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A dosa travels to China: The veg-non veg debate
Sidin Sunny Vadukut

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January 08, 2008

Shortly after I joined my first job, in a factory in Chennai, I was told to report to a manager in the engineering department for a period of six months. 

Apparently the ideas was that, as a graduate trainee, I would spend a few months in each department learning as I went along. At the end of a series of rotations for two years, if all went according to plan, I would absorb all the toils and exertions of automotive manufacturing and working in a factory, and immediately quit and join Infosys [Get Quote] where they had air-conditioning all the time and nothing large that drilled, welded or sawed. 

A few days into my first rotation, my manager was asked to visit Japan [Images] for a one-month training programme with a joint venture partner. As soon as the papers came through and the trip was confirmed, my manager immediately began hectic preparations for the journey. Since he only had 20 kilos of baggage allowance he had to be extremely frugal with his clothes, toiletries and other personal effect and limit them to seven kilos or so. 

The remaining 13 kilos was used to carry something that could determine his very survival in Japan. The success of his trip depended on this single commodity. Exactly. I am talking about readymade Set Dosas in tightly packed plastic bags. Chutney separate. (Business plan alert: vacuum-packed curd rice, tomato rasam and puliyodharai. Open an outlet in Chennai airport and do IPO within minutes.)

My manager was one of the most hardcore vegetarian people you could ever meet. Of course, having mentioned that I was in Chennai, this may not surprise a lot of people. It is a popular belief that Tamil Nadu is chockablock with hardcore Sambar, Idly and rice consuming vegetarians. The diametrically opposite belief holds true for Mallus.

But even by popular, and exaggerated, standards my manager was an extreme hardcore no-holds-barred vegetarian. Not only did he not share a canteen table with non-veggies of any kind, he also refused to visit a restaurant that served non-vegetarian cuisine. (The only people potentially more cutthroat then him are the Jain community. I believe, according to custom, they are only allowed to have plain rice and lime soda salted.)

Most of our team dinners, therefore, were confined to the Saravana Bhavan in Anna Nagar where the staff takes great pride in serving you authentic South Indian dishes if you somehow manage to find a place to sit and then manage to find a waiter to take your order. The waiter will then depart to the kitchen mumbling to himself and then never be seen or heard from again. 

What is it with these hardcore vegetarian types? And, on a similar note, what is it with these hardcore non-vegetarian types? 

Many a time you tend to find people who are hardcore, unapologetic non-vegetarians. God help you if you throw a party, call these fellows, and then serve Cocktail Samosas and Aloo Tikkis and such like. For a while they'll keep quiet. And then before you know it they begin to get all agitated and start grumbling about the hospitality while knocking back on the drinks by the bucket. To get over the discomfort, they'll wipe out the Paneer Tikka to the last piece on the last stick. Even the little square capsicum pieces aren't spared. 

I know people who even finish off the lettuce leaf lining they have on the serving trays. Real and plastic imitation versions. 

At the risk of rubbing some of my brethren the wrong way, I must say that many Malayalis are like this. For them non-vegetarianism is a virtue, as noble and ideal as democracy, secularism or even, gasp, visa-less entry into a Gulf country. A day without meat is a sin. A week without chicken, fish, egg and such like can drive him insane. 

Ever noticed that priceless look you get if you tell one of these types that you are a vegetarian? They stare at you wide-eyed, at a loss for words, before it occurs to them that they don't have to share the kebabs with you. This cheers them up considerably. 

The only saving grace about these carnivores is the fact that they are completely aware of their folly. They know that nothing can really justify their culinary habits except the pleasure they get from it. There is no higher, spiritual need driving them to order another Tandoori non-veg platter. Merely the pleasure to be gained from it.

They are ready for hell, eternal damnation, reincarnation as a broiler chicken and whatever else your religion allocates to bad karmic performance.

Not so for the Sambar, Paneer, Yellow-black Dal consuming vegetarian. Take all the fanaticism of the just-mentioned non-veg extremist and give him some moral justification as well. What you get is a borderline terrorist. 

Ask any veggie fellow about his rationale and he will happily begin: "Vegetarianism is good for you! It is healthy! It has many benefits. You will always be pure and strong! It is also good for your soul! You are not killing any animals. We should not harm any living creature you know. SPLAT! Yay, killed another mosquito." 

Of course, a short walk through the hardcore vegetarian Mylapore district of Chennai will quickly dispel myths about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Take a stroll in the evenings and you will know what I mean. In addition to the nice, petite old ladies in their elaborate sarees you will also run into middle-aged men walking slowly trying to not topple over because of their bellies. Belly jiggle is for amateurs. These bellies are well-filled and completely jiggle-free. Burp.  

That's because when the Dosa comes, can the Ghee be far behind? 

But while the carnivores are chilled out people with attitudes, the veggie types tend to, somehow, be party-poopers. Not to mention culinary blackmailers.

"Where do we go out today dude? There's that place in Colaba, they make great steak and potatoes."
"Err, and their grilled veg sandwich is good too."
"Oh heck, I am sure they have something else in veg too."
"Of course! They have toasted veg sandwich. And an excellent plain veg sandwich. I personally prefer the cheese veg sandwich myself."
"Okay, we'll go to Cafe Madras again."
"As you wish." 

I am a non-vegetarian of moderate intensity. While I enjoy the occasional Tandoori Chicken Full and then a nice Biryani to finish off my evening snack, I can also satisfy myself on some Roti, Dal and Aloo Methi. 

But in my experience, people like me are at a premium. Nice, docile, flexible epicures who enjoy any restaurant, any cuisine, any meat and any vegetable (except beetroot which is clearly an evolutionary anomaly) are a rare species. This is also what makes us have large friend circles and social popularity. 

Left to me I really don't care. I like to tread the soft middle path where there is much flexibility and excellent protein intake. Though, sometimes, I wonder if the veggies know what they're missing when they say no to a steaming hot serving of Butter Chicken and Roomali Roti. 

But please don't tell them I said that.

Earlier columns:

More adventures of the Vadukuts, mister and missus, can be found at Domain Maximus.


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