Being a vegetarian

Motivation: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21122072. This article, shared by my friend on Facebook, caught my interest. It lists 20 incidents in which people found it difficult to be a vegetarian. I will share my experience of being a vegetarian.

I was raised as a vegetarian Tamil Brahmin by my parents. Though not raised in strictest sense of a religious tam-brahm family, we were conveniently orthodox and modern as the situation demanded. The only strict thing that was reflective of “Brahmin culture” was that we were vegetarians. I have never eaten meat in my life. When I was a kid, I could not even eat any food if I smelled carcass being cooked. I would nauseate at the smell. People always asked me why I did not eat meat as I didn’t have a “Brahmin” first name. Due to certain inflated egos, I ended up with a non-brahmin looking name (a very long surname which used to be just initials) when I was in India, and which gives me trouble now that I am in the US. I could have been Narayanan Sharma or Deepak Iyer. It would have been so easy and convenient for non-Indians and native English speakers to say Sharma or Iyer. But no, my parents didn’t want my birth caste to reflect in my name.

I grew up in Kerala, a coastal state in south India. For Keralites, seafood and beef are very much part of life. So I was always given a look of pity when people learned that I did not eat meat or fish. Even my close friends were not supportive. When we travelled to north Kerala (Malabar area which is predominantly Muslim) we would never even find any vegetarian entrée in restaurants, and my mom would never eat from a kitchen which cooked both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food (such places used to smell heavily of cooked animals, used same utensils and people did not wear gloves). So I used to hate those trips to north Kerala when we were always hungry.

When I started undergrad at IIT Madras, it was a heaven for vegetarians. During my first two years at IIT, the dining halls were vegetarian, we used to get awesome vegetables, and yogurt daily in unlimited quantities. A dream for tam-brahms. And for once, greater than 90% of my friends were vegetarians. Life seemed awesome.  Due to demographic changes in IIT from my third year onwards, non-vegetarian food started appearing in dining halls more frequently and only one mess was a pure vegetarian mess.  The percentage of non-vegetarians in my friend list increased but it was still okay to be a vegetarian. Nobody (except mallus) gave me that look of pity when I refused to eat meat.

When I travelled abroad without family, I was always with other Indian students and as things would have it, all my fellow travelers were vegetarians (correlation does not imply causation; it was just pure luck that these highly competitive programs were always a forte of vegetarians). However, we had a bad experience at a food court in Singapore where we tried to order some “vegetarian” Chinese food, it was total crap. I remember me and my friend who had eaten that noodles stopped eating any kind of noodles for the next 2 or 3 months before we recovered from the shock of eating that shit. In Toronto, vegetarians were welcome everywhere. There were a lot of Indians who were raised as vegetarians in Canada too. Subway employees changed their gloves to make veggie sub. Nobody gave me that look of pity.

In Cambridge, the situation is very vegetarian friendly. In fact it is more awesome than Kerala. It is “cooler” to be a vegetarian in metropolitan areas of US/Canada than in India. The society here (at least the section of society I interact with) is more supportive. There are a lot of vegetarians at MIT who converted to vegetarianism in later part of their life. I even met people who were vegetarians for more than my age. All restaurants have good vegetarian entrees. Supermarkets have exotic veggies which are not even available in India. Asian food trucks have complete vegetarian menu, I even went to an awesome Thai Vegan place. Mexican places have veggie rice. Change of gloves and utensils usually happens without a request. I don’t think racial profiling is bad for good things :P. An American friend actually told me “you are not missing anything” by not eating meat. How very true!  This kind of understanding was not echoed by anyone in India!

Ironically, my lab-mates at MIT think that all Indians are vegetarians. To be fair to them, the four Indian students they have seen are all vegetarians. However, their observation is so untrue. Go to my home state, and find more cow eaters than the entire population of Canada! My explanation is that all vegetarians (mostly middle class upper castes) in India (especially Kerala) have left to other lands in search of a better future and more egalitarian societies. So the percentage of Indian vegetarians in India is declining and that in the US is increasing. And because the west sees only this limited cross section, they perceive that all Indian’s are vegetarians.

Cool places around MIT where you could eat awesome veggie food:

  1. Clover food lab. – Chickpea fritters have been known to give orgasms to many. I personally prefer the egg and eggplant sandwich ($6)
  2. Falafel sandwich. – 77 Mass ave food truck and Middle Eastern food truck at Kendall. ($4) Middle East, Central Square ($6)
  3. Asian food truck – a variety of Tofu, veggie entrees all less than $6
  4. Egg Benedict in Veggie galaxy – Better than two orgasms back to back 😛 ($9)
  5. Thai Vegan Café in Chinatown – avg of $10 per entrée.
  6. Cosi, Kendall Square – some delish wraps – ($8)
  7. Mexican burritos – (Anna’s Taqueria and Chipotle) How I place an order: Super burrito with cheese – Veggie rice and beans, green beans, corn, broccoli, peppers, squash, pumpkin, and all those exotic veggies which they keep changing daily (just show it and say this and that), jalapenos, salsa, hot sauce. (Avocados cost extra, but they are awesome!)
  8. Pizza in Area  4, Tech Square – $15 (Personal fav – Mushroom and Fontina)
  9. Panini in Amelia’s Trattoria, Tech Square. – $8 (Personal fav – Hookah)
  10. Spinach Ravioli in those oh-so-awesome-but-burn-a-hole-in-your-pocket north end Italian restaurants.
  11. Kashmir, Newbury Street – Indian food! – expensive
  12. 143 Albany Street – Indian food, fusion food. Give me a comment/call/text/email before dropping in! 😀

Places not to try – Café Spice, Dosa Factory, Desi Dhaba. These Indian restaurants have bland, useless Indian food.

If I listed places in Kerala or Chennai, the list wouldn’t be this long and diverse.

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