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Feature Thu Jul 26 2007

Eating Jain

[Note: a version of this story can be heard on Chicago Public Radio's 848, 91.5 FM, July 27, 2007]

Jainism is one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions. Though it started about the same time as Buddhism, there are in India only 4 million or so practitioners of this peaceful, militantly vegetarian faith.

Last Saturday, the Culinary Historians of Chicago sponsored a Jain lunch at Village Hut in Glendale Heights. I pulled up a chair.

Around the table, people were eating crepe-like rolls of griddled chick pea flour called “khandvi,” remarkably tender and subtly flavored, each sheet delicately separating on the tongue and satisfying with simple textures. Another favorite was the walnut “halwa,” a rich mixture of ground nuts, oil, and brown sugar, one of several sweet dishes, accompanied by green and red sauces packing some serious heat.

Now, that may sound a little like a regular Indian meal, but Jains eat differently. Colleen Sen is researching the cuisine of Jainism, a faith that builds upon the fundamental principle that one should always avoid doing harm to anyone or anything. She told me that, “There are five things that all Jains don’t eat, and the five are meat, fish, eggs, honey and alcohol. Then there’s a second level of foods, that are not condoned, and people who are strict, and people who are more religious won’t eat, but many people who are Jains will eat, and those foods include these categories: fruits and vegetables with many seeds, such as figs, pomegranates and tomatoes, vegetables that grow underground including potatoes, turnips, squashes, carrots, mushrooms, onions and garlic.”

Even stricter than vegetarianism, Jain cuisine is based on the belief that while eating meat obviously harms the animal that gave up its haunch for our stew, eating potatoes and other root vegetables also harms life. Why? Because the harvesting process destroys the entire plant as well as the creatures that live in and around it.

Collen explained, “Jains cannot be farmers because if you’re a farmer, you dig up the soil and what are you doing? You’re killing animals; you’re killing living things; you’re killing bugs.”

Urmila Talsania, a life-long Jain, contends that it’s relatively easy to do without most forbidden foods: “I was born in a Jain family, raised Jain way, and things you never knew, you never miss it either, so I never missed any of the chicken or meat.”

Sidney Jain, despite his name, has a slightly different story. Though born of Jain parents, Sidney was raised on all-American meat. He told me this story:

I was born into a Jain family, both my parents were vegetarian, born in the US, and maybe not having that cultural network way back in the 70s, that is here now, my parents were a little confused as to how to raise a Jain kid in the US, and all of their friends who are, you know, Caucasian Americans they said, feed your kid meat, he’ll grow up big and strong, if you don’t feed him meat, he’ll grow up sick. And so fearing that I would get sick or not grow up big and strong, my parents right from birth, my first solid food was meat. And I ate meat until I was about 14.”

Then Sidney changed his diet and began to consume rice and vegetables. For protein, he ate legumes; for calcium, dairy products, which would be avoided in, for instance, your average Vegan diet. He told me, “… our Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago at that time was hosting what we call a declamation, which is a speech contest, which a lot of kids would give, and there was a cash prize. And you know, at the time I thought well, I can speak publicly and I’d like to enter the contest and win the money. However, at the time I was eating meat and the topic was “Vegetarianism and Ahimsa,” ahimsa being nonviolence, and the thought was how could I give a talk on vegetarianism and ahimsa when I eat meat. So, you know, being a typical 14 year old I thought, okay, I’ll be a vegetarian, I’ll give the speech, hopefully win the money, and then eventually eat meat again. I would go to lunch with my friends in high school in the cafeteria, and instead of getting a hamburger, I’d now be getting the grilled cheese, and my friends were like “Hey, what’s going on?” And I told them I was a vegetarian, and they started laughing and poking fun at me, and they were saying “Oh yeah, that will only last a month,” and I’d be eating hamburgers by the end of the year. So I’d sort of have to argue with them, and sort of debate with them about why I was a vegetarian, and so through the next year of debating with my friends as to the reasons why I was a vegetarian became much stronger. “

Having a stricter diet than even your average vegetarian makes it difficult to determine not only what you should put in your body, but what you should wear on it. For Falguni Doshi, another Jain by birth, the restrictions of her faith present daily dilemmas – some of which have nothing to do with food. Falguni explains, “Even when you think about clothes, if you’re buying your shoes, they’re probably, some of them may have leather, and a lot of people try to avoid it. If I can, I try to avoid it, but sometimes the nicer shoes or the nicer purses will have leather, and I guess…Jainism is a philosophy, and you follow it to the extent you want to follow it.”

Jainism is tolerant. It provides wiggle room for the conscience, an opening for the individual interpretation of tenets, a way to shape the faith to meet the dietary demands – and desires – of our material world.

At lunch, there’s an unmistakable blast of garlic coming from one of those spicy sauces. The stinking rose is, of course, forbidden by the strict Jain diet. It’s on the table because people like it. Accommodations such as these are fundamental to Jainism. To live a purely Jain life, to avoid injury to everything, would preclude even drinking water, which contains microscopic organisms. So allowances are accepted; exceptions, made.

Urmila explains that recognizing one’s limitations is part of what it means to eat Jain: “Jainism allows that you go only as far as you want to go in terms of practicing your Jainism. So, it’s spiritual levels, it’s a ladder, and as you go into higher levels of spirituality, you automatically don’t eat certain foods. I’m not at that level of my spirituality, so I do eat the rooted vegetables and the food with the more seeds. I am not that strong.”

Perhaps the Jain diet can become second nature…but it won’t be easy.

Walk into any grocery store and admire the fish flown in from either ocean, exotic fruits and veggies trucked up from Latin America and new foods presenting themselves to our eyes every time we shop. Human beings have never had more food options; the menu has never been so vast; and with the range of tempting food options laid before us at markets and restaurants, it seems more difficult than ever to relinquish our position at the top of the food chain.
tray.jpg papad.jpg
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Photos courtesy of Peter Engler

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Uttam K. Jain / August 1, 2007 11:38 AM

The last prophet of Jainism, Lord Mahavir was a contemporary of Gautam Siddharth Buddha. This goes back to 600 BC. However, Jainism is much older than. There are recordings in Hindu Vaidas and Upnishads about Jain prophets dating as far back as 5000 years.

Suja / August 15, 2007 8:28 PM

Interesting writeup. Did you know how many Jain Temples there are in the US? Check out the extensive list on

Nikul / March 26, 2009 11:15 AM

many misguiding statements are their in this site, I request to rectify it.

The very important thing that is, Buddhism emerged only 2500 years ago. whereas Jainism has been in existence from times immemorial and it is older than many religions of the world. This point is evident from Vedas, The Upanishads, and in Purana. Not only this; it is also evident that Bhagwan Buddha gave currency to his famous Middle Path only after being fed up with the apogee of the wisdom that had been expounded in Jain doctrines and theories; and that Middle-path became disseminated under the name of Buddhism. This is an indisputable historical truth.

I hope that this mistakes will be rectify as early as possible. I would also like to give one suggestion to the author of this web site that, pls read the book "Jain Dharm ane Teni prachinta". This book will be very helpful to you. It is in Gujarati.

Thank you.

Chetan Shah / August 10, 2011 12:33 AM

Hi all,
It's interesting to know that people around the world are showing their kind interest in Jainism.
Jainism is a religion of real conciousness & the ultimate path towards liberalizing one's soul to eternal residence i.e. Moksh. But without setting target of gaining true knowlege, it is difficult to come to a conclusion.
For all who are keen on finding knowlege can refer to the english version of "Shree Trishasthi shalaka Purush Charitra". A book written in the 11th century by a very famous Jain monk Param Pujya Aacharya Dev Shrimad Vijay HEMCHANDRA SURISHWARJI Maharaj Saheb.
Please refer to it. The english version is translated by an american lady named Ms. Helen. I guess in the 60's. It is a set of 4 books.
I am sure your views on Jainism & the world would thereafter change for sure.
Bye all.

Jain Story for Kids / August 8, 2013 5:31 AM

nice post...thnkx...

Jain Story for Kids / September 1, 2013 3:51 AM

its fantastic idea...

Leo / April 16, 2014 12:27 AM

I'm confused, they rely so heavily on tomatoes in their recipes but tomatoes are carnivores, the drain the life out of their insect prey under the earth. I thought this was well known.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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