Shiva Hindu Dietary Customs
Spanning a vast region from Kashmir to Bali, thousands of years, diverse peoples and languages as different as Hindi (Indo-European) and Tamil (Dravidian), Hindu dietary customs could hardly be expected to be uniform, and they aren't. Here we've got your hard core vegetarians, and we've got your spit roasted pig - but no beef.

Setting
Diets


© 2007 Clove Garden


Overview

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.

General Rules

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.

  • Tamasic (heavy) foods such as meat and fermented foods (including alcohol) promote dullness and inertia.
  • Rajasic (expanding) foods including onions, garlic, hot spices, stimulants, fish, eggs and salt. are thought excite intellect and passion which interfere with meditation.
  • Sattvic (ascending) foods including fruits, vegetables and grains are thought to promote transcendence, sublimity and orderliness.
Clearly those of higher caste should adhere to the sattvic for their spiritual development while the middle castes indulge in the rajasic and the lower castes in the tamasic - they're thought spiritually beyond hope anyway.

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.

The Brahman Diet

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.

  • Meat is forbidden along with all meat products.
  • Eggs are forbidden.
  • Milk and milk products are permitted, butter, yogurt, cream, etc. (but in India they're very expensive).
  • Cheese must not be coagulated with rennet (an animal product). In India the acid coagulated cheese panir predominates. It is roughly the same as hoop cheese, a form of farmer's cheese with more of the liquid squeezed out.
  • Onions - forbidden along with all other members of the Allium genus, including garlic, scallions, chives, shallots, etc.
  • Mushrooms are forbidden along with all other fungi.
  • Stimulants - coffee, tea, etc. are rajastic and to be avoided as they interfere with meditation.
  • Alcohol - no.

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

Krishna 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.

Muslim Influence

Taj Mahal 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.

Gujarat

Sri Nathji 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

Temple 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 every meal.

Links

This list does not include all sources used to prepare this page but those listed are particularly informative.

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