A vegetarian among meat-eaters


A Plateful of Goodness, Happy Healthy Me’s version of the ‘thali’. Photos: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

A Plateful of Goodness, Happy Healthy Me’s version of the ‘thali’. Photos: Hemant Mishra/Mint.

Let’s take the parents for lunch to the new organic food café in town, they are vegetarian today, the husband proposes one morning. Three hungry carnivores circling a lone vegetarian at a vegan café is not exactly my idea of mid-afternoon fun, so my response is non-committal.

The three of them say vegetarian like some people say liberal: in quote marks. Babyjaan has also been successfully indoctrinated. “All those who are herbivores, raise your hands,” she says. And all eyes settle on me expectantly.

“Today is a vegetarian day,” my mother-in-law warns her son every time he announces he will be dropping in for lunch on a Tuesday or a Thursday. As she is fond of saying, “All vegetables taste the same.”

Anyway, I succumb. A few hours later we are at Happy Healthy Me, the best organic food store I’ve visited in India. As we wait for the in-laws, I caress organic yoga mats, wonder about the uses of moringa powder, inquire about the in-house bread with zero refined flour or sugar and debate between adzuki and harvest beans. Laugh if you must but this is my foodie heaven.

Owner Namu Kini says she and her husband have recently gone one step further and become plant-based vegans. She’s pleased that her eight-year-old daughter Surya enjoys the hot chocolate at the café. It’s made from organic cocoa, coconut milk and sweetened with coconut sugar, but don’t tell that to Surya.

My father-in-law looks appropriately puzzled when he hears details of Kini’s diet. His pet peeve these days is that his wife grills the fish for her dear son, instead of frying it like they do in any self-respecting coastal household. “There’s absolutely no taste in this fish,” he mutters repeatedly through lunch. Every time I organize a vegetarian dinner for Babyjaan, he inquires, “Where is the real food?”

The menu at the Happy Healthy Me café is limited and changes every day, so we each order a Plateful of Goodness, their version of the thali. The husband, a born-again healthy eater (in his past life roast beef and mutton curry were breakfast menu items) aggressively praises every bite of the millet pulao. Last week he asked me if I had read the amazing diet guide published in Mint. That’s what I’ve been eating these past two decades, I replied with an eye-roll.

Happy Healthy Me, India’s first 100% organic food store.

Happy Healthy Me, India’s first 100% organic food store.

He’s already signed up for Happy Healthy Me’s cooking-with-millets class. “It’s filling,” says my mother-in-law, whose dietary allegiances haven’t altered from 18 to 80. “Now I know why people eat millets when they are fasting.”

“I can’t believe this is brinjal. Normally I hate brinjal,” she adds. I seem to recall her saying she enjoyed the zaalouk (Moroccan-style eggplant) she ate at our house recently. Maybe she only nodded vaguely when I asked enthusiastically, “Isn’t this great?”

My father-in-law eats in grim silence except to inquire once: “What is buckwheat?” Someone, I don’t recall who, wants to reconfirm: “So this place only serves vegetarian?”

After lunch, the family drops the vegetarian to every Bengaluru carnivore’s favourite destination: the cold storage, Bamburies. I want to pay my respects here because when I recently asked Dunzo (a popular hyperlocal concierge app) co-founder Kabeer Biswas to share some of the city’s favourite food destinations, he immediately responded, “Bamburies is cult.” Yes, there’s Joseph in Mumbai and Pigpo in New Delhi and Kalman in Kolkata but their Bengaluru equivalent sells around 500kg of meat every day.

Owner Agnelo Fernandes is in the middle of lunch—lamb crumb chops made by his wife Flavia—so I peek into the store’s freezers instead. He stocks everything from American Butterball Turkeys and Yellowfin Tuna to John Dory and scallops. All communities shop here; they know that Fernandes has different freezers and slicing machines for those two culturally charged meats: beef and pork.

“These days customers are experimenting much more. Everyone eats everything,” he tells me later. This is an oasis hidden from the happenings in New India.

Fernandes is clear he won’t discuss politics. He’s a difficult man to interview; his favourite one-word answer to any specific question is: “Everything.” He only loosens up when I tell him food tales of the family I married into. When I share that my daughter ate rabbit before her second birthday, he lightens up and insists I try the cold meats they prepare in-house: salami, smoked ham, luncheon meat, roast beef. I was hoping we could somehow skip this moment, but now I’m forced to reveal I’m vegetarian. Personal choice, I emphasize, and quickly change the subject to his diet.

He’s animated in his defence of meat: “People say tapeworm comes from pork, but you know you can get it from greens, right?” This is routine dinner-table conversation at my house so we are on safe ground again.

“Vegetables are a side dish in my house, like they are in yours,” he says, adding that cabbage and brinjal, and not red meat, give him the worst attacks of gout.

His late father, J.B. Fernandes, lived and worked in Dar es Salaam as a chartered accountant for 45 years, before returning to India to run a livestock farm. Their business started out as a way to sell extras, but in 1973 they gave up the farm for this store.

Fernandes encounters the other Bengaluru only occasionally when one of his regular customers announces, I’ve turned vegan. “Then they come back in a few weeks and say I’m back to eating meat,” he adds with a guffaw.

I think he’s forgotten but I should know better. When he introduces me to Flavia, he says: “This is Priya, she’s vegetarian.” I buy extra meat to make up for my lifestyle choice.

(I can already see the face of the in-laws’ family friend, a regular reader of my column, who, when he bumped into me recently, inquired: Your in-laws allow you to write like this?)

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.



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