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Lay the fish slices on top of the spices and tomatoes for a light gravy to be had with brown rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Lay the fish slices on top of the spices and tomatoes for a light gravy to be had with brown rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

My vegetarian life and other strange tales

After a cardiac wobble, your columnist tries to become what he had sworn never to be

My life as I knew it changed when a smiling young woman told me I could eat no more than 350g of chicken and fish per week.

Was she mad? Was I? As in, three hundred and fifty? Three five zero?

That is less meat than I eat—or used to eat, this conversation unfolded last week—at every meal.

My wife, the vegetarian, was substantially more stunned than I. After all, she kept the fridge stocked with meats of all kinds. Eating dead things made me who I am, she believed, the man she married. As for myself, I had a premonition that change would come, sometime, to my life, and when it did, it would be dramatic.

That time is here.

It all began one balmy Bangalore morning at home and at my computer when I felt a little heaviness in my chest, a tightening. My instinct was to put it down to indigestion, as I had over two years to the occasional racing heart and dizziness. But when the heaviness continued for more than 10 minutes and dizziness kicked in, my gut told me this had nothing to do with what I had eaten. A quick google search confirmed that I was indeed displaying the symptoms of a heart attack.

The next two days in a hospital revealed a narrowing branch of a coronary artery. As I lay spread-eagled like a frog awaiting dissection in the surgeon’s operating theatre, he peered at my angiogram and declared, “Otherwise you have nice, broad arteries."

So, this little kink in this obscure branch artery was enough to change my life? Indeed.

The diagnosis said I was, like my father, now the possessor of ischemic heart disease. Indians are infinitely more predisposed to heart disease and diabetes than any race in the world, but my premonition apart, I firmly believed I was an exception. Indeed, I was reasonably fit, did not smoke and had no diabetes or high blood pressure (as the hospital results revealed), and, aside from my love for meat, ate reasonably healthy food.

As the smiling dietitian told me how I needed to change my life, I realized some things were already in place, such as 45 minutes of daily exercise, eating egg whites, salads and grilled fish and living a low-oil life.

Although I am not a serious drinker, I did occasionally enjoy my large peg of rum, but that’s out. I guess the two glasses of red wine that she recommended per week should help.

The sticking point appears to be the quantity of meat. As I write this, I have undergone two days of a primarily vegetarian diet. It sucks, of course, but I can live with it. After all, I am about 5kg overweight (thanks to a remarkably persistent mystery virus that has hobbled me for a year), and I welcome the opportunity to get lean and mean (don’t get too mean, an aunt joked).

I am sure I can be creative about getting reasonably tasty vegetarian food into my life—well, deep down, I have my doubts about the tasty bit—but the absence of meat will hurt.

No pork chops, fried bheja or pepper sausages. No more trips to the neighbourhood slaughterhouse or to Lusitania, the local cold-storage, for life’s great pleasures or to Albert Bakery for kheema samosas. No more of my staple, fragrant fish curry with coconut milk. Worst of all, no more roast-beef and ham breakfasts with my three-year-old daughter.

Come to think of it, I may have been a little too nonchalant about claiming adaptation to this new phase of life. But, as I said, let’s not overdramatize my situation, which is really quite tame compared to those who require their chests opened up to have clogged arteries bypassed. My philosophy is, “These things happen. Let’s live with it."

Meanwhile, my wife, who appears to be getting over the shock of seeing me as primarily vegetarian, is sending me emails titled, “23 Foods That Can Save Your Heart". Ah, I see red wine, tuna and salmon there, which is good. I also see black beans and oatmeal, which is not so good. It is amazing how much I already incorporate in my diet, including olive oil, sweet potato, carrots, oranges, almonds and walnut.

As you can see from the recipes below, I have already kicked off my new menu. The fish, inspired by a Naga-style of poaching (see my last column), was delicious. My mother’s chicken and vegetable stew in low-fat milk was particularly inspired.

This is well and good, but the nub is that 350g. As I write this, it’s been five days since the new diet kicked in. I could eat no more than three pieces of poached fish in six days and half a chicken drumstick at one time. I am eating all the vegetarian food that my mother is bravely dishing out. It’s hard for her because vegetarianism is a dirty word in this family. I have determined that the 350g limit is weakening me. I eat, but I feel listless. How can it be the same for me, just a quarter-inch shy of 6ft, as for the next person, who may be many kilograms and several inches shorter? While I restrict myself to one little piece once in two days, my father, who likely passed on this heart thingy to me, is eating two pieces of fish or chicken per meal. What’s with that?

Next week I meet my cardiologist. I have many questions, but the first one is going to be: What can you do about the 350g?

Poached Masala Fish

Serves 2


5-6 slices rawas (Indian salmon

½ tsp ginger-garlic paste

1 long green chilli, slit lengthwise

½ tomato, chopped

½ tsp paprika (or one fourth tsp red-chilli powder)

1 tsp coriander power

½ tsp cumin powder

½ tsp olive oil

6-7 kokum pieces, torn

Salt to taste (as little as possible)


Rub salt over the fish. Gently heat a non-stick pan with the oil. Sauté the ginger-garlic paste for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and toss for a minute. Add the paprika, cumin and coriander powders. Sauté. Lay the fish slices on top of the spices and tomatoes and pour water, just enough to reach the top of the fish. Slide in the green chilli and kokum and shake the pan so that everything mixes. Cook on medium heat. In 10 minutes, gently flip the fish slices. Let the water reduce over 10 more minutes. Take off heat and serve with brown rice.

Vegetable Milk Stew

Serves 2


2 carrots, steamed and chopped

100g broccoli florets

1 potato, boiled, chopped into chunks

1 onion, chopped into large pieces

2 cups low-fat milk

½ tsp each coriander, cumin and garam masala powders

Salt to taste


Blanch the broccoli. When nearly done, in a non-stick pan add the broccoli, carrots, potato and onion. When they start releasing water, add the spices and toss. Add salt, as little as possible. Finally, add the milk and gently heat through. Do not let the milk boil. Stir and serve with brown rice.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking And Other Dubious Adventures.

Also Read | Samar’s previous Lounge columns

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