Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Vegetarian's Guide To Survival In A Non Vegetarian World...

A couple of weeks ago we had 'Open House' at school. For the uninitiated and for those who may not have read my post about it a few years ago, it is a day when teachers and parents mingle in school over tea, coffee and snacks, and then we follow a mini version of our children's daily schedule. The teachers in each class talk about the syllabus, their rules and expectations and yes, Indian/ Indian origin parents are forbidden from asking 'How is my child doing?' !! ( Translation : Will he/she be the next Satya Nadella/ Sundar Pichai/ Indira Nooyi. Please understand it's an American school so we Indians are willing to give references they would comprehend immediately!) Jokes apart, Open House takes place when school has been going on for less than ten days!
This Open House had one major change! The number of Indian/Kenindian parents has gone up in the last few years and the number of vegetarians has dramatically increased. The school seems to have taken cognisance of this and we actually had 'pure' vegetarian snacks laid out for us on pretty platters! I remember many a day when the only thing I could pick from the whole array was a sorry looking cookie which probably had egg in it...Times had changed and how!
Times change but Indians don't! Even as I stood in queue for the veg samosas each 'pure' vegetarian was frantically confirming from the other. "Are you sure it's veg?' 'What is in it?' "Potatoes, peas, carrots?' 'Are you SURE?' 'Double check!' Most of us neatly dissected the Samosa the minute we plopped it onto our plates. The biology teacher would have been proud of us! We trawled through the stuffing the way those foraging for gold in rivers sift through silt. Once we were completely satisfied that there was 'nothing' in it, did it find its way into our mouths, 'nothing' being a euphemism among vegetarian Indians for chicken, fish, meat and often eggs too.
And so I thought this was a good time to put into writing a guide that has been bubbling through my mind for many years, especially as many vegetarian Indian students are leaving home and hearth for the first time to go and study abroad, notwithstanding the fact that the Indian Rupee stands at an all time high with respect to the American dollar. I know I am laying my head on my non vegetarian friends' well scrubbed chopping boards but so be it! This survival guide is based on lessons learnt during the thirteen years that I have lived outside India, out of my twenty vegetarian ones. Yes, I know I just opened up a can of worms right there but I will not elaborate on that here!

1. The Samosa and/or the Spring Roll. The Samosa, a deliciously sinful creation of carbohydrates stuffed in fried refined flour dough, is available on every street corner in India and can be eaten there without undergoing the ritual I described earlier. However the world outside India has come up with their own non vegetarian version which has chicken/meat and may be fish at times. So you will say you will order a vegetarian one and be done with it! No! Hotel freezers are chaotic places and the two versions often get badly mixed up because they look exactly the same from outside! This happened to me on a pristine beach in a popular resort in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. But cautious me had broken it into two first, only to find that it was the meat version! Back it went where it had come from and I refused to accept a replacement because obviously their veggie and meat ones were jostling next to each other somewhere in their kitchen!
Ditto for spring rolls! These Chinese creations, now comfortable in their spicy Indian Avtaar, come in the chicken variant too and get mixed up with the veg version. It happened to me during a late, lazy Sunday lunch in a tranquil garden restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. But clever me had cut it into two first to check and sure enough slivers of chicken flesh burst onto my plate in all their stringy glory...I did not go back to that particular restaurant for the next two years!
 Moral: Chop and examine thoroughly before consumption!

2. Pizza. That tempting creation of the Italians now trademarked by the Americans! Pizza Hut came to India and the eating out part of life, as we knew it, was never the same again! Indianized Pizzas with spice and all that's nice soon began rolling out of those customised ovens and every kid wanted a birthday party in a Pizza Hut outlet. We took our four year old daughter to one such brand new place for her first 'not made at home' pizza and ordered one choc full of veggies. The one that landed up at our table turned out to be choc full of chicken instead! The lady in Pune, India, had messed up our order! I was VERY suspicious when I looked at it  but still took a tentative bite against my instincts, only to spit out the tiny morsel. My poor daughter was so traumatised that she did not eat pizza, unless it was home made, for the next four years! Had this happened in the United States, I've been told, we could have sued them for sure!
Moral: Dissect your pizza too. Yes, even lift the puddle of melted cheese and see if anything that was once living, is lurking beneath!

3.Burger. Mcdonald's outlets in India are, by and large, quite careful and other than Indianizing the menu to sooth our hot and fiery palates, also have a green dot on the box to indicate vegetarian items. But once you step out of India, you better watch out! On a crisp,cold summer morning nineteen years ago, my husband and I set out to visit the Tzar's Summer Palace. We decided to have breakfast in a Mcdonald's outlet and poor, ignorant me, ordered a cheeseburger. The sight of the warm, brown burger bun stoked my appetite and young, hungry me took a giant bite! The next moment all hell broke loose in St.Petersburg, Russia as it turned out there was a meat cutlet in a CHEESE burger and I spat it out as fast and as thoroughly as I could, without caring a fig for my table manners!
Moral: Lift the top portion of the bun, scrutinise the innards with a magnifying glass, replace the top, consume if satisfied.

4.Ice cream, jellies, custard and cheese. If we have lived in India all our lives we assume ice cream is vegetarian as are jelly and cheese. Sadly, outside India one has to look for ice cream which says suitable for vegetarians which means no animal fat has been used by that particular brand to make it creamy. It's the same case with cheese so look for ones that are made without animal rennet and be sure to ask your pizza/burger place which cheese they use, if you, like me, are extremely particular about what you pop in into your mouth. Vegetarian jelly crystals and custard powder are not always available and most imported brands use gelatin derived from animal sources. So I simply pack a few packets of various flavours and get them with me.They are available at your neighbourhood grocer in India! And yes, don't give your kids gummy bears or other sweets that contain gelatin.

5. Miscellaneous: Oil! Oil that has been used to fry non veg food items imparts a fishy odour to the veg items that might have been fried in it later. So make it clear to who ever is in charge to use fresh oil to fry your food! It happened to me at an Indian "acquaintance's" house in Dar Es Salaam. No, my friends would never make such an error! I forced down that tiny veg cutlet with great difficulty and said NO to seconds!
Pasta sauce: It looks like tomato sauce but often has a meat base! So call for the chef and ask if you are eating at a buffet table. Don't assume it is vegetarian because it 'looks' vegetarian!
If you are a vegetarian and are invited to someone's home for a meal, please specify before hand what you DON'T eat! It's not rude. It's even worse to say no after they have taken the trouble of cooking for you! It happened to me in Nairobi where two of the three dishes had egg as the main ingredient and I landed up eating only the boiled squash! I had assumed they knew I did not eat eggs, unless invisible in a cake!
Beware of dimly lit 'romantic' restaurants! A pricey Indian one in Nairobi nearly turned out to be my undoing as they served us chicken tikka in a gravy instead of the paneer (cottage cheese)  tikka we had ordered. Only my paranoia of being served non veg saved me as I asked for another candle to examine the dish before I served the kids! And sure enough I had to return the item!
Once in a foreign land, specify what vegetarian means! Spell it out by saying no chicken, no meat of ANY kind, no fish and no eggs, if applicable to you. Soup from which those floating chicken pieces have been removed, is not classified as vegetarian. Nor is rice from which the meat has been picked out. So open your mouth and ask/ tell, else who knows what you might unwittingly put in! There are no helpful green for vegetarian /red for not dots made compulsory by the Indian government for all packaged food items, once you leave your native shore. So use your brain, if in doubt just refrain!

Disclaimer: This is not intended to hurt any sentiments but is a genuine attempt to help fellow vegetarians, specially the students with their brand new passports and matching Louis Vuitton luggage, as colleges reopen the world over! So my non vegetarian readers, do take this with a spoon of salty vegetables!


  1. Enjoyed reading it. But won't enjoy eating in a place that serves both veg. And nonveg food!

  2. Enjoyed reading it. But won't enjoy eating in a place that serves both veg. And nonveg food!


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