The Overlooked History of Punjabi Vegetarianism

Two-thirds of Punjab is vegetarian. But stereotypes of chicken-loving foodies persist, ignoring traditions shaped partly by Partition.

Mallika Basu

September 8, 2022

The Overlooked History of Punjabi Vegetarianism
Pooris, chole masala, and pickles served up in Amritsar (NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images)

Vernika Awal’s paternal great-grandmother arrived in India alone with four children after a grueling journey following Partition. She tells the story of how her meat-eating Punjabi ancestors turned vegetarian through a simple bowl of chickpeas. In her family recipe, you add warm spices and then hot oil. Add a garnish of tempered fresh green chilies and finely julienned ginger, and you get pindi chana, possibly the most well-known Indian food import from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. There is no tomato adding or hing sprinkling needed. Many enjoy pindi chana with puris or ajwain seed parathas. 

Awal is a Punjabi food historian. The simplicity of her family’s pindi chana recipe speaks to the creativity of most Punjabi homes and the ingenuity of refugees during Partition. Many Punjabis eat simple, predominantly vegetarian meals at home, with meat only on special occasions, if they eat meat at all. Yet, to this day, the stereotypical image of Punjabis is one of fiercely committed meat-eaters who love their tandoori chicken and butter chicken. 

In 2020, when an infographic of vegetarianism in India showed that 67% of Punjab is vegetarian, people responded with cries of disbelief. One Twitter user dismissed it outright, joking: “Only possible if chicken is considered vegetarian.” Only 33% of people residing in Punjab identified as non-vegetarian in a 2018 survey by the Office of the Registrar General of India. Many vegetarian Punjabis will attest to the shock response of “but, how?” when they reveal their dietary preference. The variety and simplicity of Punjabi food — and the role history played in defining it — have been forgotten along the way.