Recently, I dreamt that people were holding an anti-vegetarian protest outside my house. They had chants and banners and had made fake sashimi from carrots and beetroot and put them on skewers to be held up as an example. Writing this down now and reading it back, it becomes clear how ridiculous this is as an image. In my view, all forms of censorship and evangelism are to be met with a certain amount of skepticism, in the same manner as this strange, illusive vision which was conjured by my imagination.
I am vegetarian, and have been so for over twenty years, and I reckon it suits me pretty well. If it didn’t work out somehow, I would have abandoned it as another lifestyle experiment that wasn’t meant to be, just like that time when I had short hair.
I am not vegan, however, a label people often erroneously attach to me. Possibly because people are unclear about the difference between vegetarianism and veganism, or maybe they just make assumptions based on other aspects of my character. I tried veganism for two years or so whilst I was living in London from around 2003 to 2005, and to be quite honest I intentionally loosened the reins on myself for a variety of reasons; to save time and effort shopping, social pressure, and the realization that I had been doing it (mostly) all wrong by eating honey and figs, drinking red wine and continuing to use regular cosmetics (to name but a few of my errors). In a word: convenience, the scourge of modernity, drove me out of my culinary comfort zone. In an ideal world, I would like to be able to follow my ethical choices without hesitation, but life forces us to do a daily dance between our sense of idealism and our impending reality.
Vegetarianism suits me because it represents a life of moderation in keeping with the guidelines of a yogic lifestyle following the Hindu tradition. The Five Yamas and Niyamas are a list of ethical/spiritual ‘dos and don’ts’, and asteya (Sanskrit: अस्तेय) is the fourth Yama of Patanjali’s Five Yamas of the Yoga Sutras (ref.1). It is roughly translated as the rule of ‘not stealing’. Asteya is a niyama or a ‘don’t’, similar to the Bible’s eighth commandment, also found in the Jewish Torah, and usually written as “thou shalt not seal”.
Asteya isn’t necessarily restricted to the stealing of material possessions, but refers more widely to other types of tangible and intangible resources. There are strong parallels here with the five moral precepts of Buddhism (ref.2), which express ‘non-stealing’ as the ‘abstinence from taking of that which is not freely given’. Here, there is a fluidity in the concept which calls into question: What can be not freely given? Well, pretty much anything, especially as we venture into the territory of the conceptual; time, love, trust, commitment, praise, goodwill, etc. It is the recognition of others’ capacity for either reticence or generosity that leads to the elusive ‘freedom of the heart’.
Coming back to asteya, we can delve more specifically into one of its branches, aparigraha (Sanskrit: अपरिग्रहा):
“Aparigraha is the concept of non-possessiveness, non-greed and non-attachment. It …teaches that one should take only what one needs or serves and let go of the unnecessary. The word comes from the Sanskrit a, a prefix meaning “non”; pari, meaning “on all sides”; and graha, meaning “to take,” “to grab” or “to seize.” Therefore, aparigraha translates as “not taking more than one needs.””
Here, we can apply a start to understand the sutra’s ethical applications to food and diet, as an individual’s needs will vary and fluctuate according to a person’s life stage (age and development) and their present context. To my mind, asking an animal to sacrifice its life for me when I have plenty of other sources of nutrition available is a form of greediness, or stealing. However, it is completely unclear to me, as an urban dweller, whether chickens agree to part with their eggs, cows with their milk, or bees with their honey to feed me. I just hope that if they are not, since they are still (hopefully) alive, they can forgive me. It is very difficult in my current communal living environment to eliminate these products, or even really know their inclusion and/or provenance. To go vegan just now would be a form of extremism against my social context, plus there are other factors to be considered such as food waste and food miles, energy consumption and packaging, and in this case, school cafeteria meals win (please scroll down to the end of this post for photos).
Please enjoy the examples pictured above of simple dishes I have prepared for their visual appeal. They were put together conscientiously without fuss or undue finesse, with the intention of incorporating the principles of ‘aparigraha’ and garnished with a general taste of frugality.
- Turmeric and cinnamon-spiced jack-o-lantern pancake (homemade).
- Green juice, wholemeal bread, hummus and avocado with tzatziki (store bought).
- Sweetcorn soup (from dried powder) with re-hydrated seaweed, fresh chili peppers and rice flour dumplings (store bought).
- Diced tofu with chili pepper leaves (prepared fresh from the vine with soy oil, black pepper and dried chili pepper powder).
- Hand-drip cinnamon latte (home-prepared).
- Red peppers stir-fried in soy oil with black pepper on sliced avocado.
- Diced tofu with aubergine (eggplant), fried in soy oil with turmeric.
- Courgette (zucchinni) and scrambled egg with sesame seeds (home cooked).
- Mushrooms with black pepper and rosemary on wheat noodles with maté tea and a freshly picked organic fig (all home-prepared).
- Crispy tofu with spinach and white sesame seeds.
- Non-vegan tomato soup (store bought) with freshly chopped baby turnip and baby spinach leaves.
Like most home cooks these days, I try to avoid ‘chemicals’ in the kitchen (a nonsense, since we are all made of chemical components; I prefer to use the pretentious term ‘non-foods’). Obviously, artificial colours and hydrogenated fats, substances that the body can’t break down are to be treated as potential poisons. To quote a current meme ‘if you don’t recognize something on the label, your body can’t either’ is to over-simplify and defy logic. Before I came to Korea over seven years ago, I didn’t know that 물 meant water, and therefore didn’t know cognitively what it was when I read the bottle label, but my body was certainly thriving on it. Likewise, I have discovered a whole range of cooking ingredients from the traditional Korean food store or herbal medicine cabinet that I had never eaten before* (and didn’t know the name for in any language) because they don’t grow or are not commercially available in Europe, yet are perfectly nutritious and mostly ‘chemical-free’, such as acorn jelly, persimmons, quince, schizandra berries, lotus root, ginseng, jujube, fermented soy bean pastes, and all varieties of kimchi.
In the last month or so, the university student cafeteria started a weekly ‘fruit day’, introducing a kind of stealth meatless day. So here are the meals throughout an atypical day.
Pumpkin and peanut rice porridge with dried seaweed and carrots and courgette.
Egg fried tofu with dried seaweed. Fruit platter.
Sweet chili batter tofu and soft ricecakes, spicy green salad and fruit juice.
Traditional temple food:
1. Buddha’s birthday meal from Yakchunsa Temple, Jungmun, Jeju Island (bibimbap mixed vegetables without rice and rice cake).
2. Bibimbap meal, sujaebee (rice pasta in white sesame and seaweed soup), and side dishes from Bap-E-Bo-Yak (Let Food Be Medicine), New Jeju City, Jeju Island.
- Satchidananda, Sri Swami. (translation and commentary) “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” Integral Yoga Publications, 2012.
- The 5 moral precepts of Buddhism as outlined by the Buddha. Those undertaking the precepts are forbidden from:
- harming living things.
- taking what is not given.
- sexual misconduct.
- lying or gossip.
- taking intoxicating substances eg drugs or drink.