QUEENS, NY – Neil Kumar’s uncle, Hariprasad Goenka, keeps insisting that paneer is ‘vegetarian’s meat’ whenever they eat paneer. Paneer is a fresh farmer cheese common in Southeast Asian vegetarian cuisine.
Said Mr. Kumar, “I get it – it’s a primary source of vegetarian protein. But does he have to say that ‘it’s the vegetarian’s meat’ every damn time? Everytime we have mattar or saag paneer, he says it.
Mr. Kumar, 36, noted that the first time he recalls hearing the statement was when he was 12. They were eating a family dinner at a Bonanza Steakhouse. Mr. Goenka, now 67, was having difficulty finding something vegetarian-friendly to eat.
“Yes, I remember that dinner well,” said Mr. Goenka with a wistful head wobble. “All I could eat there was salad or pudding. I wished they just had some paneer – even plain paneer would have been better than nothing.”
It is alleged that Mr. Goenka was looking upon his second bowl of salad with mild disappointment. He pronounced for the first time that ‘paneer is the vegetarian’s meat’ with a deep sense of gravitas. “He made make eye-contact with everyone at the table,” said Mr. Kumar. “I was 12 and it sounded deep and serious. I couldn’t maintain eye-contact and looked down on my half-eaten steak with a sense of guilt.”
Mr. Goenka stated that he learned the phrase from his uncle Tutu Mama, who visited America in the 1967.
“Tutu Mama said Americans were obsessed with meat. He had a very hard time eating anything but eggs. To survive he said he would go to McDonald’s and order hamburgers. He would eat the buns, the pickles and would even scrape the tiny pieces of onion off the meat with a plastic spoon. When he came back to India, he would sometimes talk for hours to himself about how paneer is the vegetarian’s meat.”
Mr. Kumar realizes that this behavior will never change. “I just wish I could tune it out. Sometimes he’ll even say it when he sees people eat paneer on TV. It’s ridiculous.”