“Venkatesh, you order. I’ll wait and see what you get and then I’ll order,” says my dad’s closest friend – the gentleman we knew as Shankaraiah maama (uncle).
So my dad picks up the menu – incomprehensible foreign language and jabs his finger somewhere at the middle of the menu. Both friends sit back and wait to see what his luck is going to be, jabbering away excitedly.
For both of them, it’s their first trip abroad. The year is 1969 and they’ve been chosen from a bunch of engineers at the electricity board that they work for to go to France on a two-year training programme. The first three months of the programme is to be spent learning French and the rest of it on technical stuff as they continue to learn French. My dad is a natural polyglot – his dad spoke fourteen languages – and he picks up French easily and naturally – remaining a fluent speaker all his life.
This, however, is their first day in Paris, first day out of the India and in fact, their first day out of the south of India! There is no French anywhere in their background.
For two very strict vegetarians, two years in Europe is a daunting prospect and so, my dad, on the flight out, decides that whatever his strict Madhwa upbringing might have been, he’s going to eat whatever he needs to, to stay alive in a Europe which has not yet heard of vegetarianism! Shankaraiah maama, on the other hand, is much more squeamish and decides that he will stay vegetarian, come what may… therefore the guinea pig at the restaurant on their first day is my dad.
Some twenty minutes later, the waiter rolls up with his order… beefsteak… done rare, very rare… in fact, any rarer and a vet would have soon set the cow on its feet! With streaks of fat and blood still showing… Shankaraiah maama takes one look at it and scrambles out of the restaurant, pale with shock!
My dad blanches but having told himself he would survive this country, he digs in his fork and manages to cut and masticate a mouthful… and somehow to finish most of his meal.
On the way back to the ‘pension’ where they are staying, dad passes a market, manages to buy some rice and a couple of vegetables using sign language and goes back home to cook a meal for his friend, who is still prostrate with shock! The meal even includes a lemon pickle! For a Telugu, far from home in not just a geographical sense, the pickle soon revives his spirits…
For the rest of their two years, Dad manages to eat whatever is available and his friend whatever vegetarian fare he can forage!
Travel anywhere is India for a vegetarian is not a problem, even in areas like the North East, where the diet is primarily meat-based because the concept of vegetarianism as Indians know it, with all its taboos is understood. Outside India, people are quite likely to offer to just remove the pieces of chicken or whatever fish, fowl or flesh are mixed up in the dish and serve it to you plain!
Just like how there are variations of some dishes all over India – like a dal in in zillion avatars or a kadhi (buttermilk-based gravy) which almost every state and indeed, every community in India makes a variation of!
Just now, travelling in the Himalayas, we came across this very simple and very delicious kadhi, guaranteed to set even motion-sick tummies like mine right! Right outside the temple complex of Jageshwar, in a tiny little joint called “Om Restaurant” – a barely 100 foot square little place perched at the edge of the road, with two tiny tables capable of accommodating ten people altogether if you almost sit on each other’s laps (!), a hospitable soul called Puran Chandra Bhat presides over some dozen large pots and pans and churns out the most amazing rotis, dals, subzis, rice and kadhi! (see pics)
- · Buttermilk – 200 ml
- · Besan/chickpea flour/senaga pindi/kadalemaavu – 100 gm
- · Turmeric – ½ tsp
- · Cumin seeds – jeera – ½ tsp
- · Caraway seeds/ajwain/omam – ½ tsp
- · Green chilies – slit – 2
- · Red chili powder – ½ tsp
- · Oil – mustard or vegetable – 2 tsp
- · Salt
Churn the butter milk, salt , turmeric and besan together till smooth. Heat on a low flame stirring constantly till it reaches boiling point. Do not increase heat at any stage as the gravy will curdle and become grainy.
Heat the oil in a separate small saucepan and add the cumin and ajwain. Add the green chilies and fry for a few seconds. Add the red chili powder and immediately pour over the gravy. Serve with plain rice and a vegetable on the side.
Here’s a dish worthy of Shankaraiah maama’s determined vegetarianism and my dad’s equally determined ‘adjustibility’!