Vegetarianism, Culture, and Business in India

Disclaimer: I am not a vegetarian. I'm not a rabid steak chaser either, but I definitely do not disdain meat. Yet I did not miss it at all during my stay in Bangalore. I was aware that vegetarianism was not uncommon in India, but I was not aware of the actual impact of such a dietary choice in both domestic and commercial environments. Many Indians -- Hindus and Jains -- practice vegetarianism for religious reasons, avoiding meat, fish, eggs, and alcohol in their diets. Unlike in Western vegetarianism, however, dairy products, from yogurt to ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (the omnipresent fresh cheese) play a crucial role, differentiating Indian vegetarianism from Western veganism. Although many point to Brahmins as practicing vegetarians, not all of them are, especially outside the South. It was explained to me that Brahmins from coastal areas often include fish in their diets and that others opt out of vegetarianism as a way to express their critique to the stratified social system. Some non-vegetarians choose to eliminate meat only on certain days either to show respect to deities during the celebrations dedicated to them, while other more secular individuals do so out of health motivations.

These practices have a deep influence in the way food is consumed in public places. For instance, I ate at a Chinese restaurant where the buffet was divided into two clearly marked areas: vegetarian and non-vegetarian, often with the same dishes presented in the two versions. Vegetarianism can express itself also in more traditional forms, like thali -- little bowls of different foods placed on a large metal tray with chutneys, pickles, rice, and rotis. Although thali service style is also used for meat and seafood menus, many restaurants opt for the vegetarian-only option, trusting that they can rely on a larger customer base. This market segment is so relevant that the national chain Radhjani, specializing in vegetarian thali featuring dishes from Gujarat and Rajasthan, has opened restaurants all over the country, adding great care to reproduce the sense of hospitality and abundance connected with thali service.

The Bangalorean restaurant Sattvam aims instead to bring sattvic food to consumers. Sattvic is one of the three categories that define diets in the Vedic traditions and contribute to an individual's life style and attitude. Favoring spiritual clarity, sattvic foods differ from rajassic ones, which fire up passions and desires, and tamassic ones, which cause laziness and torpor. As spelled out on the restaurant's website:

"Sattvic foods are rich and abundant in Prana, the universal life force. Onion, garlic and caffeine are taboo in a sattvic diet as they cause denseness in the body. According to the Vedas, sattvic foods are juicy, wholesome and pleasing to the heart, providing subtle nourishment for positive vitality. What makes sattvic food so unique and pleasurable is that all dishes are prepared and served fresh."

The idea behind the restaurant is to bring sattvic food to an audience outside the faithful who may enjoy it at a temple. Although Sattvam's buffet is more expensive than your run-of-the-mill vegetarian restaurant, it has enjoyed growing success. Their plan is to attract patrons with tasty food, and only after they have enjoyed it, to explain why it is good for their body and their spirituality.

However, when discussing vegetarianism in India, we cannot only focus on the transcendent and aesthetic aspects of this dietary style. Unfortunately, in a country where religion and politics are deeply intertwined, vegetarianism can be used as a tool of fundamentalism and intolerance. As reported by the Hindustan Times last summer a group of dalit (formerly known as "untouchables") students organized a beef festival at the Osmania University in Hyderabad to underline the need for more dietary variety in the institution's eateries. Hindu extremists attacked the participating students and stabbed one of them. This is a touchy topic that is also important for Muslims and all those that oppose any form of "food fascism."

Although article 48 of the Indian constitution prohibits "the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle," sections of the population consider beef consumption as an expression of their cultural identity and find ways to go around bans and regulations.

Such a complex situation complicates any one-dimensional stance about abstaining from meat, both in ethical and political terms. Located at the intersection of tradition, religion, market pressures, electoral contradictions, and civic priorities, vegetarianism is more than just a dietary preference. As with many other aspects of food culture, it reveals the tensions and the fault lines that traverse Indian society, an aspect that many citizens tend not to address directly and that many foreigners ignore, charmed by the richness and deliciousness of Indian food.