Sunday, May 16, 2010

It is Tough to be a Vegetarian in US

If you are in US and you are a vegetarian you may yourself have gone through at least one of these experiences yourself.
A: I'm looking for vegetarian options. I don't see anything on the menu.
Waiter: We have lots of vegetarian food.
A: Can you suggest something?
Waiter: For vegetarians, I recommend the fish.
By the way there are lots of Americans who think fish is vegetarian. It seems it is related to something in the Bible. Does any one know the story behind it in Bible?
Another one
A: Is the soup vegetarian?
Waiter: Absolutely. No meat what so ever.
A: Excellent. What is in the soup?
Waiter: It's really good. Made with fresh cilantro, onions, carrots and chicken broth.
Here is another story narrated to me by one of my friend. I could easily relate so many of my vegetarian friends in this story. Here is the story.
A group of vegetarians from India arrived in the US. They went to a local chain restaurant for their first dinner out in the USA. The menu to them was foreign, but exciting. They looked over the dinner menu and decided on the best of the best vegetarian options - one taking the onion soup and salad, one taking the vegetarian burger with fries, and the most exciting sounding new dish - the third one taking the CHEESE BURGER. Why eat a vegetarian patty when you can have a cheese patty, right? Well, unfortunately they found out the hard way that "cheese burger" is not made of cheese in the same manner as the "vegetarian burger" is made of vegetables.
There are so many things out there whose names mislead us to believe it is a vegetarian dish. How many of us know that most of the Pasta has egg in them? Ask the manager at Olive Garden and he/she will tell you that all the pasta in Olive Garden except their whole wheat pasta has eggs in it. I have seen so many of my pure vegetarian friends eating pasta in Olive Garden not knowing it has egg in it.
There are salad dressings with anchovies in them. On a passing glance, you would not really stop to think if there are any meat products in something as simple as a salad dressing. On closer look however, you can find many such products on the shelves of a supermarket, including 'vegetarian' noodles which have beef extracts in the tastemaker powders. Finding that out after a couple of yummy meals may be a shocker!
The main difference being a vegetarian in US and India – lack of choice for vegetarians in US compared to that back home. In US it is so common that a vegetarian may have just one dish to order while the non-vegetarians have bevy to order from in any restaurant. Also unlike in India, “vegetarian” in US can mean so many different things in US. Vegetarian in US can also be a vegan or a “pseudo-vegetarian” who does not mind meat products in processed food but don’t eat meat directly from the plate.
I remember an incident narrated to me by a friend few years back. This friend of mine while he was coming to US for his Masters, his father made him to promise two things. One – never eat meat or egg; Two – never fall in love or marry an American girl. My friend readily agreed to both of them. At the time of giving that promise to his father he was not sure if he can keep the promise of not falling in love with an American girl but he was so sure that he can keep the other promise - remain as a vegetarian. Few months in US he realized – it is almost impossible for him to make an American girl love him and also impossible to survive in US eating vegetarian food. He changed to eating non-vegetarian in six month time but he is happy that he could at least keep the other promise – he married an Indian girl couple of years back.
Are you a vegetarian in US and have some unique experiences? Do share.
[This blog post is written after getting inputs from my friends Miles and Sriram  who have remained vegetarians against all odds in US.]
[Photo Courtesy Click Here]

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Blogger Wicked Witch of the West said...

Oh, this is so true in Australia as well (where restaurants are almost identical). In so many restaurants (and even more so 25 years ago) there were no actual vegetarian meals, and to eat vegetarian required ordering a side salad, or much abbreviated dish (most annoying if you had to pay for a meal that normally included steak, just to get the vegetables that acommpanied it). Many people here also consider that vegetarians are creating a huge inconvenience - when in high school and attending parties I would usually simply not eat most foods which would irritate people, who would suggest that I 'just scrape the meat sauce off the spaghetti'. I have found it is also the same in much of Asia though (excluding India of course) Thailand, Malaysia etc you really need to be very specific about what should not be included with your food (no fish sauce, even 'no fish' or 'no lamb')...and there seems to be a real lack of separation of cooking of veg and non-veg dishes (as we found out after being told by restaurant staff that the rice was one of the veg options, and then found a fish taste and even a fish eye in it!).

May 16, 2010 8:00 AM  
Anonymous amreekandesi said...

Yup. I have been to many of the fancy restaurants only to realize that as a veggie i can hardly sample any of their most prized menu items.

You're ultimately reduced to ordering one of their regular dishes, just without the meat. Which doesnt really help much.

Cheese burger! i have seen so many people get fooled by that one!

May 16, 2010 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The classification of people who do not eat animal products is a bit different in the west than in India.

A person that does not eat animal products (no dairy, egg, meat) is a vegan.

In the west, apparently, a vegetarian diet includes animal products such as dairy, eggs etc. but excludes animal flesh.

I am not too sure whether fish is considered meat, most likely not. For eg. Christian tradition used to forbid eating meat on Friday's during the 40 day period preceeding Easter, but fish was OK on Friday's during that time period, go figure.

In India, a vegetarian is one who does not eat meat of any kind.

Also, non-vegetarian is an Indian construct. In the west, you have vegans, vegetarians and the rest (omnivores I suppose).

That said, I lived in the US and the only way my Indian vegetarian friends managed to ensure they did not accidentally get served animal products was to repeat the mantra "no fish, no egg, no chicken, no meat" when ordering food at a restaurant.

It get's a lot easier if you can cook your own food. Vegetables are plentiful and you don't have to worry about someone else's interpretation of what a vegetarian diet is supposed to be.

May 16, 2010 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right, Culture has a strong influence from the belief.Bible has nothing about fish being vegetarian.As far as i know Only group that does, are bengaly brahmins.In Mark Gospel Chapter 7, Christ in response religious food rituals says "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? 19For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' 21For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

As it is, it is difficult to be a vegetarian in the West. Lot of my brahmin friends have eaten Non-Vegetarian food, i would like them to not consider being defiled but find merit in dealing with the evil within (internal) and not find it in what we eat(external). For those who do find the motivation and reason to be vegetarian, keep it going i guess, just not look down on others who will continue to drop off this Charts

May 17, 2010 2:48 AM  
Blogger opsudrania said...

I am narrating my experience of a group trip to Europe sometimes in 1982 or so. We were two Indian couples. Myself and another Hindu couple - both medical doctors from Karnataka. I had asked for a complete vegetarian diet, not being aware of the varied concepts
of vegetarian, I felt assured. The other couple had requested for a "non-beef non-vegetarian" diet. We reached Belgium on the first leg of our tour.

(1) Belgium experience - I was served fish and eggs besides cheese
and butter and biscuits and fruits and salad etc with milk and yogurt or curd. So I called them in protest for my veg diet. The lady was quick to quip: of course we know. It is a veg diet that we have served. To cut short the long story, on my further query
to save another embarrassment, I was given the alternative choice of a word: "Vegan" - never even heard of. This meant, what you all know, a non-sustainable diet for next two weeks of the remaining tour.

(2) Switzerland experience - We were, I think it was Lucerne, if my memory serves me right. Anyway,
after the day trip out, we sat down
in the nice ambience of a candle light "Banquet" sitting around a large table cosily. We both Hindu families were sitting together, both males side by side.

The first course of menu was served
and a nice vegetable soup for me and a "non-beef non-veg" soup for my other friend. By that time of my long stay in UK, I had come to recognise the various colours of different meats. My friend was happy for his order and just about to start.

I then whispered in his ear, Hey, it is a beef soup and the drama started. A commotion followed
over next almost ten minutes. The guide girl was called to verify. So
she did and came out with the answer, "No there is no beef", I have enquired. But I stuck to my words and there were further enquiries. Same anwer and same stance taken by me. Lastly, the buttler was called in the Banquet Hall in front of everybody. He further denied of beef in it. I was confused and feeling let down, I did not understand as to how to ask further to clarify my point.

Because looking at the typical beefy colour of the soup, I was dead sure. So I asked further, garnering some courage, "Tell us then what have you put in it". The truth was revealed amidst a big laughter.

Very innocently, he said,"I have put in veal, but no beef". Of course the soup was replaced.

(3) German experience - The landlady was very nice and equally kind and sensitive. She had made little nice 'sweet', potato and wheat flour pancakes fried in butter besides a variety of cheese and butter and all that you could expect for a vegetarian in Europe.

So there we were, having learnt a new word "Vegan" the hard way after the tour of two weeks through the seven countries in Europe.

Dr. O. P. Sudrania

May 17, 2010 10:51 AM  
Blogger Neeti said...

To use the technical term-most Indians are Lacto-vegetarians (dairy products come from animals) and this is different from being Vegan. I believe it is easiest to be Ovo-lacto-vegetarian (eggs included) in a foreign country. Many are unaware about the use of eggs, gelatin, yeast, meat broth, animal fat for deep frying (fries in some places). Nowadays most products have labels for allergen warning (peanuts/dairy/gluten) but it is not so stringent for vegetarian products.

May 17, 2010 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


May 18, 2010 2:57 PM  
Blogger Pan said...

Hi Brijesh, very interesting and hilarious post about the travails of being a veggie in the states ! I became your 100th follower. any gifts /cash prize ? ;)

May 20, 2010 7:15 AM  
Blogger Brijesh Nair said...

Thanks for being the 100th follower. I saw your blog and it is really nice one. I started to follow you. Gifts/Cash prizes...hmmm let me think about it :)

May 20, 2010 10:18 AM  
Blogger Ambuj Saxena said...

USA is still better than Europe. In Netherlands, I have been served Chicken many times when asking for vegetarian food. Apparently for them, non-veg means red-meat. In fact many assume you are avoiding red-meat because of health reasons, but a little won't hurt. That explains the time when I was given food containing pork chops while asking for vegetarian. In USA also, not everything is labeled right. If you want to eat even things like cupcake, you have to make sure to read the ingredients. Many have their icing made from lard (comes from pig). You can't even go to a McDonald's. They make everything (even french fries) in beef tallow. Again, many salad menu don't mention pork chops as ingredients even if they have it, so always best to ask first. If you are in USA, avoid the following words:
*Club (will likely contain bacon). Eg. Mexican Club Sandwich
*Burger (will likely contain ham). Eg. Cheeseburger
*Supreme (will likely contain sausage/ham). Eg. Pinapple Supreme Pizza
*Chilli (will likely contain beef). Eg. Chilli Cheese Fries.

May 21, 2010 12:45 AM  
Blogger Y Trip said...

Great post.

On last count, I have tried about 23 different cusines (non-indian) with constant probing and patiently explaining my limitations, I have got vegetarian food on every occasion. The only place where I've had problems were the KFCs and McDs of the world

I posted a blog on eating out as an Indian veggie in China here

May 21, 2010 11:35 AM  
Blogger AJ said...

Thats true...Jack in the box, McD, KFC etc are few of the places where veggies dont get anything except maybe the Bread and some lettuce!! As u rightly pointed out all cuisines in US have some meat hidden in it and it takes experience to find out which one of em don't have any! :)

May 25, 2010 7:56 AM  
Anonymous Bhagwad Jal Park said...

I made a decision in the US to become a vegetarian and only then learned that it was too late!

I was longing for India where we have so much variety. In the US, you get sick after eating the same bland veg food day after day...

Being veg in India was no problem at all. I didn't even miss meat. Now I'm once again in the US and couldn't bear in any longer. I now eat non veg if I have to.

Those in India will think I'm being finicky - but trust me. You don't know what it's like till you try it!

June 25, 2010 3:36 PM  
Blogger brian said...

I know what it's like.
You have to eat at home, or devotee restaurants, or temples only.
You cannot expect...that you could trust McDonalds or whatever.

December 29, 2011 1:16 PM  

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