Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to hurt anyone, but rather to reflect on some personal experiences in a humorous way! I reiterate that the team from ITM and UWC did such a fantastic job arranging this program! I also thoroughly enjoyed my stay at Hotel Verde which became like home. Also, I’ve made a couple of long semi-technical presentations (45 minutes each) since my return to India last week and the audience enjoyed them very much! Thank you EV!
“If they can’t have meat, they must want a substitute; let them have fake meat!”, an effort to alleviate the poverty of the palate!
Did I echo the thoughts of the cooks here? Probably not. That was just a thought of an excited mind. A mind of a hungry vegetarian trainee in the midst of a hectic training program held at Cape Town, far away from his country and from what he recognises as good food. But let us not forget that in many parts of the world, the absence of meat on the table does indicate poverty, where meat is only consumed at important events and celebrations due to affordability.
Coming back to fake meat, it was also possible that the cooks assumed that vegetarians enjoy fake meat preparations. It is made of soy with texture similar to meat. For those who have been vegetarian from childhood, such presentation and texture would generally be revolting. However, it is likely that those who’ve given up meat as adults would find it more acceptable.
It is also entirely possible that the cooks in Cape Town genuinely lacked knowledge of proper vegetarian cooking. To understand this further, let’s go back to the day I arrived in Cape Town, a week before the fake meat fiasco. It was dinner time and I looked into the menu at the hotel where I was put up. Few vegetarian options, and none looked very appetising. There was the omnipresent cheese and tomato sandwich, but that would be the last resort. I decided to walk down to a nearby store to check my options there. Cheese and tomato sandwich it is! And incidentally, I don’t eat dairy either when I am in more controlled environments.
Each night that followed, at dinner we were served dishes composed primarily of cheese or cream with a hint of vegetables or pasta in them, which became very difficult to eat regularly. This is besides the surprising poor quality of pasta and risotto served on some occasions. Often I would go back to my room, not having eaten, to find relief in sweets and junk food. But I do thank the organisers of the EV program for trying to arrange for vegetarian options at each meal, to the extent that was possible from their end. This is in stark contrast to the experience we had at the HSG conference, where I didn’t have lunch for three days straight either due to lack of food or of edible options.
Anyway, the content and quality of food were only part of the food experience. There were also human interactions which compelled me to reflect. As can be imagined, the group at the program had a minority of vegetarians (approximately 6 out of 70 individuals) and we had a small table serving vegetarian food during the lunches with few options. Some non-vegetarians would help themselves first at the relatively lavish spread prepared for them, and then hop towards the vegetarian spread to see if they could top up their plate with a few more goodies. There were a couple of times where vegetarians who came late to lunch did not get much to eat because the food was finished. It hurt me to see that, as I could imagine their plight. However, it was nice to see some of the vegetarian trainees handle these awkward situations of unconscious conflict quite well, by going over to the perceived offender and informing them about it in a gentle way. This is something I have generally been bad at.
At one lunch, I observed with rather unreasonable shock when a co-trainee dipped his beef appetizer into the chutney placed on the “Reserved for Vegetarians” table. Reflecting back on that incident now, I feel the shocked reaction may be less to do with his action, and more to do with the fact that I wouldn’t be using that dip that afternoon. I say “unreasonable” because the concept of vegetarianism does not exist in many parts of the world and probably from where he belonged to as well.
Some of you may know that there is a cultural basis for vegetarianism in India. Those belonging to the Jain religion and also a fraction of the Hindu community are vegetarian by tradition. And hence these communities have rich cuisines developed over centuries, which is the stuff I eat regularly back at home. I was born into a vegetarian household, but I turned vegan a few years ago due to ethical reasons (not related to my community’s traditions). Vegetarianism is now but a ritual for most vegetarians in India who are oblivious to the basis of their traditions (related to “impurity” and “sin” associated with eating meat). It is also not surprising that many do not follow this practice any longer as they don’t associate with that kind of thinking. None the less, being a vegetarian is a political statement (as intended by some), though in India we have the unfortunate association of vegetarianism with social elitism (the social elite Hindu “caste” in India follows vegetarian practice) conveying a different kind of political message to some, which is not the intention in my case at all.
Now I am back at home, sipping on some excellent soup prepared by my wife, and putting down these thoughts in words. In any case, before I travel to strange foreign lands next time, I will stock up on some emergency supplies to make feast and avoid fake meat!
Acknowledgements to Angeli Rawat (EV 2014 and co-suffering vegetarian) and Lahari Joshi (wife)