Food on the plate

Food on the plate

My mother is a lifelong vegetarian. My father is a devout meat eater. He feels sinful if he goes without eating fish for two days. My sister, who is older to me by three years, avoided the confusion altogether and settled on being a 'vegetarian who also eats eggs'. I, like her, grew up being an 'eggetarian' and started eating chicken as a teenager.

My sister and I learnt to respect people's food choices early on. My family is obsessed with food... like every Indian household. At lunch, when my parents are down to their last morsel, they start planning dinner for the following day. If we are all left in a room for more than a few minutes, we gravitate towards meal planning. Food is a centrepiece in the emotional well-being of my family.

My mom and dad cooked together when we were growing up. They still do. The only thing my mom cooks that she doesn't eat, are eggs. She doesn't cook meat. My dad is a passionate foodie who goes to great lengths to cook a good meal.

I grew up learning our kitchen's operations and guidelines. Certain pans that were used to cook meat could not be used for vegetarian cooking and vice versa. Towels could not be mixed up. Some rules were strict. Others not so much. We struggled hard to keep separate dish scrubbers for meat and veg. Every new maid had to be instructed on what was what. But every once in a while the scrubbers would mix up and we would all jump in to argue whose fault it was—another food discussion, this time with the maid chiming in.

We weren't a perfect family. We had a special fondness for sniggering at other's dirty kitchens or their vegetables being uncooked in the curry or their odd combination of spices. This cheap thrill, we enjoyed. We would have a laugh only about how they cooked, never about what they cooked; somehow, the latter felt more inappropriate. One could argue that laughing at one was no better than the other.

By my teens I had discovered that vegetarian food and non-vegetarian were treated differently. "Why don't they also call it pure non-veg? Haha!" My dad would ask me, pointing to a 'pure-veg' restaurant, mighty pleased with his own joke. My mom would sometimes pause by the kitchen door and watch dad clean prawns. Whenever there were vegetarian visitors from my mother's family, my father would ensure that there was no meat—cooked or eaten—in the house, for the entire duration of their stay.

He would also went overboard with it. When my parents got their dream home in the early 2000s—a 800 sq. ft. two bedroom flat, that had an extra kitchen—my dad decided to retain the second kitchen... for cooking meat. Our tiny flat had two kitchens for years. It looked ridiculous. Guests were often left puzzled. My parents would look on with a self-congratulatory smile.

We ate every meal together, like a good Indian family. Dad placed his curries—mutton, fish or chicken—ever so slightly away from the vegetarian food. We would all find our way around the food and help ourselves. It was a delicate dance. There was dignity and liberty. But we didn't think of what political statements we were making, we just loved the idea of everyone having a good meal.