The Challenges of Vegetarianism


This woman and her children sat at the next table in a vegetarian restaurant in Kelambakkam, Tamil Nadu. I went in because it was clean, cheap, and authentically local. They were perhaps followers of the guru who ran the restaurant, or perhaps it was clean, cheap, and authentic for them too. Or perhaps a night out. I ate here many times, though I was not then a vegetarian — the people, food and ambiance impressed me. Eating off a banana leaf, washing my hands at the men’s sink, the worn black-and-white marble tables, the wide-eyed serving boys — details with me for a decade.

India is set up for vegetarians, the problem is money. In the United States money is no problem, but nothing is set up for vegetarians. Now that I have become a shabby vegetarian, challenges appear daily. Fast food chains are entirely out, unless you fancy overpriced industrial salads. Or Mexican (rice and beans can stop hunger). When friends invite you out, you accept with the caveat “of course you understand …?” and feel like a squeak-squeek mouse.

To make vegetarianism a permanent part of your life, you or your partner must become a serious cook. When I was a single vegetarian I used to micro-wave frozen vegetables or stir-fry fresh ones. I used my programmable Japanese rice-maker almost daily to prepare a variety of grains, even oatmeal. But that was an eating circuit with a tight radius. Now my wife has established herself in the kitchen like kudzu, banishing frozen vegetables and building a repertoire of dishes built on a handful of spices and flavors that seem capable of infinite recombination. Garlic, oils, vinegars, several peppers, herbs from our garden — cast-iron pots and the wok get daily exercise. I don’t miss meat (unless I linger too long in front of the prosciutto at the grocery) but I miss this restaurant and what it represents.

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