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I AM AMAZED HOW HOTELIERS, CATERERS, AIRLINES AND EVEN finicky hostesses believe that paneer can be the eternal vegetarian substitute for the so-called “rich food”. I look forward to airline meals — not because they are either tasty or nourishing but simply as a change from the usual. When the air hostess comes down the aisle trundling her trolley I always ask, “What do you have for vegetarians?” “Paneer Madam”, is the standard reply.

Every caterer will give you the choice of two vegetarian and two non-vegetarian snacks followed by two or three non- vegetarians main dishes and an equal number of vegetarian items. Paneer will be suggested come what may. Even in the best hotels, while the non-vegetarian snacks range from chicken drumsticks and Tibetan Momos to fish tikkas and succulent kebabs, followed by a breathtaking variety of Continental, Chinese and Indian carnivorous items ranging from grilled chicken and fish to roast lamb and butter chicken, for the poor vegetarian it is invariably the good old paneer with a mishmash called “seasonal vegetables” and dal makhani.

My weekly shopping jaunt helps me to keep track of prices. Boneless mutton and chicken exceed Rs. 140 per kg. While paneer is Rs. 80 per kg, fish exceeds Rs 200 a kilo. Mouthful for mouthful one can hardly consume paneer in the same proportion. So the option is to move on to accompaniments like Pindi chana. And in any case whatever be the choice, the overall cost in Rupees, (albeit not in cholesterol) is incredibly low compared to that of non-vegetarian fare.

It is increasingly fashionable now to opt for being vegetarian. Physicians and dietiticians list convincing argument to make one convert to vegetarianism. On international flights and even in countries like China which on formal occasions serve 18 course non-vegetarian meals, equal deference is shown to the vegetarian palate. And it is not as though we do not have a wide variety of vegetables to compensate for opting out of the carnivorous cohort. Exotic vegetables like courgettes (zucchini) asparagus, celery, red and yellow peppers, lotus stem, broccoli, baby corn, avocado, leeks and lettuce are all available, at least in the metros. There are so many enticing ways in which these can be prepared and served, whether in the form of a quiche, baked with cheese, stir fried or skewered, stuffed or braised. These items can make up for what the vegetarian loses by way of variety and taste. If such vegetables are produced with a little panache, with a dash of milk, cheese and herbs it may entail a little more effort but would be compensation for the herbivore.

It is high time that our vegetarian menus became more imaginative. I, for one, am tired of paneer tikkas, paneer pasandas, paneer mutter, paneer mushroom, paneer cutlets, paneer palak and the caterer’s last word for vegetarians Shahi paneer. And while we’re at it and considering how air fares are plummeting, (thanks to competition) can we think of discarding the eternal accompaniments – potatoes and rice? As I see it, it is time that vegetarians united to demand equality, equitable distribution of delectable dishes and affirmative action. We need to raise out concern not just our cutlery.

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