Take a guess, what percentage of India is vegetarian? If you answered, 70% or more — congratulations, you are in the majority: but you are HOPELESSLY WRONG! Only about 31% of India’s population is vegetarian. Surely, we must be wrong? Did we not include the people of Tamil Nadu who supposedly eat only Idli, Dosai and Vadai with Sambaar? We did, but only 10 – 12% of the Tamils are vegetarians. Neighbours Andhra and Telangana are even less vegetarian: not even 2%. The only states that have more than 70% vegetarians are Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat. And despite these statistics, India has the world’s largest vegetarian population. Our nearest competitor is Israel, with 13%!
So really, who is a vegetarian? Our statistic of 31% includes all those who eat plant and dairy products but not meat and fish. But there is a happy bunch called “eggetarians” — they eat everything that vegetarians eat, plus poultry eggs. Forget what the purists say, the eggetarians consider themselves vegetarians. If you buy their argument, India is 40 % vegetarian (that’s a whopping 530 million)! The problem is that a whole lot of guys don’t agree that eggs are vegetarian. The Indian Vegetarian Congress clashed with the International Vegetarian Union in 2012, because the London-based International body classified eggs as vegetarian. How dare they, when we have all the vegetarians with us? The nerve!
That’s not all. Some poultry farmers sell something called a vegetarian egg. Their point is that their hens are not fed fish-meal or animal-feed, but soya meal. So how could a vegetarian hen lay non-vegetarian eggs? Touché! Scientists too jumped into the fray. Most eggs sold by poultry companies are unfertilised ones: they have no embryo that may one day become a chicken. They asked: well, where is the animal here? If a vegetarian can consume milk and dairy products — clearly animal-based substances — then logically, unfertilised eggs are vegetarian!
And then, there is a class of people called Vegans, who swear that dairy is non-vegetarian. But most Indians wisely ignore such extremists. After all, did not Mahatma Gandhi consume goat-milk? And all Indians know that the apostle of non-violence was a vegetarian!
In India, Vegetarianism is often influenced by religious belief. Since Buddha preached non-violence towards all living creatures, all Buddhists must be vegetarian, yes? No, most Buddhists are non-vegetarians. They say, as long as the animal on your table was not killed at your behest, go ahead and eat it. There are other exceptions: about 3% of Muslims are vegetarians by choice. One counter-intuitive study says that a significant number of Sikhs are vegetarians! On the other hand, Jains consider Onions & Garlic as non-vegetarian food, because, harvesting “kills” the plant. Brahmins, the priestly class, are usually vegetarians. The operative word here is: “usually”. Bengali Brahmins are allowed to eat river fish because it is technically “Ganga Phool” — or flower of the river Ganga. And flowers, as we all know, are vegetarian, right? Saraswat Brahmins of the Konkan coast love their sea-food. In their lingo, fish are “Jal-Kaai” (water-vegetable) and oysters are “Samudra-Phalam” (Sea-Fruit). But the Kashmiri Brahmins are the kindest. They eat most animals without calling them names!
Then, there are the “exceptional” vegetarians. Some Hindus would not eat meat on Tuesdays or Saturdays; some would eat meat outside, but not cook it at home. Many Christians avoid meat during Lent. And there are some “vegetarians” who gobble up spicy chicken curry when no one is watching! They are the “Flexitarians”!
To learn more about Indian food, and the customs and history around it, take our Bazaar trail through the vegetable and flower markets of North Chennai. You can also find out more about Indian food and cooking on our Spice trail in Chennai and Madurai.