|We take our food habits for granted and they are a way of life for us. A lot is written about why one has to be a vegetarian but the practicalities are difficult to live with. While living in India, it is easy to find vegetarian food but once you step out of the country, finding one square meal gets tough, if not impossible.
When we travelled to Europe in the 90s, everything was fantastic but for the food. We said in restaurants, “ja sui vegetarian. Sans viande, sans poulet, sans poisson.” The waiters looked incredulously at us. They were clearly either amused or plain shocked. “So, what do you eat?” was the next question. Most places then, served us salads. Salads came with, well, a lot of leaves. Lettuce to be precise. Of course, there were vegetables but they had to be screened with a x-ray vision.
I remember once attending a Thanksgiving dinner party in central France. The whole room was redolent with the smells of ‘turkey’ being eaten. Everyone was discussing it. Some of our friends told us how the turkey tasted like chicken while we nibbled chastely on baked potatoes with cheese.
So, what is this obsession with being vegetarian against all odds? Well, it is just the way we are. Sometimes it is awkward to have a table full of people devouring a huge fish while we are struggling to make the chef understand what it is that we can and cannot eat.
In the remote corner of Kazakhstan, while we welcomed the year 2000, we sat in the corner with a whole party relishing the Kazakh cuisine — Bishparmak and Shashlik. Bishparmak is a dish made from horse meat or lamb or beef.
Bishparmak tastes best when it is made with a mix of all the three. We found everyone raving about this rare delicacy and were somehow content with our little salad plate with a variety of vegetables. And especially for us, our Kazakh friends made one exclusive platter of vegetarian Shashlik.
While travelling, we also had to endure many dinner parties and some of them came with a painstaking six course meals. The very idea of scanning an entire menu of many pages to find something remotely vegetarian was intimidating to say the least.
Many times, we were forced to just eat the bread to quieten our hunger pangs. It is amazing how rarely, people in other countries understood the meaning of vegetarianism as a way of life. There were many funny anecdotes attached to our quest for the greens.
Some memorable restaurant moments occurred when we ordered a “Ham Burger without the Ham” or a “Chicken Fajita without the Chicken.”
Or when we ordering for “Pasta in creamy sauce” in Mussel House (a place that serves mollusks!) Or when we asked for ‘white rice’ in a Chinese restaurant which turned out to be ‘rice with shrimps.’ I have to add that the friendly waiter readily picked out all the shrimps with chopsticks.
Once we went to a formal restaurant serving global delicacies to eat just the dessert! I have in my head made peace with the notion that desserts are purely vegetarian and would never like to know what goes into making all the sinful temptations look and taste as good as they do. So a simple mantra for hungry vegetarians. When in doubt, eat chocolate! Or an ice-cream. Or some yogurt. Fruit. And if nothing is available, then some fresh air will do!
Vegetarianism often surprises most people abroad and they ask how we have survived despite so many challenges. The answer to that is that we have and are more determined than ever to remain so. Food for us, in the end, is not just about hunger but a matter between the stomach and the conscience.