To talk about being vegetarian and a Parsi is a bit of a contradiction. Most Parsis would even add meat to their vegetables as is evident in the vegetable preparations of cauliflower-nu-gosh (cauliflowers cooked with cubes of meat), bheeda-nu-gosh (lady’s fingers cooked with meat), French beans-nu-gosh and so on. Gosh! The possibilities of adding meat (gosh) to lentils and vegetables are endless. And to top it all: if there is no meat or chicken at hand, top the dish with eggs. One cannot beat a Parsi’s imagination when it comes to adding animal protein to make a recipe complete.
The majority of Parsis would say “perish the thought of being a vegetarian” but the fact is that four days every month, the Parsi Calendar does have days where a Zoroastrian can be vegetarian. These days pop up any day of the week and are not restricted to a Saturday or a Thursday. This inconvenient fact was brought into my life as soon as my Navjot or thread ceremony was conducted. (Parsis have equality of sexes: both males and females have their thread ceremonies and the event is celebrated much like a marriage, with great celebration and feasting where eggs, fish, chicken and lamb dishes are all served together.) My mother’s sisters were devout and laid the vegetarian days before me, not as the law but as a choice. My father’s family consisted of 6 brothers and 2 sisters: all animal lovers, especially if they were cooked and put on their plates! The knowledge of these dates has led me through some hilarious situations.
Grand lunch and dinner invites would invariably be on my green days which made me want to carry out my own anti-green revolution. The sight of fried chicken and mutton biryani would make me salivate and dum aloo and paneer in kaju gravy would seem like pale substitutes. I would hang around until midnight just to eat the non-veg dishes the ‘next day.’ In fact I would start loading pieces of lamb and chicken on my plate even before the clock stopped chiming 12 times. But horror of horrors, I was soon told that the new day begins at sunrise and not at the stroke of twelve!
The year I didn’t study much in college, I was told of the Parsi vegetarian month. No one had mentioned this before as they were sure I would not last the vegetarian course of 30 days. Chinese torture is nothing compared to vegetarian meals to a Parsi. I used to dream of legs of roast lamb running past me as I hastened to catch up. I must have mentally lost at least 5 kilos jogging behind food every night for a month! I realized that it was better to work hard and look at my books in time rather than trying the veg route towards earning brownie points with the Higher-Up!
I must hasten to add that the Parsi concept of vegetarian is very different. One can eat eggs, fish, and fish-roe (naturally, this being both egg and fish!).The definition of Parsi vegetarianism is rather ambiguous. Some feel that only 4 legged land animals should not be eaten. I help myself to squid, octopus and crab on my veg days as they have more than 4 legs or tentacles. I also eat duck (2 legs plus webbed feet so it is not a land creature) and this has been very helpful whenever I had to travel to the far-east on vegetarian days. My son goes further and insists chicken have 2 legs and are vegetarian fare too!
This week, I went to Delhi to leave him at Law School. The classrooms and his hostel room looked more like a star hotel, but when I left him, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I was told that the food served there is strictly vegetarian! As a concession, they do serve egg. What my son was going to do for the next 5 years, I wondered. This boy would look at the table laden with fried fish-tartar sauce, saas ni macchi (fish in gravy), kolmi nu patio (spicy prawns) and ask, “Is it a vegetarian day, is that why have you have cooked only vegetables today?” Well, he has got his just deserts as he will not even have Fruits de la mer like oysters and shell fish to keep him company at his vegetarian hostel buffet now!