By Pradeep Darooka
The vegetarian way in a world of carnivores is fraught with mine-traps for the unwary – with an occasional sublime experience.
I was born to vegetarian parents and brought up in a vegetarian household. For the most part, my circle of immediate family and friends were vegetarians, and that is the only diet I knew and accepted. I never gave this aspect of daily life any thought.
It was after I went to the USA, that everything changed. I was exposed to a very different culture with food habits alien to my insulated Indian mind. I was forced to question every item I bought in the grocery store or ordered in a restaurant. Eventually, I started cooking myself. If I had to eat out, I would seek out Indian restaurants.
Meanwhile, vegetarian diet was becoming more prevalent in the USA and Europe. There was a plethora of writings, commentaries and other information on the moral and health benefits of being a vegetarian. I asked myself why I was a vegetarian. As a result of that question, I became a conscious vegetarian.
Yet, it was uphill, especially as I rose up the corporate ladder, interacted with the business world, and travelled extensively. Business lunches and dinners, meals with colleagues, invitations to homes and parties, room service, flight meals, all became an obstacle to be crossed. But my resolve introduced me to various support groups like vegetarian societies, and I became more involved as an activist. Most importantly, I started understanding the importance of knowing exactly what I was consuming. I made it a habit (to this date) of not buying any packaged item without reading the label and knowing the ingredients.
As I quit the corporate world and immersed myself fully on the spiritual path, I became more sensitive to what was on my plate. I learnt and realised for myself the simple truth that when an animal is about to be slaughtered, it becomes tense and stressed, and this negative energy remains in the flesh and bones after it has been slaughtered. Any healer or energy therapist can recognise this, whether it is the negative energy of individuals, food containing killed animals, hybrid produce, or food laden with preservatives, chemicals and fertilizers.
I have a weakness for pizza, and pizza without mozzarella is like pani puri without the pani. One day along this journey I made the depressing discovery that almost all cheese contains rennin, which is derived from a cow’s intestine. I was not going to accept defeat, so further research revealed that any cheese can be made with a plant-based rennin, and that such cheese was available in many places. I also found out that certain pizza places do use vegetarian cheese. It was not the end of the world, after all!
Clean and green
My attention now shifted to items that we generally do not associate with being vegetarian; items of personal hygiene (toothpaste, soaps, shampoos, etc), personal care (cosmetics, perfumes, lotions, etc.), health supplements (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) and medicines. One can argue that these are not consumed by the body, so what is the problem? Well, first of all, all these items are absorbed into the body directly or indirectly.
|Soul food: A Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant |
managed by ISKCON in Europe
Secondly, if being a vegetarian is a belief and a way of life, then should it not extend to everything that touches one’s daily life? Should one not question everything that one comes in contact with and see if it involves a slaughtered animal? Where does one draw the line? What about clothes and footwear? What about the use of leather? What about furniture and other household items? I looked at every item that I was buying, consuming or using, and made a conscious decision whether I would continue to use it, stop using it, or substitute it with a known vegetarian alternative. This was based upon a fair amount of my own research supplemented with loads of information available on the web, and discussions in groups and forums. The most disconcerting part of this conscious exercise was the discovery that almost every item we use at home or outside contained the remnants of killed animals. The most pleasant part of the exercise was the discovery that there was a vegetarian or close to a vegetarian substitute available for most items.
The thing that bothered me the most was the use of animal products in various supplements I was taking: vitamins, antioxidants, and immunity boosters, some in a capsule form. I learnt that capsules are made from gelatin that is also derived from various parts of a cow and other animals. However, it was not long before I found brands that used capsules made from plant-based gelatin. Even non capsule-based formulations are now widely available in vegetarian versions. The problem is with allopathic medicines, and so far, the all-powerful pharmaceutical industry has not been influenced enough to research and introduce vegetarian versions of its various drugs. Until then I am happy to stay with ayurvedic and homeopathic treatments for the times that I need to take a remedy. The key, of course, is to stay healthy so as to avoid a situation where one may be forced to take allopathic medicines.
Happy meal: Fine cuisine the veggie way
Around the world
I have been to 69 countries so far, and in no country did I starve. And I rarely have had to rely just on fruits or salad or bread. I like to try out the local cuisine or at least something with an international flavour. Eating in an Indian restaurant (and almost every country I have been to had one) is always a last resort. As soon as I reach a hotel, I have someone write the following on a piece of paper in the local language: ‘No meat, no fish, no seafood, no chicken, no eggs’. If there is a local word for vegetarian, I have that written down as well. I carry this with me all the time, and unless I am in a vegetarian restaurant, I show this paper to the waiter and wait for him to express acknowledgment that he has understood. It is not enough to just say vegetarian since there are as many interpretations as there are countries. I have come across many vegetarian restaurants that include eggs or chicken or seafood in their menu. It is also not enough to say ‘I eat only vegetables’, because then I am served nothing but a plate full of raw vegetables!
Some years ago, I discovered www.happycow.net, a website listing vegetarian restaurants in over 100 countries. I never leave home without checking this listing for my destination. Through happycow.net, I have experienced some of the best vegetarian meals around the world, covering almost every type of cuisine. It is updated regularly and has reviews from people who have eaten at a restaurant. It also lists grocery and health food stores that carry prepared vegetarian meals.
As a vegetarian, travelling has exposed me to many different interpretations of this lifestyle. From the delicious, fresh and wholesome cuisine of the Middle East (falafel, baba ghanoush, hummus, tabbouleh, baklava) to the olive oil-drenched and sun ripened cuisine of Italy (pastas, pizza, antipasti, minestrone, breads) to the couscous of Morocco, paella (think biryani) of Spain, empanadas (think samosas) and other delicacies of Central and South America, fresh steamed tamales of Mexico, dumplings, rolls, noodles and soups of numerous vegetarian Chinese restaurants all over the world, rijstafel (think thali) of Indonesia, roti canai (think paratha) of Malaysia, momos of Tibet, Ethiopian ajeera with an array of vegetables and lentils (think thali served on a large dosa); the list is endless. Some of the best falafels I have had are on the streets of New York and in Rotterdam. My first experience of rijstafel was in Amsterdam, as was my first couscous on the Left Bank in Paris. The best pizza I have ever had was at a nondescript joint somewhere on the border of Luxembourg and Germany!
Some of the most sublime dining experiences and meals I have had are outside India. When I was living in Boston, I heard about Café DiCocao in the middle of rural Maine, about 3 hrs away from Boston. This café is open just once a week, every Saturday evening, for a tasting dinner. There is no menu, no prices. One has to call in advance to let Cathy know you are coming. It is a one-woman show. No help of any kind either in the kitchen or outside. Starting with the first course, it turned out to be a feast for the senses… the taste, the aroma, the presentation. Each morsel was sublime. She would emerge with each course and explain in detail what it was and where she learned it. There were flavours from all over the world. This went on for about two hours as one comfortably reclined on various cushions just as if I were her house guest. When it was time to pay, there was no bill. You are to pay whatever you wish and drop it in a big box. She has no way of knowing who paid what. It has been one of the most memorable dining experiences ever.
A sublime experience
I remember Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, one of the best vegetarian gourmet restaurants in the world. I showed up without reservations and was told it may be a long wait. The ambience was so inviting, the people were so nice, that I would have waited if I was to be the last person to be seated. I am glad I waited. It was one of my first experiences of fine dining in the vegetarian world. And then there is Hangawi in Manhattan, a Korean restaurant. It is the closest to the temple cuisine of Japan and Korea that I have come across outside those countries. Temple cuisine is part of the Buddhist tradition that is prevalent in Japan and Korea. Typically found in Buddhist temples, it consists of traditional sitting on the floor with a low wooden table placed in front, and served by male and female students or residents of that temple. Numerous small bowls consisting of various items are placed on the table, and each item is explained. The experience is similar to the traditional style of eating in many Indian households even today. I also remember Gandhi in Budapest. I went to the restaurant expecting it to be an Indian restaurant. It turned out to be anything but! It resides in an underground cavern of sorts, dimly lit with candles, communal tables, and a limited menu. There was no sign of India anywhere. Later when I asked about the significance of the name Gandhi, I was told it was because of the non-violent nature of the food that was served.
There is the wonderful restaurant, Malabar, in Santacruz, California, run by a Sri Lankan. All his staff inside and outside the kitchen are women from various parts of the world. While the restaurant is open every day, on Saturday evenings he has a tasting dinner, no menu, no price. One never knows what will emerge from the kitchen, adding to the excitement of the dining experience. At the end, one pays whatever one wishes. The first time I dined there with a group of 10, I offered him $150. He refused, saying it was too much! How can the food at such a place not be sublime?
For those from India who crave Indian fare but do not care for the ubiquitous chana masala, mattar paneer restaurant fare, there are ISKCON’s Govindas and also various restaurants run by disciples of Sri Chinmoy (under different names in different countries). These places offer no-frill, wholesome, inexpensive, vegetarian meals that are hybrid, ie have an Indian touch or some Indian items along with various other items.
I also learnt a hard lesson while flying. Many airlines offer special meals when booked in advance. Some of these meals are religion-based, i.e. kosher meal, Hindu meal, Moslem meal etc. I remember ordering a Hindu meal on a flight and finding chicken on my plate. Later on I made inquiries and found out that in the Western mind, a Hindu is an Indian and since chicken is a popular part of Indian cuisine, it is usually offered in a Hindu meal! From then on I realised I need to ask for a Hindu vegetarian or Asian vegetarian or just vegetarian meal.
The vegan view
A vegan avoids all animal products including dairy and honey. A vegetarian does not avoid dairy or honey. A vegan believes that consuming dairy and honey supports the animal rearing industry and this industry is responsible for harmful practices towards animals. It is true that in the West and other parts of the world, milk is derived from many cattle that are primarily reared for slaughter purposes, and these cattle are subjected to harmful and painful practices. Similarly honey cultivated from commercial bee farms are subject to harmful practices. However, not all milk and honey is derived in this manner. There are many dairies that rear cattle only for the milk, and the cattle die a natural death. This is definitely the case in India. Similarly, since honey is a natural byproduct from beehives, there are many sources of honey both in India and abroad that follow the natural path and do not force the production of honey in any unnatural way. The key is to look for dairy products and honey from these sources.
By a blanket ban on all dairy and honey, I believe the vegans are missing out on a number of health benefits. While milk itself is not considered healthy for human consumption, its byproducts like butter, ghee and yogurt are extremely healthy and, in fact, essential for a vegetarian. According to naturopathy and many other beliefs, the human body is incapable of consuming milk. A mother’s milk is the only milk appropriate for a child, and this should be continued for as long as possible. Any other milk cannot be a substitute for mother’s milk.
However, milk when set into yogurt changes its characteristics completely. The live bacteria in yogurt works wonders for one’s digestive system and keep it in shape. Similarly, butter churned out of yogurt and ghee clarified from butter are essential sources of good fat for a vegetarian.
Silk is another item that is avoided by all vegans and some vegetarians. I generally avoid silk unless I am sure it has been derived from silk worms that have not been killed to extract their sap.
Pure vegetarian cuisine in India is limited to certain parts of south Indian (not Chettinad or Kerala or Andhra), Gujarati, Marwari (not Rajasthani), and the generic dal subji roti cuisine of most of the Hindi belt. How many upper crust and fine dining vegetarian restaurants does one come across in India? Swati and Soam in Bombay are the rare jewels. I have been looking for a vegetarian Bengali restaurant in Calcutta or a vegetarian Chettinad, Keralite, Goan, Konkani restaurant anywhere in India, with no luck. I did find a vegetarian Kerala restaurant, Rasa, in London, one of the best meals I have ever had. And yet in New York alone (the haven for vegetarian dining) I have dined in vegetarian restaurants from practically every cuisine of the world, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Peruvian, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Afghani, Middle Eastern. I have attended dinners organised by the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York (specialising in vegetarian cooking) with special tasting menus.
I have come a long way in my journey as a vegetarian, from being a born vegetarian to an embarrassed vegetarian to a defensive vegetarian to a conscious and fully aware vegetarian. Today, for the most part, when I go to a restaurant I have to ask whether they serve any vegetarian items. I wait for the day when a carnivore goes to a restaurant and has to ask, ‘Do you serve meat’?
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