Ajay Jain is one of India’s nearly 5 million Jains, adherents of the belief that good karma—the kind that releases the soul from rebirth and leads it to Nirvana—can be attained only through non-violence. Jains are such strict vegetarians that they won’t eat garlic or onions, lest these roots harbor tiny insects that Jains hope not to harm. This doesn’t mean that Jain food is bland. When I lunched at Ajay’s Lucknow home, I was enraptured by the flavors. Cooking over a hot plate, Ajay’s mother, Shashi, and his wife, Neelan, whipped up okra pungent with asafoetida, potatoes heaped in lip-smacking green mango powder, dal bittersweet with fenugreek. Then they turned to the curry. Soupy, sun-bright with turmeric, and snappy with mustard seeds, it held airy chickpea fritters. “At the end of lunch, a sweet is a must,” said Ajay’s dad, Ramesh, as assuredly as he’d described the Jain way of avoiding “the sins of worldly things.” The ladoos he offered, crumbly bonbons of buttery chickpea flour, were a worldly pleasure indeed, but a prescribed one. They “make digestion very easy,” he said, biting into one with relish.
Though strictly vegetarian and made without onions or garlic, Jain food is anything but bland