Meet a Vegetable Biryani Supremacist

An "Opinionated Paneer" is heading the struggle to give veg biryani its due.
April 18, 2018, 10:30am
Vijayraj Singh aka The Opinionated Paneer. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

Vegetable biryani eaters are often singled out and (perhaps rightly) mocked at parties and functions for their insistence, not just in eating, but in staunchly defending this so-called meal. Twenty-eight-year old Vijayraj Singh, who runs an image consultant firm that advises politicians, might be best suited to save the image of the lowly dish.

Singh is the man behind the Facebook page “The Opinionated Paneer”, which has a little over 500 followers and raises vegetarian concerns in what he perceives as a meat-dominated world. He does this through memes, which he calls the “art of the twenty-first century.”

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Last December, Singh organised a protest at India Gate on his Facebook page. We met him to find out why biryani without mutton deserves our recognition and respect.

VICE: A protest over vegetable biryani?
Vijayraj Singh: I just made this page one day as a practical joke. Like everything I write, it was very spontaneous. People found out about it and started sharing it. The post, which went viral on Facebook, is heavily inspired by the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

On social media, there is a lot of bitterness, cynicism and enmity. In such a scene, our country needs a lot more humour. My movement was against this inherent misconception that vegetarianism is anti-non-vegetarianism.

Out of all the things in the world, why did you call yourself Paneer?
Paneer has a stigma attached to it, people see it as just a sad alternative to meat. It’s like vegetarian hai to bas Paneer hi khayega (vegetarians only eat paneer). I found it really discriminatory on behalf of paneer and thought I should give voice to this.

Paneer is a symbol of dissent and for standing up for the rights of vegetarians, the ones who are always an afterthought at the dinner table. That sort of discrimination has to end and paneer should be the flag-bearer.

The protest for the Vegetable Biryani Rights is slated for 21 December 2018. Image: Facebook

What do you have against the traditional biryani?
I have nothing against [meat] biryani but the passionate people who love it. To challenge the supremacy of non-vegetarian biryani, there needs to be an alternate voice. There needs to be some civil disobedience against the totalitarian attitude of non-vegetarians, who consider themselves superior to everyone. This extremely fascist thought must be challenged.

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I believe in a world of equality where vegetable biryani will be in all menus alongside chicken/mutton biryani. It should get equal recognition. The honourable court should pass a decree for that and the parliament should have a debate on that.

How does vegetarianism work in a country with such a diverse food culture?
I come from a family of non-vegetarians. A Rajput Hindu family where being a vegetarian is frowned upon.

I have found out that India has several layers of vegetarianism. The highest degree of vegetarians are the ones who don’t eat meat at all. Then there are the ones who don’t eat it at home, but eat outside. The second layer is the ones who don’t have meat on Tuesdays and Saturdays. These people often overcompensate – having three meals of meat on Sunday. The others will only eat egg. I still have the gravy sometimes but no meat.

The third level is who just have white meat. I call it the racism of white and red meat. Red meat eaters are Rajputs, Muslims, Bengalis, Jats – the ones who take their meat very seriously. The fourth level of vegetarians are biased, like my friend who is a vehemently strict vegetarian except for seekh kebabs.

What do you think of people who very vehemently say that vegetable biryani is just pulao?
These opinions are on the same lines that people carry about religion. Saying vegetable biryani is just pulao and what we eat is the correct thing is an example of intolerance. People make these subliminal decisions without realising the actual ramifications of what they are saying. Such opinions come from lack of knowledge about how these things are cooked, the methods and the spices.

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Does vegetable biryani have a historical origin?
I think the origin of vegetable biryani is when someone ate all the mutton in biryani and replaced it with some vegetables. But the important thing is it is here to stay. That’s the recognition it should strive for, rather than on the basis of some historical origin.

The Opinionated Paneer page logo. Image: Facebook

What are some places that do vegetable biryani well?
I don’t have much expectations from places when ordering vegetable biryani, but I was pleasantly surprised by the stuff at Biryani Blues in Delhi. In my opinion, Behrouz Biryani serves probably the best vegetable biryani in the city. They have thought about it. There is a little stall called The Treat in Chanakyapuri, which basically serves fried rice masquerading as biryani, but it is pretty good.

Do you cook vegetable biryani? Do you have an interesting recipes?
If I started cooking veg biryani, my entire cause will fall apart as every one of my followers will turn to non-vegetarianism.

What is you stand on elaichi in biryani?
I believe that elaichi is one of those ingredients in biryani where you appreciate its presence but you don’t really want it in your face. The whole ethos behind elaichi in biryani is aggressive and does not factor in the feelings of the eaters – who may unsuspectingly find it in their mouths completely overpowering the flavour. In the modernistic biryani world, elaichi doesn’t have a place.

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On your Facebook page, you call chicken biryani feudal. Why?
Feudalism is based on suppression or superiority over something which is considered inferior. So, chicken biryani had enjoyed this status in Delhi and Hyderabad, places which have had a lot of feudal lords. It enjoyed an influence in the courts of these kings. The theories of divine right that played a part there is also at play in its popularity.

Vijayraj Singh at a cafe in Hauz Khas, New Delhi. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan

In times of violence over meat, is vegetarianism no longer a liberal cause in India like it used to be? Do you think everyone needs to be a vegetarian?
We are teachers to the world in many things such as vegetarianism, its diversity and practices such as yoga. I think everyone ‘needs’ to be a vegetarian at least for a year and then they can decide whether they need to carry it forward or not. Plus there are health benefits, animal rights and several other things which will benefit them.

But whether everyone should be a vegetarian in our country? Now that is a question of freedom and choice, which is sacrosanct. If we go to the remote rural areas, eating animals is a very important and core part of the diet. For some tribes, it is essential to survive in extreme climatic conditions and temperature. They get a lot of protein, fat and other nutrients from beef. In cities it may just be a matter of convenience, but nutrition is a luxury for many people. I think it’s almost criminal to impose what you think is right on large population living in a different environment than us. They probably won’t even know why you are doing it. I don’t think we are going to be a hundred percent vegetarian country ever. We have people and communities who are very passionate about their food. I don’t think anything is going to change that.

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What do you think of right to eat whatever you want? Even beef?
If you look at it from the Hindu perspective, animals like cows and dogs hold a deeply emotional space in our minds. For thousands of years, people have kept these animals at home like their own family members. They are part of the economy of the house, producing milk and ghee for consumption. So, in that regard, those emotions should be respected. Muslims have some similar sentiment against pork and it is banned in most of the Muslim-majority countries. India being a very diverse country with various religions, that mutual respect needs to be there.

What do you think of the order banning the display of non-vegetarian food?
I found the order very disturbing and a result of very short-term and bigoted thinking. Jisko khana hai wo to khayega (The ones who have to, will eat). The larger theory behind this is "out of sight, out of mind". I don’t think it will serve any purpose. People will eat whatever want. I won’t stop going to any stall just because chicken thighs are displayed there. It is being sold as a part of very popular opinion, something I consider really dangerous.

On the lighter side, there will be many people who will be relieved by this order. You don’t see paneer, matar paneer or soya chaap displayed like that. Do you?

What made you decide to become vegetarian?
For me, it was social media.

I would not want to contribute to this corporate culture of animal abuse even at the cost of taste. The average non-vegetarian stall in India doesn't get its meat from these big corporates but from local butchers. It’s the bigger restaurant chains, who are the flag bearers of this animal abuse.

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This corporate culture driven by profit also indulges in animal testing, large scale production of meat, torture and skinning of animals. This mentality is responsible for a lot of bad things in the world like global warming, pollution in Delhi, or why minorities are overlooked when laws are passed.

I don’t think veganism has too much of a future in India as the movement has been hijacked by corporates

Do you think veganism has a future in India ?
Veganism comes from a reaction against the certain corporate practices, while vegetarianism is more encompassing. You live in harmony with animals around you without oppressing them. So, vegetarianism is more moderate in that regard. Until veganism and vegetarianism develop into something more cohesive, I believe vegetarianism is the way forward. This is one of the reasons I chose to be Paneer. I don’t think veganism has too much of a future in India as the movement has been hijacked by corporates. There are vegan restaurants which are charging more money than normal food. Both vegans and vegetarians share their love for animals and compassion for other living animals and the planet.

If dishes took part in elections, will you vote for vegetable biryani?
I would love to support this revolution of vegetarianism, but given my current job, I would probably end up advising both sides. My heart will definitely beat for vegetable biryani because of my love for animals.

In the current political climate, mutton and chicken biryani are the incumbents. There is a growing anti-incumbency against them but still enjoy the popular support. The vegetable biryani will need a revolution as people consider it an aberration. If it has a nice agenda and manifesto, I will definitely vote for it. I also have to believe in its leadership.

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