Exploring Indian Vegan Gastronomy – The Indian Panorama

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By Murli Menon

I became vegan on October 2nd, 1996 after suffering a near-fatal head-on collision with a truck being driven by a drunk driver. After being strictly plant-based for 14 years, I decide to seek out plant-based street food for my forthcoming book, ZeNLP Vegan Recipes Compassionate Cookbook. In 2010 I decided to travel to the Kumbh Mela (pilgrimage) which takes place every 12 years. When millions of pilgrims gathered at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010, I knew street vendors would follow and I was able to record and research many vegan recipes and photograph vegan street food in Haridwar, saving me time and money. I was planning to raft down the Ganges from Kaudiyala to Rishikesh while going to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.

The journey from Ahmedabad to Haridwar was uneventful apart from the beautiful sunset seen over the hills of Mount Abu. The train was crammed with trailers heading to Haridwar to reach the Kumbh Mela before January 14th, the most auspicious day for a dip in the Sacred Ganges since 1998. By a significant coincidence, I met three young ladies at Haridwar railway station, everyone from England, Netherlands and USA who was looking for directions to Rishikesh! Soon all four of us were sitting in a taxi to Rishikesh. The journey took us through the outer edges of Rajaji National Park where we were able to spot some blunt tailed macaques! After checking in at Garhwal Mandal guesthouse in Rishikesh, we continued to Kaudiyala to complete the thrill of rafting while returning to Rishikesh. Surfing the freezing cold waters of the river while holding on to the raft in mid-January was a spooky experience. Kathy, Kristen and Naomi, who were teaching English in China, traveled to Rishikesh for a break. After returning to Rishikesh, I drove to Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela. “Lakhs” (millions) pilgrims from all over India had gathered for a unique experience. A dip in the freezing cold waters of the Sacred Ganges at 4am in mid-January reminded me of my bath in Lake Mansarovar in Tibet! However, it was a boon to my immune system as all my cells were rejuvenated after swimming in the calm waters of this mighty river. Discovering the power of Mother Nature is certainly one of the most powerful experiences. Exploring the improvised food stalls in the Kumbh as a food detective, looking for 100 percent vegan delicacies (food that does not contain any products of animal origin or even traces of animal products) was another goal of my travels for my upcoming book ” ZeNLP – Die Kraft des veganism.”

Food stalls in Kumbh were crowded with idlis (soft and fluffy steamed cake made from fermented rice and lentil batter) and dosas (rice and lentil crepe) with samosas (triangular dumplings), dhoklas (nutritious Indian-based dish). made from rice and fermented chickpea paste) and Theplas (latte bread made from wholemeal flour, chickpea flour, millet flour and spice powders). The effects of the severe winter were compounded by the cold winds and light drizzle that seemed to sweep through Rishikesh and Haridwar in January. Warming up near communal fires and sipping hot ginger juice (as a strict vegan I don’t drink tea, coffee or consume sugar due to the risk of these goods being adulterated by products of animal origin). Also, I don’t consume factory made foods that are sold on supermarket shelves. As a strict vegan, I avoid all foods containing caffeine, chlorine, fluorine, nicotine and iodine. I prefer to eat fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains! I never eat solid food after sunset, sticking to the water fast instead! Community campfires are an ideal meeting place to catch up on the latest happenings and get directions to the street vendors selling the city’s most delicious street food.

The journey from Rishikesh to Haridwar was like moving in a caravan. Thousands of pilgrims walking barefoot to Haridwar on January 14th. On the way I met farmers from Bhagalpur, Rabaris (nomadic pastoral community) from Gujarat, Bauls (folk singers) from West Bengal, villagers from Andhra Pradesh, Sadhus (Hindu monks or ascetic who gives up all his previous life and follows the path of penance and austerity strikes to attain enlightenment) from Uttar Pradesh, and gypsies selling everything from sandalwood paste to vermilion. It was a “mela” (big crowd) in the true sense of the word! Most pilgrims braved the cold by sleeping outdoors. Many sincere devotees slept on the banks of the river to avoid the morning rush!

After reaching Haridwar, I woke up at midnight to prepare for the trek to the ghats (stairs) to take a dip before the crowds pour in. It was extremely cold and visibility was limited to the first three steps you take. However, I trudged down the narrow path to reach the sacred river before sunrise and take a rejuvenating dip in the rapids as the first rays of the sun hit the earth. The most exciting part of the experience was the numbness in the fingers which made buttoning up one’s kurta (traditional garment, similar to a tunic) a feat! At the ghats, the pink ghagras (traditional women’s clothing) of the Rabari women vied for attention with saffron-colored Rajasthani turbans, which provided a striking contrast to the sadhus smeared with gray ash. It was free for all with everyone for themselves. Vendors selling towels had a great day. I was planning to travel from Haridwar to Allahabad to complete the next phase of my research on vegan Indian street food.

As a food detective, it was interesting to know the ingredients that go into Indian street food. I spoke to street vendors, chefs and waiters separately on different days just to confirm the ingredients that go into street food. Most traders were honest and didn’t know what I was asking the questions for, so they answered truthfully. As a trained ZeNLP Master, I was able to analyze their body language, eye movements, and breathing patterns to reject the few outrageous liars. The proof of the banana is in its food, and since I’m allergic to even micrograms or even picograms or nanograms of animal products in any food, I was able to spot the culprits by the food’s aroma.

One of the greatest advantages of being a pure vegan is being gifted with an extremely sensitive sense of smell. I can smell a tiny gas leak in every apartment in my multi-story building with amazing accuracy. Also, there is latent DNA activation in every cell of the body, which makes digestion efficient and increases blood flow to the palate and activates the taste buds to make eating a divine experience. Every bite tastes heavenly, be it whole grain puris (fried in oil) with alu sabji (cooked in oil) I’ve had in Benaras, hot steaming idlis and coconut chutney I’ve had in Srisailam, steamed vegetable momos I’ve had in Rishikesh or the mint coriander chatni (spice) I had at Jasidih’s. My taste buds have taken on a life of their own since I became strictly vegan in 1995.

The wide range of street food sold at the Kumbh Mela was overwhelming. However, since I was looking for 100 percent pure vegan food, I was able to ignore the vast majority of foods that contained animal products. But there were some small pockets of delicious vegan food cooked the traditional way. Fruit and vegetables were plentiful. Be it the many stalls selling fresh sweet lime juice, the nimbu pani (lime juice) vendors or the shops selling almonds, walnuts and raisins. I only had the vegan street food as part of my research on vegan food. On most of my trips, I’ve opted for fresh fruit, walnuts, and raisins. This diet is referred to in the ZeNLP as a raw vegan diet. Staying in a tent on the banks of the Holy Ganges was a great experience. Waking up at midnight to the soothing, gurgling sounds of running water and watching the starry sky bathed in biting cold in moonlight will be etched into my psyche forever! Meditating on the tiny pebbles that littered the banks of the river established a connection to the primordial elements!

Taking a dip in the Sacred Ganges on the day of the eclipse was a soothing experience. I could feel the cosmic energy permeating the air as I walked along the riverbank to watch the crimson sunset. You could also see the play of the elements as fire, water and earth played their roles perfectly. Fog, haze and frost in the morning represented the earth element, the flowing waters at noon, in the absence of the sun, represented the water element, and the crimson sunset was a fitting finale for the fire element. The stillness, serenity, peace and stillness experienced when meditating on a bed of stones while watching the rapids connect you to the macrocosm is unparalleled. It reminded me of my trek to Kailash Mansarovar on the banks of the Kali River, where I had meditated on huge slabs of stone scattered along the river bank. Spontaneous showers were my constant companion during my trek through Rishikesh to Haridwar. After spending a week exploring the vegan food here. I returned to Ahmedabad. Street Food’s delicious recipes photos explain my gastronomic experiences at Maha Kumbh Mela. (Murli Menon, is a travel writer, stress management consultant and author based in Ahmedabad, India. He is the author of ZeNLP-Learning through Stories edited by The Written Word Publications, ZeNLP-the power to success edited by Sage publications and New Dawn Press’s “ZeNLP-the power to relax.” He can be reached at [email protected])

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