The art of food

Growing up in an Indian household, grains, wheat, and meat were staples. Split red lentil soup with rice or bread was dinner on most days. I thrived in that environment.

I used to wake up to tea—strong leaf tea infused with full-fat cow’s milk—that’s what I survived on. And I always told myself the uncomfortable gassiness, bloating, and smelly farts were normal.

Until I grew up. For one health reason, I decided to go vegan about three-four years ago. And since, for many socio-economic reasons, I’ve continued a vegan lifestyle.

Not long after my transition, I realised that there was another sect of people reacting to gluten the same was as I did to dairy.

Now, I have friends who can’t eat gluten. I’ve cooked for them, and shared meal with them. And so, I’ve become more attuned to the amount of wheat and gluten I consume.

That’s why I like challenging myself to make gluten-free meals. After all, I cook for myself. How bad could it be?

So a couple of days ago, I tried to make gluten-free pasta. I aimed for a simple rice-flour-based spaghetti-like noodle. I realised soon enough that the flour wasn’t as pliable as wheat. Of course, it had no gluten—what was I expecting?

However, after some rigorous kneading, rolling, and scrunching it all up into a ball, I chose the easy way out. Surely, little blobs of dough would still make bite-worthy pasta? I ended up making gnocchi, without a single traditional gnocchi ingredient.

I used a vegetable and tomato curry as a sauce, and to my surprise, it came out well. I was even proud of how quickly everything came together—it was faster than any basic baking endeavour that requires proofing and waiting overnight.

Mix, roll, cut, and shape. Why, it was easier than deciding what sauce to make for the pasta!
Today, at the supermarket, as I looked at the price of gluten-free pastas, I couldn’t help but laugh in my head. Now that I’d done it once, I knew I could make much more for much less.

Food shouldn’t be about convenience. That’s the unhealthy mentality that leads to food-related issues. Instead, when you pursue it with precise care, food becomes art, and that art can sustain us.

An endless search

I walked out of the doctor’s room, dazed. Nothing made sense anymore. Of all the people I knew, I was meticulous, and the most watchful about what I eat and drink.

Some would say I bordered on neurotic obsession. I’d be mindful not to overindulge in deep-fried butter or pigs in a blanket blanketed with pork fat. And yet, there I was, despite stringent diets and careful observations, holding a report that deemed my cholesterol levels nigh too high.

I lamented. 

At 22, I knew no one as careful with their diet as I. I had to, too—diabetes, heart complications, blood pressure, and a hint of a brain tumour induced comma, all clogged my mother’s bloodline. I inherited, along with a few crumbling, unintelligible letters and premature graying, a lengthy list of disorders that could make my adult life miserable.

Therefore I took enough precautions to keep diseases away for as long as I could. I succeeded too-by choosing more fiber-rich alternatives to white rice and flour. I thrived on vegetables, millets, red rice, and bananas. Lamb meat and chicken were occasional because we’d get fresh meat every time I visited my parents.

Life seemed good-except for my weakness for peanut brittle, I’d become comfortable without artificial sugar, empty carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats. 

And then came the verdict: high cholesterol.

My doctor denied medicines. He suggested I stick to a proper diet, instead, and that everything should be fine then. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, he said. “Eat,” he cupped his palm to indicate portion control, “but don’t overeat, meat. And get regular exercise, too” he raised his eyebrows at me, who hasn’t skipped yoga even for a day in the last five years.

What he didn’t know, and wouldn’t listen either, is that I’d been doing everything he said since 19.

Still, something had to change, I knew. Sure, I was cautious, but caution wasn’t enough anymore. I looked through my habits yet again. I was taking eggs and a generous amount of milk every day, in addition to a decent amount of meat every week, and a tad bit too much of it every two weeks. It seemed to me that I wasn’t distributing my meals as efficient as I should, and because of that, I was getting too much of one thing and too little of the other. 

Oh, trust me, you can have a careful diet and still be way off course.

I tried quitting eggs. It wasn’t hard because I never liked them much anyway. They involved too much work cleaning up without a stink that it was a relief not to deal with that anymore.

I felt good.

I wanted to keep feeling good and forget the fiasco that was my cholesterol.

I tried quitting milk. It would’ve failed had I woken up one day and stopped drinking tea altogether. It would’ve driven me mad. Instead, I switched to low-fat milk. I scanned labels analysing differences between skimmed milk, 2%, and fortified milk. But I soon learnt the risks of skimmed milk, and not too long afterwards, the vague health verdicts on milk altogether. I realised it could do more harm than good. From full-cream milk, to skim, to skim milk powder, I hopped on and off, before getting tired of them all. 

Good food shouldn’t be so hard to get. By the time I realised the potential risks of consuming adulterated daily and meat, I no longer craved it.

I was beginning to feel great.

Black lemon tea and drip coffee never tasted better after that.

I crave other things now-stuff that has little to no room for contamination or heated debates in lifestyle magazines-vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Not only did they taste great, but these foods also made eating a less stressful practice. The idea of relying on a plant-based diet freed up my mind from worrying about the side effects they could cause in future.

Now that I’ve acquired a taste for plants, I don’t think I’d want to go back to a meaty diet, to feeling bloated every morning or being uncomfortable after lunch on Sundays.

The best part is that I’m discovering new plant-based foods every day. My options, unlike popular notions, are abundant even to the point of overwhelming. This search could never end.

Hello vegan

I stayed four days in Portland, seeing stunning scenery and meeting wonderful people. By the end of it all, I’d fallen in love with the city, wishing I could stay longer. Although part of my interest is due to the vibe of the city, another, much important aspect of the city was the food. I’d heard Portland is famous for its breweries, but I had to choose between getting high on beer and getting high on nature—and I picked nature every single time.

Despite not drinking or eating out much, I did sample Portland’s vegan food spots. Although it piqued my curiosity, veganism was always out of my reach. Not only was veganism still new to me when I visited Portland, but being vegan where I come from is expensive bordering on ridiculousness. Dairy alternatives are rare in my hometown so every time you buy a bottle of almond milk, you get eye rolls as if you’re pretentious and narcissistic.

Coming from such a judgemental background, Portland’s food scene seemed drastic and open to me. On my first day, I tried vegan nachos at a place called Blossoming Lotus. Not much of a fan of fried foods, I’d never had regular nachos before. Having thrown all uneasiness out of the window, I returned to my host’s house clutching a takeout container of nacho dip and a bag full of vegan crackers. Brown and sesame coated, the crackers had a mild sweet crunch between my teeth. The moment I took the first bite, I knew there was no putting it down. It wasn’t anything over the top fancy—it was, instead, a simple mix of all things that satiated my palate. Unsure of what to expect, I opened the dip container and found within, the ingredients layer upon layer, for me to devour. On the top sliced avocados nested beneath a layer of cilantro, beside a slice of lemon. Smiling to myself, I tossed a slice of avocado into my mouth and squeezed the lemon onto the dip. It was the perfect combination of cracker and dip. It started to rain outside, and I sat on the bed snuggled under a blanket, enjoying my first taste of vegan while shivering a little from the unfamiliar cold.

Blossoming Lotus 2
Not my order, but it was so beautiful I had to take a picture.

I’d tried vegan biscuits once before in Pondicherry, but those nachos were my first real vegan meal. For once, I hadn’t shelled out a fortune for such a wholesome meal—as I would’ve at home—and that made me visit the same restaurant twice again.

The giant snickredoodle.

The second time, however, I chose desert over main course. I bought a snickerdoodle cookie, not sure what snickerdoodle even meant. I was more interested to find out how cookies without butter or milk would taste. My first shock was cultural. I hadn’t expected the cookie to be bigger than my palm, or thicker. As I unwrapped the plastic that clung to the cookie’s cinnamon sugar coating, I gulped at its appearance. Warming it up in the microwave, I wondered if I’d finish it at all. I did. The third time, they’d run out of oatmeal raisin cookies, and offered me a chocolate chip cookie instead. Oh, well, I thought back at home as I prodded the centre of the cookie to see if it had warmed up well enough, who could say no to chocolate?

Again, I thought I’d eat little by little, saving it up and savouring it. But as I took a tiny bite, I knew there was no wrapping up and leaving it for later.

Papa G's
Hot and tangy: sriracha and tempeh

On the last day, my friend recommended Papa G’s. There I had my first taste of tempeh. I’d never heard of it before, and had no idea how it would taste or how my digestive system would react to it. Without thinking, I ordered a tempeh sandwich—just because that’s my friend’s favourite. When I asked the restauranteur about tempeh preparation, “it’s a vegetarian protein, pressed like a patty,” he told me before I handed him my card. That day, for the first time in my life, I made a bold choice based on someone else’s word, and it turned out the best meal I’d ever had. The sandwich was so large, and so filling that I spent a good forty-five minutes munching on it. With every bite took, the favour of fermented soy seeped through my teeth and I enjoyed pairing it with sriracha sauce. As I sat outside the restaurant, a chilly breeze grazing my face and the bright rays of sunshine spreading warmth on my arms, the heat from the sauce and the tanginess from the sandwich coupled to fulfil my afternoon. I heaved a great sigh walking out of the restaurant, happy and quenched yet craving more.

Ah, impressive Portland.