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Hinduism is the third most populous religion in the world, dominating India, Nepal and Bali with significant populations in other South and Southeast Asian countries. Beyond its traditional range, the Hindu population of the Americas is nearly 2.5 million with 1.4 million in the U.S. while Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago in South America are together about one third Hindu.
Related religions are Sikhism and Jainism but they are both significantly different. Buddhism is an offspring of Jainism and Hinduism. Whether the Hare Krishna cult should be added to the Hindu count is debatable as they themselves say not, but waffle a bit on that point. They do, however, use the Hindu texts and adhere to the Brahman Diet.
Though it's thought not actually a part of Hinduism, a major feature of Indian society is the caste system (Note-1). Exactly how this complex and very rigid structure developed is a subject of conjecture. The sacred Vedas do divide people into four Varnas (castes) but not with the complexity or hereditary rigidly of the current system. In any case, a person's caste and region affect how s/he is expected to adhere to the various dietary customs.
Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. - these Ayurvedic "vibrations" are characteristics of various foods and affect both the physical and astral bodies. This is the root theory behind various Hindu food customs.
Vegetarianism: Large numbers of Hindus (perhaps as many as 30%) are vegetarian, depending on region and sect, though strictness varies. In some regions fish are eaten as "fruits of the sea" (what a cop-out). Vegetarianism is practiced particularly in the southern regions of India and in Gujarat on the northwest coast. Members of the Brahman caste are supposed to be vegetarian (see Brahman Diet), but in some areas Brahmans traditionally eat meat.
Onions & Garlic and all other members of the Allium genus including shallots, chives, leeks, etc. are forbidden to many Hindu sects and castes. Onions and garlic inhibit transcendence by clouding one's mind with "passion" (rajasic). Others say they cause "odors of the breath" which are offensive to Lord Krishna. Problem: no onions or garlic leaves a huge hole in the flavor spectrum which is partially patched by using the "aromatic" resin Asafoetida.
Asafoetida, resin from a plant related to celery and fennel, has the same sulfurous stink as 90 weight hypoid gear oil. Tiny amounts are fried briefly in hot oil before adding other ingredients to tame the odor and develop the flavor. It provides a complexity and sophistication similar in effect to the onions and garlic forbidden to many Hindu cooks.
Mushrooms have been avoided by the higher castes because they "grow in dung and unclean ground", however morels have long been picked and enjoyed in Kashmir and significant mushroom farming operations have been started in Kerala, Karnataka and other states.
Cows: That cows are sacred to Hindus is well known but not exactly accurate. It is true a large part of the Hindu population venerate cows as "The Mother" and do not eat beef, but in some areas and within some castes beef is definitely eaten.
Venerating cows does not derive from the sacred Vedas which make it clear cattle were on the menu in those days, but probably from the rise of the Krishna cult, from economics and from Brahmanism's response to Buddhism (2). Milk and milk products like butter are more efficient use of the animals.
This brings up the embarrassing problem of what to do with male calves which will never give milk (and aren't "The Mother" either). A little Internet research shows India exports a lot of veal from both cattle and buffalo with regular or halal slaughtering available. This leads me to suspect they suffer the same fate there as elsewhere.
Pigs are not forbidden by Hinduism except by those sects that ban all meat. On the other hand not much pork is consumed in India except in areas that traditionally hunted wild boar or are near the border with China. Most of India can't afford to eat pork because pigs would compete directly with humans for food, and there just isn't enough to go around.
Versions & Regions
This section is by no means comprehensive of what is eaten by Hindus in
India - that varies from state to state and from one side of a state to
another. Only about 30% of Hindus are vegetarians so the rest eat whatever
animals, birds, fish and shellfish are available. The diets listed here are
are of particular current or historical interest.
This diet is familiar to many Americans as that promoted by the Hare Krishna cult and it is the diet members of the Brahman caste are expected to adhere to in India and elsewhere. The objective is to emphasize sattvic foods, minimize rajasic and eliminate tamasic foods.
There are, of course, exceptions. In Kashmir Brahmans eat meat (though not beef) and to a lesser extent in Orissa, Bengal and Maharashtra where eggs, fish, chicken and even lamb and goat may also be included.
Hare Krishna Diet
The Hare Krishna cult (International Society of Krishna Consciousness)
adheres quite strictly to the Brahman Diet, but adapts some Western foods
to it. They have always been rather food oriented and run a worldwide chain
of dining halls called "Govindas" where inexpensive sattvic food is served
(non-believers are welcome). The food is good enough to have been listed
by Saveur magazine in their annual top 100 favorite things (Jan/Feb 2008).
Around 40 years ago I ate a few meals at the main Los Angeles temple and
the food was good then too. Photo distributed under
Gnu Free Documentation License v1.2 or later.
From 1206 to 1857 Muslim invaders ruled various parts of India and nearly all of India at the height of the Mughal (Mongol) Empire around 1800. They established a culinary tradition based on Persian cuisine melded with Indian ingredients. This tradition continues in the current era even though the population is now nearly all Hindu. It predominates in the Northwest and is also found in the city of Hyderabad in east central India.
This Mughal cuisine is the one most familiar to Americans as
"Indian cuisine". It's spicing is rich and aromatic with dishes including
lamb, chicken, yogurt and cheese but beef and pork are not eaten. Leavened
naan bread is commonly served as are complex rice pilafs. Most predominant
in Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, Delhi and Hyderabad.
With the meat eaters of Pakistan and Rajasthan to the north and the seafood eaters of Maharashtra to the south, Gujarat is noted for the most uncompromising and sophisticated vegetarian cuisine of the subcontinent. About 89% of Gujarat's population is Hindu, with the sect of Shrinathji (a form of Krishna (a form of Vishnu)) predominating. It is also home of the sect Bhagawan Swaminarayan founded based on love, peace, purity and non-violence. Vegetarian Jains, though, account for only about 1% of the population.
Meat, chicken, fish and other animal flesh is little used in Gujarat.
Dairy products are very popular and Gujarat is the largest milk producer
in India. Followers of Swaminarayan do not eat eggs but other Gurjarati
do. "Roti" flat bread, usually made of millet, is much served but so is
rice and a very wide variety of seasonal vegetables and pulses. Dishes
tend to be a bit sweeter than in other parts of India.
Gurjarat is an educated and highly industrialized area so it both has considerable influence on the rest of India and attracts outsiders who seek employment there. Many Gurjarati have taken up residence in the U.S. and other Western countries filling technical positions.
The Vegetarian South
While the Mughali cuisine of northern India has been most familiar to Americans as "Indian cuisine", restaurants specializing in the vegetarian cuisine of Southern India are now becoming common, especially in Southern California but also in New York.
Dal (split and peeled pigeon peas, mung beans and lentils) is the foundation of the cuisine but rice is also much used. Coconut and coconut milk are major ingredient and frying is done largely in coconut oil. Dairy products are expensive but yogurt is popular. Rather than bread thin lacy pancakes made from a mix of rice and dal are widely served.
Meats of any kind, including chicken and seafood, are associated mainly with recipes imported from other parts of India and served in hotels and restaurants.
Potatoes and many other vegetables are used, usually in combination with
dal. Curry leaves, chilis and tamarind are major spicings while the aromatic
spices of the Mughali cuisine are little used. Pickles and chutneys appear at
This list does not include all sources used to prepare this page but those listed are particularly informative.
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