How non-veg folks get their veggie fix

The latest edition of Eat.Wander.Repeat serves up the truth about why meat and fish eaters seem to be eating more veggies than vegetarians

A family sits down to a meal (file photo)
A family sits down to a meal (file photo)

Denise D'Silva

It’s a popular belief among pure vegetarians that those who prefer a non-veg diet simply don’t touch vegetables. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Many regional cuisines in India incorporate such a wide variety of vegetables into meat and fish recipes, it will astonish the novice palette. And not just vegetables. Fruits also find their way into some stellar non-veg recipes.

I recently came across a dish that throws in a seasonal fruit with a crustacean. The delicious Eral Nungu curry is a Creole dish from Pondicherry that mixes tadgola, or ice apple, with prawns in a mildly spiced curry. Served with rice or dosa, it’s a combination that’s definitely worth trying.

Cooking Eral Nongu, prawns with tadgola (ice apples)
Cooking Eral Nongu, prawns with tadgola (ice apples)
File photo
Jardaloo salli boti, meat with apricots and potato straws
Jardaloo salli boti, meat with apricots and potato straws
File photo

Then there’s the better known and much-loved Jardaloo Salli Boti — chunks of tender mutton cooked with juicy apricots, topped with that always-welcome crunch of crispy potato straws.

If you consider ‘share-of-plate’, the items that constitute a non-vegetarian spread may actually surprise most. Growing up in a non-vegetarian household, I can safely say that no meal ever lacked representation of flora. The main was a meat or fish but the ‘side-dish’ was always a vegetable. I know of many people who refuse to eat a meal if the vegetarian dish isn’t part of the milieu, simply because the meal feels incomplete.

Of course, the running in-joke among the Parsis and Catholics of India is that the only vegetable we eat are the potatoes in our non- veg curries. That’s only half true. We also enjoy our mutton with papdi and prawns with drumsticks.

Think about it. Our staples—rice or rotis—are vegetarian. Our meat and fish dishes can also sometimes have a veg snuck in. Our salads are mainly vegetarian as are our pickles (we’re not thinking prawn pickle here).

It would seem then, that the average non-vegetarian is getting a healthy dose of greens with every meal. In fact, in terms of variety, maybe more so than the average vegetarian.

So many of my pure vegetarian friends turn up their noses at ladyfingers, gourds, red pumpkin. That’s leaving out a whole list of good-for-you vegetables! And frankly, if you’re pure vegetarian—that’s more than half your diet.

In terms of practicality, it seems like non-vegetarians have got something right. All vegetables are equally despised and therefore equally inventively disguised.

Don’t like spinach? Just add chicken to it.

Not too big on raw mango? Try adding dry prawns. Everyone wins here.

Regional Indian food is complex, diverse and always a great discovery. The line between fruits and vegetables seems to be quite fluid when it comes to non-vegetarian food. In the south and west of the country, fruits—both dried and fresh—get pride of place on seasonal menus, mixed of course with meat and fish.

Goa, for instance, has the lovely Pork Solantulem—pork cooked with dried kokum or sol. The fruit imparts a nice tang to the pork and a beautiful mild red hue to the curry.

Pork solantulem, cooked with dried kokum

The Raigad district of Maharashtra has this interesting dish called Chicken Popti. A celebration of winter harvests of field beans and tubers combined with country chicken, it is cooked slowly in a clay pot over burning embers. This one-pot meal includes corn, sweet potato and herbs, which lend a lovely flavour to the chicken and boiled eggs.

(L–R) Bengali fish curry with vegetables; chorchori; Goan Pork Solantulem, cooked with dried kokum;

The Anglos and Catholics of India are ingenious when it comes to getting the family to eat their vegetables — simply stuff them with kheema, or minced meat. As a result, all manner of veggies are eaten with great gusto, from snake gourd to tomatoes, capsicum to bitter gourds.

The Anglo-Indian stew pays homage to the humble carrot, pea and bean with bits of meat swimming alongside in a delicious gravy. Perfect when you want to feed a large family some meat on a tight budget.

In the Bengali kitchen, dishes like Chorchori (a mixed vegetable dish) went from being a showcase of seasonal produce to a by-product of the upheaval and political turmoil that rocked the state through the years of British rule.

Bengali housewives (in fact Indian housewives in general) were the original proponents of the root-to-shoot or nose-to-tail philosophy of cooking. Chorchori underwent a change in frugal times, with vegetable peels, fish bones and skin, and even pulverised mustard seeds discarded from oil mills going into it — making sure that nothing was wasted and everything, both fish and veg, was used to full potential.

Lau-shaak'er chorchori, a dish featuring bottlegourd greens (photo courtesy 'Debjanir Rannaghor')
Lau-shaak'er chorchori, a dish featuring bottlegourd greens (photo courtesy 'Debjanir Rannaghor')

Bengali food is largely about fish. But vegetables are not forgotten at all. To me, they take as much space on the ingredient list as fish does. Take the Sobji Diye Machher Jhol (fish curry with seasonal vegetables), or Machher Matha Diye Moog Dal (roasted mung dal cooked with fresh fried fish head). Both the fish and the veggies in these dishes are wolfed down with the same enthusiasm.

The Bengali fish curry is unthinkable without vegetables (file photo)
The Bengali fish curry is unthinkable without vegetables (file photo)
File photo

Most of the North-East states of India are also big eaters of meats mixed with exotic herbs and vegetarian ingredients. Fermented fish finds its way into simple vegetarian stir-fries, chutneys and bhartas. Pork, which is ubiquitous in this region, is cooked with a range of vegetarian ingredients— from bamboo shoot and raw papaya to wild herbs and berries.

In the process of cooking meat and veg together, not only is the nutritional value of the dish increased, it is also a nod to the seasonality of vegetables and how best to bring out their flavours within the confines of non-vegetarian recipes.

While some families eat only non-vegetarian food on designated days, the more common trend I see is a plate that is well-balanced with veggies and meats equally represented and combined in unique ways.

Because when it comes to food, why should anyone have to choose between one kind of deliciousness and another?

Denise D’Silva is the author of The Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook. Instagram @eatwander.repeat

Read previous editions of Eat. Wander. Repeat here

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