A leek is a large green and white vegetable which looks like a spring onion designed by Texans. It became a hot news item last week, so I was commissioned to bring one to a TV studio.
I found a huge leek, about the size and shape of a sawn-off shotgun, in a luxury delicatessen. To save the environment, I refused a plastic bag. This was a bad decision. There are not many people walking around the central business district clutching oversized vegetables. Everyone stared. I held it like a truncheon. I may have started a trend.
Leeks are newsworthy because new laws in Taiwan mean they can no longer be served to vegetarians. Offenders can be fined up to $6,000.
On my way to the studio, I stopped for a coffee with a Western friend who has lived in Asia for four years (i.e. he's a newbie who has no idea what's going on around him).
"I hate to make personal comments," he said. "But you're carrying a large vegetable."
I replied: "Aren't you? You mean you don't know about the Wednesday vegetable requirement?"
His eyes widened with worry, so I explained that I was joking, and this vegetable was for a TV news report that in Taiwan, leeks were now technically meat items.
"That's also a joke, right?" he asked.
But it wasn't. In Asia, people have a much broader definition of meat than Westerners. In Thailand, vegetarians don't eat onions. In Gujarat, veggies avoid beetroot. In parts of South India, "no meat" means no carrots, tomatoes, pumpkins, or radishes. Buddhists in parts of China and Malaysia refuse to eat dishes containing chopped up pieces of poor little garlic cloves. Brahmins in South India will not eat eggplant, Vaishnavas will not eat potatoes, and Jains would never harm an innocent mushroom. In general, Buddhists cannot consume anything which contains more than eight per cent alcohol, so they would be unable to eat Mel Gibson, for example. (Yeah, I know, what a shame.)
There are exceptions. Sri Lankans pay lip service to these rules but in private will viciously dismember onions without a qualm. And Hong Kongers eat everything, often forgetting to ask important questions such as "is it edible?" or "is it dead yet?"
There are solid scientific reasons why many folk in Asia classify vegetables as meat. Indian writings say pungent vegetables such as leeks "spring from the blood of slain demons." (So that's why I've never managed to grow them in my window box! I was using seeds.)
Because of this, vegetables are said to change the personality. You can only offer green chillies at temples, because red ones are associated with misbehaviour. The same is true for leeks, which are associated with excessive passion that can lead to violence and sin.
Eventually I arrived at the television station, having obtained a bag to hide my leek. The guard at the building noticed the rifle-shaped item under my arm. He opened the bag and looked inside.
"Nothing dangerous," he said, handing it back to me. Little did he know.
I am going to eat the leek tonight and see if I do more than my usual amount of violence and sin. I may even garnish it with a red chilli. Be very afraid.
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