The More Veg­gies, the Bet­ter

Could the food habit de­bate be based on ge­o­graph­i­cal and cli­matic dif­fer­ences rather than cul­tural and com­mu­nal ones?

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

have been do­ing for aeons – the more veg­gies, the bet­ter.

Any pe­rusal of eat­ing habits down the mil­len­nia will also re­veal to the lay food his­to­rian that north­ern—ie colder—cul­tures have a tra­di­tion of eat­ing more an­i­mal prod­ucts than warmer south­ern ones. The rea­son could sim­ply be cli­matic, de­vel­oped over a pe­riod when air trans­porta­tion and cold chains did not make any­thing avail­able any­where, round the year.

My mother, a veg­e­tar­ian, had a tough time when posted in Germany in the 1950s as the only veg­eta­bles avail­able in the bleak long win­ter were pota­toes, car­rots, turnips and smelly brined cab­bage. Is it sur­pris­ing then that the tra­di­tional food of the Ger­mans leans heav­ily in favour of sausages and other cured meats along with pota­toes and sauer­kraut?

Con­versely, eat­ing meat in a hot, hu­mid cli­mate like most of In­dia would have been pretty per­ilous in the times be­fore ice houses and re­frig­er­a­tors. Freshly slaugh­tered an­i­mals – large or small – would have had to be eaten pretty fast, as any left­overs would go bad in a mat­ter of hours. No won­der most peo­ple then pre­ferred to get their pro­teins from lentils.

That could also pos­si­bly be the rea­son why cow slaugh­ter – that Vedic prac­tice some peo­ple love to quote these days while de­rid­ing all the oth­ers – was also only for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Con­sum­ing such a large an­i­mal would have been dif­fi­cult un­less many were to be fed. Given the prob­lem of preser­va­tion, maybe that is why it ended up be­ing for­bid­den.

Now, it’s not hard to be veg­e­tar­ian even in Siberia or north­ern Canada, though the car­bon foot­print may be pretty hu­mungous. And while all in­vaders from the north may have had a hard time keep­ing up their di­etary pref­er­ences in the heat of the In­dian plains back in the day, to­day it’s not dif­fi­cult to be ex­clu­sively “non-veg­e­tar­ian” any more.

Ac­tu­ally, tech­nol­ogy has made it eas­ier for both to flour­ish. Time was when the north In­dian sum­mer heat con­sid­er­ably cur­tailed veg­etable va­ri­ety. Be­sides lentils and pulses, ‘desi’ watery veg­eta­bles of the gourd fam­ily were the main­stays in the scorch­ing north and west. But the more hu­mid eastern and south­ern ar­eas had a wider se­lec­tion of veg­gies.

That could, in turn, be the rea­son why there is a greater va­ri­ety of veg­e­tar­ian dishes in those ar­eas, though the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances of the last 100 years may have dras­ti­cally al­tered the di­etary pref­er­ences of peo­ple in all four di­rec­tions. This would also hold true for other coun­tries and con­ti­nents, when it comes to changes in food habits.

It is also of­ten quoted that a ma­jor­ity of In­di­ans are “non-veg­e­tar­i­ans”. How­ever, that does not mean they sud­denly now have a meat-based diet, like say, the Ger­mans of yore did. Just as Ger­mans to­day eat more veg­gies with their meats than be­fore, In­di­ans eat more meat (or at least some meat or egg) with their lentils and veg­eta­bles than they did be­fore.

The world­wide move to eat sea­sonal and lo­cal in ef­fect harks back to age-old prac­tices. It means Ger­mans should not want hot­house veg­gies in the dead of a Euro­pean win­ter any more than In­di­ans should in­sist on heavy meat dishes in the midst of a hot sub­con­ti­nen­tal sum­mer. It’s also use­ful to re­mem­ber that sea­sonal eat­ing pre­dates re­li­gious pre­cepts.

So, could it be that the food habit de­bate be lo­cated in ge­o­graph­i­cal and cli­matic dif­fer­ences rather than cul­tural and com­mu­nal ones? If that can be es­tab­lished and dis­sem­i­nated, per­haps many of the big­gest bones of con­tention – pun un­in­tended – would dis­ap­pear.

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