To tell you a fact, my favourite dinosaur has always been the Brontosaurus. Like me, it must have also known what it feels like to be a vegetarian wandering amongst the world of carnivores.Last month, a Norwegian friend, turned towards me during a dinner in Vienna and asked with a twinkle in his eyes, “So why are you vegetarian?”. As always, I began my oft repeated explanation - I was born in a family where everyone was vegetarian, so I too started as one and now I truly believe in vegetarianism etc etc . And then I continued, “Some people do not eat non-veg due to religious reasons in India, some now converting for health reasons”. He calmly listened and then shrugged carelessly, “In Norway, the only reason we eat is -because we are hungry”. I sighed.
It is difficult to explain others, why you have a particular dietary habit. More so, if you are Indian. In India, we have so many varieties of vegetarians that to expect anyone else to comprehend our habits and the reason behind them, is expecting too much. We have people who do not eat non-vegetarian food on some particular days/ meals , people who do not eat particular kind of meats , people who do not cook non-veg food at home but would eat otherwise and then you have “pure” vegetarians like me who irrespective of days, meals or location remain true to vegetables, fruits and grains . I respect individual choice in matters of food, religion and dress. I do not question or ridicule it and expect the same from others. But then, we vegetarians, while being accused of being food snobs, are also butt of numerous jokes and taunts because of our food habits. But, believe me, life at the dinner table is not always fun, if you are a vegetarian, foodie and a frequent traveller.
My own experiments with globetrotting on veg diet are nothing less than hilarious. And the fact that far from going extinct like poor Brontosauruses I am plump and happy, proves that I managed the journey so far pretty well.
The year was 2008. We were on our first ‘real’ foreign visit to China. In a group of 10 , we were 4 vegetarians . Our Chinese hosts left no effort wanting in treating the group in best possible eateries. Yet we four vegetarians came out with only fruits and juices in our stomach even from the best of places. For us even the cooking oil was non-veg, which ruled out any chance of any cooked food. So while our other colleagues were savouring all kinds of Chinese soups, dishes and desserts, we were desperate to find “anything” to eat. The worst came in a formal sit down dinner when our hosts decided to treat us with ‘mock meat’. Even though we knew it was not meat, the look and the smell was so meat-like that we daren’t touch it and since we were scared of causing a diplomatic fiasco with our hosts, we pretended to like the meal . After the 11 course ‘hearty’ meal, four of us, famished and tired of pretending to eat, rushed to our rooms for emergency supplies of food brought from home.
I was fearing a similar fate even in Africa, but there for the first time I realised power of one billion plus. Both Uganda and Kenya have a sizable Indian population and eateries there knew about the finicky Indian vegetarians. More so because the communities settled there are traditionally vegetarian communities ( Marwaris , Gujaratis and Jains ) . So not only we got our Indian roti and curry but also all favourite Gujarati snacks and delicacies neatly arranged in a “thali” . In many cases the best eateries were owned by Indians or had Indian chef. Then on many trips to various other countries, I did not face much trouble with food. Both Italy and Austria were very kind to vegetarians with lots of variety and options. South Korea proved to be tough but still manageable as, by then I was a veteran traveller and knew how to find my kind of food in alien lands.In my search for Veg food abroad, I found some pretty unusual places too. E.g. in Seoul , I found temple restaurants run by monks and nuns serving outstanding vegan food . The place I visited was “Balwoo Gongyang”, specializing in traditional temple food, where you can taste the carefully prepared dishes, handmade by Buddhist practitioners. It was an amazing experience to eat that food.
Like places, in my veg-food pursuits, I often had very unusual partners. E.g. in South Korea I found many Arabs joining my Veggie gang as they were not sure of getting halal meat. In Bhutan my entire team from Kolkata office, otherwise hearty meat –eaters, turned vegetarian when they did not like the dry meat being served there. To my credit, I usually try to find vegetarian local food also and mostly get it. I have tasted vegan Bibimbap and vegetarian Kimchi in Korea, eggless Sachar Torte in Vienna and even yummy vegetarian Arabian food in Dubai. In Uganda my hosts treated me with delicious pumpkin soup, roots and salads prepared specifically for me in veg- versions.
But then there were also occasions when the buffet breakfast at the hotel was my only meal in a day as I could not find much to eat at Lunch or Dinner. Luckily, the foodie in me is always ready to research and find out local options beyond Subway sandwiches (which by the way are lifesavers).
Now on my present work charge, I see many Indians travelling abroad with full preparation to cook their meals themselves. Some do it to save money, others because they can’t do without their familiar food and most others to avoid hassle of searching options abroad. As for me, my learning from my travels is that I will invariably find something to eat with my dietary restrictions and with some effort will be able to find some local food too. For many this may be a hassle in an unknown city, but to me finding suitable food and the joy of tasting something new is part of knowing the place, and I would not like to miss out on that. Poor hubby keeps on hoping that I might return bit slim after my tours abroad for lack of food. Alas, he hopes in vain- I remain pleasantly plump with my hearty diet of Falafels, fruits, juices, salads and cheese and worse, every time I come back from a trip I add new food items in my list of must-eats .