By Avani Venkatesh
An essential root of Indian culture and Hinduism, vegetarianism embraces the ideology “do no harm” and emphasizes a love for nature and respect for animals. For example, some Indian religions, such as Jainism, recommend the use of a mouth cover and not wearing shoes in order to prevent the accidental inhaling of insects, or stepping on them. While this example is the epitome of the mentioned ideology, Indian culture, especially modern Indian culture, comprises not only vegetarians but many who eat meat as well. I, after much internal debate, have decided to not be one of these people.
My personal choice to be vegetarian is something of serendipity to me. It was not something I chose to do intentionally but it is something that has impacted my life for the better. I was brought up vegetarian not by choice, but because that was the food my parents cooked and ate. As I became older and increased my exposure to cultures and foods around me, I struggled with the concept.
The overwhelming limitedness of my amount of food options bounced around in my mind at every restaurant, birthday party, and school lunch hour. My peace with vegetarianism is not credited to the fact that vegetarianism and veganism has been gaining popularity in the name of Fad Diets, which has ironically caused more people to assume vegetarianism is not a sufficient diet for everyday people and associate it with aristocratism.
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My support for vegetarianism lies in the health benefits and the environmental benefits, both of which are highly ignored by mainstream media, which promotes veganism only as a way to lose weight and save the animals. While I do classify the atrocities of the American meat industry as a reason for my vegetarianism (highlighted perfectly in documentaries such as “Food Inc.” and “Forks Over Knives” scattered throughout Netflix), I consider the significant health and environmental advantages my primary rationalizations for vegetarianism.
While the newfound popularity of vegetarianism/veganism has demeaned the concept in some ways, it has also directly resulted in an increased amount of options at many restaurants and public places, a signature green V now makes appearances on most menus — in the United States at least.
Many vegetarian people (in the United States) are convinced that America is a country in which there are “absolutely no options for vegetarians!” and where “everything has meat in it!” Every restaurant venture results in an “ugh…there were no options here” or a “is it really that hard to not put meat in everything?”
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I too was guilty of saying these, possibly all of them, every time I went out to eat, until I was exposed to the food options in other countries. Aside from countries where much of the population is vegetarian (India, Israel, Japan), the world is far less accommodating to vegetarianism than we would assume.
My experiences as a world traveler have been heavily influenced by a lack of eating options – almost all trips result in a wonderful time hindered by having to eat the same meal repetitively. The European countries I have visited (that seem to love their cold cuts!) have left me in an endless loop of eating salads, breads, and pastas with nothing but sauce.
The magnificent Eiffel Tower and Arc De Triumph of Paris came with endless bread and cheese, and an unholy amount of crepes. The beautiful art of Italy came with pasta with only sauce (due to the fact that we had to request the removal of meat, which resulted in the removal of any other vegetables as well). The breathtaking coasts of Greece came with Greek salads for two meals a day and again pasta with only sauce.
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It is not the fault of anyone in these places because they were also trying their hardest to accommodate, but the slightly confused look and smile of pity that results in the phrase “we don’t eat meat” is consistent everywhere except the United States. Though we struggled in Europe, from having recently visited the Dominican Republic, I have found that European dishes are much more malleable than Hispanic dishes, meaning that you can take the meat out of a European dish and it will more or less be the same, only lacking substance. Hispanic dishes, however, are almost always based in meat or the meat is so ingrained that it cannot be picked out — Hispanic dishes are not able to be manipulated like a veggie burger substitution for a beef patty, or simply taking the chicken out of a chicken alfredo. Most of my conversations with the Chefs in the Dominican Republic were along these lines:
“Que comida no tiene carne porque yo no como carne?” (What food doesn’t have meat because I don’t eat meat?)
“Hmmm, tu comes pescado?” (Do you eat fish?)
“No, no carne o pescado” (No, no meat or fish.)
“Oh… hay verduras, frutas, y queso alli” (Oh… there are vegetables, fruits, and cheese there.)
While there was an impressive amount of fruit and vegetables, I suffered from protein withdrawal my entire trip.
The limited options I have faced are not something to complain about — it is my choice to be vegetarian and it is privilege to be able to experience other countries so in depth. It has also taught me to appreciate the accommodation of vegetarianism in America. However, it is discouraging; food is such an imperative part of culture and it is almost as if you are missing out on some of the culture because you are not able to experience the food. For me, the choice is simple, I would rather remain vegetarian and experience the culture to the best of my ability than abandon my practices, but I know many other travelers struggle with this conundrum. It is not easy to hold true to your beliefs and culture when surrounded by invitations to do the opposite.
But all of that being said, I am glad to be given the opportunity to have such a problem and plan on continuing to confuse chefs around the world by my seemingly absurd dietary choices, for the concept of vegetarianism is not something easy to digest.