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Poles Apart: Couples Who Eat Differently

When I first told my parents about S, and that I want to marry him, my father was quick to ask, "Does he eat fish?" While this may sound strangely funny and a highly unrelated question with respect to a marriage, it shows how food is intrinsically connected to who we are, how we look at the world and what are our priorities.

My family belongs to the coastal region of Odisha (India) where fish is both beloved and auspicious, so much that our wedding rituals are incomplete without it. The answer to my father's question is, no S doesn't eat fish or any other meat for that matter. He is a vegetarian. I eat fish and seafood, and the occasional chicken. We both eat eggs and love our vegetables. I grew up with the typical Sunday mangsa jhola (mutton curry) tradition of most Odia and Bengali homes but eventually grew out of eating it on a regular basis. S grew up with the quintessential Sunday rajma-chawal tradition of North Indian homes, and we both enjoy it even now.

On hearing that S is a vegetarian, my father was curious, "So how are you going to eat fish?" "How are you going to cook exactly two pieces of fish in some gravy" was my father's grave concern. His questions stemmed from the fact that cooking separately for two people is usually a chore, especially if you want to eat a sumptuous plate of machcha jhola (fish curry) with rice and your partner doesn't eat any. "We will figure it out, Baba," I told him. "I'm not going to give up eating fish," I had to doubly assure him because most couples who have different food choices tend to settle for one of the partner's choices in the long run. Because how much can you eat of a large portioned chilli chicken takeout from your favourite restaurant and then continue eating the leftovers for the week as you're the only one who can finish it!

While S and I have similar views on most things in life, we are different at the dining table when it comes to eating meat. Often while dinning at friends' places where non-vegetarian food was served, S would often get asked, "Why don't you have some fish or chicken to accompany Lopa?" I would be pestered, "You have to get him to eat some form of meat. How else will you continue cooking/eating non-veg for one person?" While all of these solicitations seemed to come from a place of sincerity, it can often be annoying, especially to the partner who doesn't consume the food in question. S, is bothered rarely — almost never — by such coaxing. It's me who gets ruffled. Food is personal, and I would never enforce my food choices on him, and vice versa.

Hence I thought of starting this section on the blog, Poles Apart, to document how I cook so that I get to enjoy my meat dish while S enjoys his vegetarian dish without having to do a lot in the kitchen.

This of course becomes easier for me as S is extremely flexible in terms of what's cooked as long as it's vegetarian. Perhaps, some people will find me cooking to adjust both our needs conservative or un-feminist. Some will also say S can cook his own vegetarian meal while I cook something non-vegetarian, which he often does. But this has nothing to do with feminism because S and I share responsibilities of the home. This rather has more to do with my happiness in being the primary caregiver at home.

S is a functional cook. For me, cooking is more than just a process to get food on the table. Good food, good taste and good health matters as much to me — food is not a mere means of survival in my life. If I am enjoying a chicken biryani, I also want my loved ones to have their share of a delicious vegetarian biryani if they don't eat meat. I enjoy finding ways and means to get the best of both worlds in our family meals.

Since we now have a child, I feel an even greater need to introduce as much variety in food as possible to our little one. I want baby A to have food options to explore, taste and understand. If A decides to be a vegetarian like his father, it's a choice he would make having experienced both kinds of food his parents eat.

Below, I describe things that I do to keep our food plates balanced with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.

A mix of common and exclusive food options in a meal

  • Although I eat chicken, fish and seafood, I love my vegetables equally. So, vegetarian sides (and even mains) are for both S and me. If I'm cooking a nonveg dish for a regular weekday meal, I stick to only one dish of this kind, and the rest is all vegetarian which both of us eat. If I'm cooking for a gathering, then I add one or two additional nonveg dishes, depending on the guests. On such occassions, I prep quite a few things in advance.

  • Nonvegetarian dishes often call for some amount of mariantion of the meat. Many times, I clean, prep and marinate and freeze the meat if it's not planned to be consumed quickly. I also rely on frozen meat, and have some ready in my freezer.

  • I also keep bags of frozen vegetables. This comes very handy on days which are too busy with little or no time to cook an elborate meal.

Keeping adequate vegetarian protein available

  • I have noticed that a lot of people don't have the understanding of vegetarian protein. So when the time comes to prepare a vegetarian equivalent for a nonvegetarian dish, they either don't make it, or simply serve a salad or steamed veggies.

  • I have a variety of vegetarian protein stashed in my pantry and refrigerator including mushrooms, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, beans, green peas, amaranth, quinoa, nuts and seeds, eggs, along with dairy options like paneer.

Keeping vegetarian ingredients with meaty texture available

  • I don't believe in the concept of "meat substitue for vegetable." Having said that I understand that certain versions of non-vegetarian vedishes taste better with an ingredient which is meaty in texture. For example, mushrooms, eggplants, jackfruit, cauliflower can work really well instead of meat in many dishes.

  • Eggs, cottage cheese, dumplings made of chickpea flour can also emulate meat quite well. When I make a vegetarian version of a dish, I am not just looking for something to replace meat. I pick the ingredient which will taste best in the context of the dish.

  • I don't call the vegetarian dish as an imitation of the non-vegetarian dish. The vegetarian dish is an entity in its own right, and not meant to be had as a replacement for non-vegetarian food. Food is food in our home — the kind of food is a personal choice.

Minimizing cooking time

To cook two or more varieties of a dish, my trick is to optimize cooking and prep time. For this, two things work for me:

  • Having the same foundation (like the base gravy) for both veg and non-veg dishes

  • Keeping similar flavour profiles for both kinds of dishes so that the same spices, masala pastes and sesonings remain the same

Through Poles Apart, I aim to bring forward such dishes — food that I make as a pair — with simple and uncomplicated ways to make vegetarian and non vegetarian versions. You can definitely take these recipes and cook only the version you want. Since I mention recipes, I want to add that I never rely on recipes so much while cooking. It's the process, method and techniques that really are a gamechanger for me, and if there's a story linked with the recipe, that's the best part! Although I will write down recipes in Poles Apart, the focus will be on the process because cooking two versions of the same dish requires some planning as well as time-saving methods. And, home cooking relies far more on the modus operandi than the spoons and bowls for measuring ingredients.

I hope you come along with me on this journey, a path of discovering new means in the kitchen to cook and enjoy diverse foods with your loved ones.

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