Vegetarian In Every Non-Vegetarian
Delhi High Court recently directed that all food businesses must explicitly specify all that goes into the food. This is to ensure that vegetarian food is indeed vegetarian. It emphasizes that the consumers have the right to know if the ingredients originate from plants or animals, or if they are laboratory manufactured. That too, irrespective of the quantity that goes into the final product. This essentially means that even a speck of animal product would need the label to be brown to indicate non-vegetarian. Does this mean that the green label as of today could be deceptive? It may not have perceivable chunks of meat but some ingredients may come from animal products. Not acceptable to most people like me who religiously follow a vegetarian diet. As I read this news item, many incidents from the past came flashing back to me.
Vegetarian? – Choice the hotels serve
I was on a media trip to Thailand. When our hosts realized that many of us are vegetarians, and most days we are surviving on salads and banana fritters, they very graciously organized a completely vegetarian formal dinner in the evening. A food critic on the trip was offended – how can you offer this to a critic. On the same trip, a fellow blogger said that how can a vegetarian be a food blogger or a critic? This was my introduction to the hierarchical position of non-vegetarian food in the food media circles. No wonder, our lifestyle magazines are full of them. Absolutely ignoring my favorite maxim – Everyone is a vegetarian? We all consume plant-based food.
In addition, you may also consume animal-based food. In India, it would be fair to say that even those who do consume non-vegetarian food, do not do it on an everyday basis. A large number of people eat it occasionally, many eat only outside their homes, or have a vegetarian calendar like on Navaratri. So, if you look at non-vegetarian food as a percentage of consumption, it would be far smaller than the percentage of people who get classified as non-vegetarians in the census.
At a global conference, a panel of the most celebrated Indian Chefs discussed the business of food. When asked about the paucity of vegetarian dishes on the menu, they confessed, there is nothing like a pure vegetarian. They even cited the case of a chef who tried keeping the ladles used in the kitchen separate and could never progress. Since then, I have avoided eating at all kinds of fancy places that excel at making food look good, instaworthy as they say now.
But coming back to the Delhi High Court order – would it apply to the high-end hotels and restaurant kitchens? If yes, how are you going to ensure that there is no mixing of vessels containing vegetarian and non-vegetarian food? Are we going to put cameras in kitchens?
Forget about restauranteurs being bad boys and intentionally serving non-veg to vegetarians. There is a huge gap in understanding of the issue. Recently, at a high-end hotel in one of the most sacred cities of India, the lunch buffet had a dish in Oyster Sauce with a green label. When I asked the serving staff, how can this be vegetarian, he looked back and asked ‘Yeh vegetarian Nahi hai kya – Is it not vegetarian?’. My head oscillated sideways. He very coolly said – Ok, I will ask someone to change the label. I looked for safer options and moved on. But not without noticing that most of the staff serving us had probably never tasted most of the dishes served. Is it a training issue or learning? That is another debate in my head. But as a vegetarian, such incidents now tell me that you can not blindly trust the staff?
Largest Vegetarian cuisine in the world
Halal tourism was being promoted big time just before the pandemic stalled all travels. It always made me think, why have we seen no celebration of Vegetarian food in India. We are largely vegetarian. If nothing else, we have the largest spread of vegetarian cuisine in the world, be it our Thalis, our deserts, or our street food. Why have we not seen Vegetarian food festivals in the country? We are home to some of the largest vegetarian kitchens in temples like Jagannath Puri? I have seen vegetarian food festivals from Thailand to Canada.
Gandhi Ji’s 150th anniversary was celebrated across the world with Vegetarian food. But in India, we kind of ignored this aspect. Vegan festivals are coming up with missionary zeal, but vegetarian ones are rarely heard. Don’t you think there is space for the celebration of vegetarian food that is not just universally consumed but has so much range to experience?
Look behind the media blitz, and you see that the most successful food businesses in India are Udupi restaurants from the South and Vaishno Dhabas from the North that are now found on roadsides almost everywhere in the country. At the cost of repeating myself, everyone is a Vegetarian and it is evident in the footfalls that pure vegetarian places receive. Even Italian chains that serve vegetarian-only have lasted longer in India than others.
Maybe it’s time vegetarians assert their food choices with confidence.
Edited for this online publication.