By Pradeep Darooka January 2011 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 restaurantmanaged 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 experienceI 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 c
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