do, apart from eat it, is touch it with her bare hands. She wears gloves. She's used to them now, but the gloves made handling meat awkward in the beginning, especially while cooking lubricous organs like brain. "It's soft so it would keep slipping from my hands, " she said.
For many vegetarian cooks, the tactile experience of handling meat and fish is unpalatable. Once they're cooking in the wok, it's easier to imagine pieces of meat and fish as just ingredients. But when it comes to activities like gutting or chopping, activities that require a closer involvement with the item, it's tough to imagine them as carrots or celery sticks.
Urvashi Agarwal, a 76-year-old homemaker from Delhi, began cooking after getting married in 1959. Since she enjoys cooking, she didn't mind preparing meat and fish for her husband and children. "When I was young I tried chicken, " Agarwal admitted. "But I never liked it. " She learnt how to cook non-vegetarian food from books and said she can make a mean rogan josh and butter chicken. What she can't do is cut and clean meat and fish. "I can't stand that, " she said. "The servants wash and cut. "
Preeti Sharma, a homemaker in New Jersey, said that when she began cooking meat for family and friends, she tried to be "dispassionate" about the ingredient. "But I couldn't bring myself to chop up the pieces, I still can't. I enlist the help of a non-veg person to handle that part. " Usually that person is her husband or any friend who happens to be in the vicinity. "The grocery store butchers (ugh) will chop it to size too, " she said. Seafood, however, still makes Sharma gag. "The key is not thinking about it too much and being dispassionate about it. I would never start eating anything with a nervous system but I can deal with cooking it for the non-veg folks in my life. "
While these cooks have brought themselves to cook meat and fish, they can't bring themselves to taste the end result. Not even a spot of gravy or a lick of masala off the side of the wok. How then do they know when an item is done?
For most, it's a matter of judgement. They've cooked for so long that they know exactly how much salt and spice to use. Sharma said that she watches out for signs of done-ness. Chicken will turn white and begin to thread, she pointed out, shrimp turns pink and thermometers can be used to tell when meats like lamb and pork are cooked.
Then there are those who've turned vegetarian and yet continue to cook meat and fish. Sherene Vakil, a journalist with Parsiana, turned vegetarian in 1973 when she was 28. "Before that I had eaten everything that moved short of humans, " she said. "One day at a meal, I don't know why, but I refused to eat (meat). I don't want to analyse why. I didn't feel happy about it. Then I said until such time I feel the desire, I'll abstain. I haven't eaten fish, or fowl or flesh since. "
She continues to cook poultry and fish for her husband, who has to have a portion every day for health reasons. But she did have to overcome an initial revulsion. "I don't get a thrill (out of cooking non-veg ) but I know it's good for my husband and family, " she said.
Meher Dasondi is the former head of the hotel administration and food technology department of Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. While she eats fish, she renounced meat about 17 years ago. "Because I had a cute little dog and I didn't want to eat any animals, " Dasondi said. "I eat fish maybe because fish don't look as cute. " Dasondi, who also used to run a restaurant called Indian Harvest in Chembur, couldn't afford to feel squeamish about cooking the stuff. "It was part of my job, " she said matter-of-factly. Does the proximity to meat ever tempt her to resume eating it, notwithstanding the memory of Sacha, the Lhasa Apso? "Occasionally I think of a piece of tandoori chicken, " she admitted. "But I've never been tempted to have a meal. "
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