Indian vegitarian Thaali Meal Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We were in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. It was about 11pm. We had returned from the day’s hectic schedule of visits to places of tourist interest. Everybody in our group of eight, including my family of three; my friend Dinesh, his wife Chandra and their daughters were tired and hungry. We were staying in a houseboat where there was no food available at that hour. So we roamed around desperately looking for some restaurant or street-side shop but at that hour, all the eateries had pulled their shutters down. Even the bakery shops had wound up for the day. We were increasingly getting worried, wondering whether we have to go to sleep on empty stomachs.

Luckily, I noticed a restaurant that was just about to close for the day. It was a ray of hope. All of us virtually galloped to the place. Initially, the man at the counter expressed his inability to entertain us, but relented seeing the hungry children and the women. Since most of us were non-vegetarians, we were served from the stuff that was to be carried over to the next day. But a big problem arose when my friend’s wife, a strict vegetarian, insisted on eating something without a trace of egg and meat. She was the kind of person who would throw up at the very mention of non-vegetarian food.

The demand for a vegetarian meal in an essentially non-vegetarian restaurant put the manager in a fix.

Nevertheless, she was served a “vegetable curry”. Interestingly, Chandra relished it so much that she repeated her admiration for it three to four times. “It is really very tasty,” she said gleefully, licking the last bits off her spoon. On her repeat requests, I grew a bit suspicious and took a few spoonfuls in my plate to savour the dish.

To my horror, I discovered the secret of the “really very tasty” dish when I found a piece of chicken bone along with the gravy. I quickly hid it in my plate lest she noticed it and created a scene, spoiling our dinner.

It was many moons later that I discovered that the modus operandi of most roadside hotels is to make a common curry and mix ingredients as per the demand in the course of the day. So if a customer orders chicken curry, they mix pre-boiled pieces into it and serve.

Readied in a jiffy

If the customer wants to eat mutton curry, the cook would simply add boiled pieces into the same curry and it would get readied in a jiffy. But at that particular time, even the curry had got over. So when the “unexpected” demand for vegetarian food popped up, the tired (and unaware) cook used leftover chicken curry and mixed vegetables in it for Chandra.

Upon reaching the houseboat, I narrated the story to my friend Dinesh and my wife. More than anything else, he was worried that if she learnt the truth behind the “tasty” vegetable curry, she would shriek, vomit, scream and cry, all in this order, during the entire vacation. Her sensitivity towards anything non-vegetarian would make it impossible for any of us to be at peace. It was, therefore, advised, that we keep this a secret among us.

Last week, when the couple visited us, I recalled the incident over a cup of tea. I did not mean to hurt her, but was anxious to see her reaction. When she heard it, Chandra first laughed it off as a joke. Surprisingly, she clearly remembered the “really very tasty” dish despite the gap of more than three years. Later, when she realised we were not fibbing, over the next few hours, she was throwing up with the very thought of consuming meat.

The phenomenon continues to puzzle me.

Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.