The black sheep of the family

Updated: May 26, 2019, 07:29 IST | Jane Borges and Ekta Mohta

The non-vegetarians in Jain families, the vegetarians in Catholic families, the pork-eaters among Muslims and the vegans within Parsis: Sometimes, families that don't eat together also find ways to stay together

The black sheep of the family

Nikhil Merchant
Gourmet consultant, Kutchi Gujarati

World over, coming out stories have been intrinsically linked with gender. In the Indian home, where the kitchen is considered sacred and embodies how one lives their faith, our meals are mostly handed-down without a choice. Breaking away, then, means remaining closeted. And sometimes, for a very long time.

Nikhil Merchant, a gourmet consultant and food writer, who runs the popular Instagram handle @nonchalantgourmand, remembers having to confront his vegetarian-eating Kutchi Gujarati family, three years after his "dharm bhrasht" moment of digging into a plate of assorted raw fish at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, in 2006. "I hadn't intended to tell them. I was writing about all kinds of food, meat included, and that's how my family put two and two together." The first thing he got asked was: "Do you really need to do this?" But fortunately, it ended at that. There was no drama as such, he says. Yet, that day, he implicitly agreed to some unspoken rules. "I had to keep my meat out of their house," says 37-year-old Merchant, who lives with his family. It's been over a decade since then, but Merchant is yet to find room for a non-veg food parcel in his refrigerator, let alone a frozen chicken.

Pankil Shah. Pic/Ashish Raje
Pankil Shah. Pic/Ashish Raje

Pankil Shah
Restaurateur, Gujarati

Dinner conversations
Merchant hails from a joint family that didn't even keep ketchup bottle on the dining table, because "the colour and fleshy texture" of tomatoes was considered akin to meat. It was his father, who first got him to enjoy eggs, when he surreptitiously began making delish omelettes for his kids, in an unused pantry on the ground floor of their family bungalow. But, Merchant's bold transition to meat wasn't something the family had seen coming. It was only in 2014, on a trip to Switzerland with his parents, that he was allowed to order a salmon salad on the same table as theirs at a restaurant. However, to this day, his younger brother Ashish seems put off by the idea. "I keep getting schooled by him [about my food habits]," says Merchant. Ashish says he has a severe "mental block" towards meat. He wouldn't even bother reading a food story written by his brother, which involved non-vegetarian dishes. "You have to be a vegetarian to understand where this is coming from. I am not opposed to it, and while I understand that my brother is very passionate about food, I am simply not comfortable. That doesn't mean that I have a problem if he eats it in front of me. The good thing is that he doesn't bring meat home. I think, the world over vegetarian options are growing, so it's nice that at least my choices are not limited."

Iqbal (named changed on request), 24, who works as a chef at a restaurant, grew up eating regular Bohri food, but took to pork because his job demanded it. "When I got into the industry, I thought that I would handle pork, but I would not eat it. But, my mindset started changing. I understood it was necessary for me to know the taste of what I'm cooking." So, he attempted it, and began to like it. While his parents and brother are aware of his decision, his extended family has been kept in the dark. "I broke [the news] to them when I was having a long conversation about something completely different. I was just telling them a few truths, [and I blurted it out]. My dad was understanding, but my mother was not. She pushed me towards trying it for tasting and not having it regularly. I still made her understand that I like eating it, and I will continue to eat it."

Marzy Parakh. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Marzy Parakh. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Marzy Parakh
Restaurateur, Parsi Zoroastrian

Land of milk and honey
For restaurateur Marzy Parakh, 34, owner of The Bombay Haveli and The Fork Tale, turning 100 per cent vegan was on 100 per cent moral grounds. "My parents are Parsi and I have a twin brother who is a hardcore non-vegetarian. Until I turned vegan, there was a point when I would eat meat even for breakfast." But, something shifted about four or five years ago. "[When I was exposed to] the social media movement on how the dairy and the meat industry actually work, I started understanding what goes behind what comes onto our plate. The dairy industry is far more cruel than the meat industry. I know people who are very compassionate, and absolutely against non-vegetarian food, especially certain communities, but they see nothing wrong with consuming dairy products. It's because they have no clue how it works as an industry."

Then there is 28-year-old Desiree Alemao, a Goan Catholic, whose seafood-obsessed family is still unable to comprehend why she won't eat anything with fish in it. "In most Goan households, fish is a staple and is cooked every day, so my family was naturally upset about me not taking a shine to it. I could not stand anything with scales on it. For some reason, I was strongly repulsed by its flavour," says the PR professional, who first developed an allergy to certain fish when she was three years old. After that, her family tried to feed her fish — sometimes even deceptively — but that only increased her aversion to it, so much so that she wouldn't be in the same house, when fish was being prepared. "If I happened to be at home, when fish was cooked, I'd lock myself in the room," recalls Alemao. Because she prefers eating only vegetarian food, Alemao had to learn to make her own meals at an early age. When she visits the extended family for dinner parties, she carries her own dabba to avoid seeming like a nuisance. "Everyone still feels that they can convert me. I get advised all the time about why I should try fish and how it's good for me. That never stops, but you need to be firm about it. Eventually, people will respect your food choices."

Desiree Alemao. Pic/Atul Kamble, Location Courtesy/1441 Pizzeria, Lower Parel
Desiree Alemao. Pic/Atul Kamble, Location Courtesy/1441 Pizzeria, Lower Parel

Desiree Alemao
Public relations professional, Goan Catholic

Finding a way out
At home, Parakh has a separate cook, and his family outings are severely curtailed because he won't eat at restaurants that serve meat. "My family thinks my decision is very, very extreme. We need to make huge compromises. In the beginning, my mom did try going vegetarian for a few weeks. But honestly, I've been unsuccessful with my own family, because the conditioning is deep-rooted. I bring it up every single time we sit on the dinner table. Now it is annoying for anyone to have a meal with me. But the thing with me is, I don't give up. I'd rather be tagged as an annoying person. The moral angle is far more important than any of these sentiments. It is a tough stance, but what is right is right." His mother, Pervin, concurs, "Whatever [material] he could lay his hands on, he would keep sending us, and say, 'It's not good to eat non-veg.' And, he would lecture us all the time. But then, I was too used to eating non-veg and it was difficult for me to leave that. Sometimes I feel guilty also, but I couldn't help it."

But understanding works both ways. The undhiyu-loving Gujarati Pankil Shah, co-owner of Woodside Inn and Miss T in Colaba, was a vegetarian for the first 18 years of his life, until he moved to the US, where he tried some cold cuts due to the "sheer lack of options". Today, he digs all kinds of meats — steak, in particular — "but I would never cook it at home or eat it in front of parents". "My parents are not meat eaters. They don't have a problem with my food habits, and so, I need to respect theirs, too. And, I love my home food. If my wife and I crave meat, we can always go and enjoy it at a restaurant," he says, adding, "Unfortunately, today, in the political sphere,
people have started becoming very militant about food. But I think, different food beliefs, like different political views, can co-exist within the same family. It is important to be open-minded. We need to embrace each other's choices and lifestyle."

Iqbal, too, is protective about not exposing his parents to his food choices. The reason he doesn't want to reveal his identity comes from the same place. "Pork is considered haram in Islam. You have to understand that when you talk about Parsis or vegetarian Hindus, they are more docile than conservative Muslims. I will give you an example. When I was working at a restaurant, one man went to the extent of telling me that, 'If you were in my village in Bengal, people would kill you with swords.' In today's world, you don't know who will take offence to what. I don't want it to be a problem for my parents. If I face flak for it, it's fine, but not them."

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