May 9, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ Arun Venugopal

'Even The Pea Soup Has Ham!'

It was a simple enough query: How do you cater to your vegetarian customers?

"Vegetarians?" answered the manager at Lo Cocina, her voice quickly tensing in the same panicked way if she had heard "Mafia?"

In the background, plates clattered and busboys scrambled at this Mexican restaurant on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. "Oh, can you hold on a second?" she asked, "I'm getting another call."

Wait. Wait longer. Keep on waiting. This lady is clearly in no mood to talk. Redial.

The telephone rings. And keeps ringing.

Redial again.

Finally, "Hola! La Cocina!" The same manager, now speaking in shrill Spanish, clearly hoping that any probing callers would think she was some young wayward chica who just happened to pick up the phone. "Manajer?" she asked. "Please hold."

And remain on hold.

One can only hope that vegetarian customers at La Cocina have an easier time, knowing full well that the rice is probably cooked in chicken broth and the beans are prepared with lard.

The fact is, dining out in America, much as it may be a national pastime, can be a constant challenge for the conscientious. As the ongoing French Fry Scandal at McDonald's demonstrates, all sorts of hidden, animal-based ingredients lurk within the most innocent of meals, preparations that may appear completely innocuous to the uninformed.

Poulomi Shah remembers the day in 1992 when she turned into a cynic. "I was in Disneyland, and I was looking for some vegetarian food," she explained. She scanned the menu at one of the restaurants. "It said bean soup - vegetarian. I asked the person who was serving if there was any meat in it."

The server rolled her eyes, as if to say, "Can you read English?"

"I got the soup and sat down," said Shah, who lives in Seattle. A few sips into her bowl, her suspicions were confirmed. "I saw these wet chunks. They didn't look like tomatoes."

Sure enough, this order of vegetarian soup had hunks of beef in it.

Shah took it up with the manager, who was apologetic enough and reimbursed her. But the episode made Shah realize that her vegetarian beliefs were the least of culinary America's concerns.

Yuth Vich, the manager of Thai Café, in Brooklyn, put it bluntly. "We have a lot of customers already," he said. "We don't need to have any vegetarian food."

Customers who are alert enough will choose to look into Thai Café's pad thai noodles. As is the norm, the order includes a healthy dose of nam pla, or fish sauce, made from anchovies. While Vich noted that his cooks will prepare the pad thai from vegetarian ingredients, they don't go out of their way to keep customers informed.

Shah knows her Thai food. "They use shrimp or oyster sauce in many of their recipes," she said. "It gives a distinct flavor and adds saltiness to their food."

But it hardly surprises her that these ingredients go unmentioned on the menus at most Thai restaurants. "They're not listed because many of them truly believe that fish is vegetarian," she offered. "The definition varies."

Fortunately for Shah, there's a vegan Thai restaurant near her home which doesn't use any animal-based ingredients, meat, dairy or otherwise.

Similarly, Blockhead Burrito, near Times Square in Manhattan, has long been sensitive to the needs of foreign tourists who drop by the restaurant, many of whom are Indians with strict dietary guidelines. "We have a lot of vegetarian customers," said Raul Morales, the manager of Blockhead. "That's why we use whole wheat tortillas, brown rice and tofu sour cream. We also have soy cheese instead of the regular jack cheese."

For many vegetarians, however, it's simply a matter of being diligent, and occasionally accepting the reality that vegetarians are in the minority.

"We can't blame anybody," said Sreedevi Menon, who moved to Houston in the early 70's. "You have to find out for yourself. If you have any doubts, try to avoid it. Otherwise, you just have to close your eyes and try to eat."

Dr. Sunil Kothari, another Houston resident, acknowledges that his vegetarian lifestyle, 12 years and running, has much to do with the fact that he lives in an urban area. On a trip to Mississippi, he couldn't find a single vegetarian item. "Even the pea soup had ham in it," he said. "So I just ended up eating bread sticks."

One thing that many vegetarians try to avoid is any product containing gelatin. The ingredient is used to make deserts, and often goes into marshmallows, yogurt and sour cream. Unknown to many people, gelatin is made from boiled-down animal bones, cartilage and tendons. In the 19th century, gelatin dishes weren't very popular with housewives simply because it involved many hours of cooking calves' feet or knuckles.

These days, any kid can make Jell-O and the like, it's that easy. But it also goes to show that people are far less connected to the food they eat, and much less aware of what's inside. Manufacturers use various means to impart flavor and preserve the shelf-life of the foods they market.

Paulomi Shah started writing to food manufacturers several years ago, looking into the contents of certain items that she tends to buy at the store. She recently sent out her findings, many of which are surprising.

"Kellog's cereal company told me that vitamins added to their cereals are synthetically made and do not come from animal or fish sources," her notes state, "but the list they sent mentions some cereals and non-cereal products containing gelatin derived from beef or pork."

"General Mills said that their cereals without animal products have the letter "U" with a circle around it in front of the box. They said that since some sources change in their cereals, it was not possible for them to have a list of cereals suitable for vegetarians on the Internet. The best thing to do is look for the "U" on their boxes."

While American customers have to deal with all sorts of discrepancies, in England, things are much easier. The Vegetarian Society there has popularized a simple 'V' symbol which lets people know whether a restaurant or manufacturer is adhering to strict standards.

For now, Americans have to make do with the numerous websites and other resources out there. No doubt, it can be a struggle. While remaining true to one's vegetarian beliefs is important, as Dr Kothari stated "At some point it becomes a point of diminishing returns."

For more information on maintaining an animal-free diet, visit these websites:


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