Hema Parekh

by Vivienne Kenrick

At her family home in Bombay, as part of her religion Hema Parekh was taught “never to take away another’s right to life.” That meant she lived as a vegetarian.

In time, when her son asked her why she was a vegetarian, she answered: “Our God sees that we are taking care of animals. There is so much in this world to eat, we are not killing them for food.” Her son then had to reconcile the beliefs of his family with those of his nonvegetarian friends. His mother taught him tolerance. “People must make their own decisions,” she said.

Hema remembers her own childhood with great happiness. “We spent weekends at the beach and summer holidays in different parts of India. My father was always at our disposal, whatever our demands,” she said. At college she studied commerce and economics. “My husband proposed marriage when I was 18. I was married at 19, and completed my senior year of college the following year. I went back from Japan to India to take my final exams,” she said.

Hema married Atul, who with jewelry designer Kazuo Ogawa set up Taj Enterprise in Japan. In Tokyo she enrolled in an intensive course in the Japanese language, and studied ikebana, in which she holds a headmaster’s license, and “bonseki.”

She said: “One of my early memories of Japan is how amazed everyone was when I mentioned the word ‘vegetarian.’ When I went to a restaurant or a home, I would be served a green salad, or if I was lucky a pasta dish. People thought that vegetarians ate only boiled vegetables and salads. I was sad to realize how little people knew about food.”

She took care of her own children’s protein requirements with a diet rich in lentils and milk products. “I was always interested in cooking, but didn’t have the chance to do any while I was in India,” she said. “Now it is my passion. I became keen to change the notion that vegetarian food was dull and boring. It is quite the opposite. It is amazing how one can create exotic flavors and delicious cuisines from almost any part of the world by using different herbs and spices.”

As a young newcomer to Tokyo, she was eager to make friends. “I began inviting friends home and prepared different snacks and curries for them. I remember how shocked they were when I said there was no meat, nor fish nor chicken, in any of my dishes. ‘How can you get this delicious taste?’ was their standard question. That was why I began teaching Indian vegetarian cooking.”

Before long Hema had so many students that she had to divide them into several small groups. She was invited to teach at the Tokyo American Club. “Through the club I met students from all over the world, and learned about different cultures and lifestyles,” she said. She is now teaching vegetarian cookery in the styles of six separate countries.

As she became passionate about cooking itself, and confirmed in her advocacy of vegetarianism for its health benefits, Hema became concerned about children’s eating habits. “Everybody says that their children hate vegetables,” she said. “I was thinking it must be the way vegetables are given to them that puts them off. It is our duty as parents to take the trouble to bolster our children’s nutrition. It is my firm belief that if children are exposed to the natural flavors of vegetables and herbs they have no reason to dislike them. If we can help our children grow up to be healthy and good human beings, that is fulfillment. I hope I am headed in that direction.”

This year Hema was introduced as the chef of the month in a prestigious Japanese magazine. Last year she designed a table setting for the Art of Dining Exhibition sponsored by Refugees International-Japan. She gave her table ornamental individuality with antique pieces from India’s ancient civilizations, and with hand-beaten silverware and crystal that she designed and engraved herself. “I wanted to change the Indian image of beggars on the street, and show another side. I wanted to bring out that people do live nicely,” she said. She also designed the theme table for India at the charity event sponsored by Ikebana International.

As her husband is often away on business trips, Hema said, “He encouraged me to do something on my own, to be creatively occupied. I would like to publish a vegetarian cookbook, and perhaps introduce a trendy vegetarian restaurant. That would be my way of giving back a little of what I have learned in life.”