Tag Archives: Vegetarian

Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

After pulling out my dusty India journal for the last post, I couldn’t help but skim through a lot of other entries, and I found another story that might be amusing…

By now most of you know that I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs and dairy, but no fish or other meats, and I’ve been consistent with this for nearly fifteen years.

When I traveled to India, we had 20 people on our program, with more than half (perhaps more like 3/4) of us vegetarian. It was the first time in my life I was in a group where the veggies were in the majority. It was also the first time I was in a place where I could walk into any restaurant and be guaranteed several vegetarian meal choices, or could have my choice of several completely vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance. It was both liberating and overwhelming.

Making the food transition was one of the hardest parts of returning to the US at the completion of the program. I really missed the South Asian ease of finding vegetarian food (looking for grocery products with a green dot on the packaging to ensure it was animal product free), and was sad to see my restaurant choices relatively limited once again.

Since our student group had a veggie majority, the few meat eaters were suddenly finding themselves in the uncharted territory of feeling similar to how vegetarians sometimes feel in the not-always-vegetarian-friendly US. When our program cohort went out to dinner we would order more vegetarian dishes to share than meat dishes, and the meat eaters had fewer options. Sometimes only vegetarian food was ordered, since the meat eaters liked the veggie dishes too.

Yet transitioning from eating meat every day to once in a while was too much for one student.

I’m going to call him “Bob.”

One night at dinner, about 2-3 weeks into our program, Bob started grumbling loudly. He claimed that he was being discriminated against by the group, that “it wasn’t fair,” and that his “meat-eating rights shouldn’t be trodden upon.”

Now, I get that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with, but no one was forcing him to give up meat. It was just on occasions when the whole group had dinner together that it was easier to order more/all vegetarian meals. Plus Bob liked the vegetarian dishes too, so it wasn’t like we were forcing him to eat something he didn’t like.

But the student continued to insist that he was being discriminated against, and that eating all these vegetables was actually making him sick.

So let me back up more, and tell you a little something extra about Bob.

Before departing for India the members of our student group were given a list of recommended shots for the program– stuff like Hepatitis, Polio, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis. I had received Hep, Polio, Typhoid and Yellow Fever immunizations for my Africa trips, and not wanting extra needle jabs if I didn’t absolutely need them, I figured I’d be okay without the Japanese Encephalitis. I think it was optional for where we were going anyway.

Bob intended to get the Japanese Encephalitis shot, but I think he ran out of time before the program was supposed to begin, so he purchased the vaccine from a pharmacy in the US and brought it on the plane with him from New York to Delhi. His thinking was that once he got to Delhi he would find a nurse, or some other qualified medical technician, who could administer the shot.

However the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, like I think most vaccines, needs to be kept refrigerated so that the contents of the vaccine don’t spoil (or whatever it is that happens to pharmaceuticals when they are no longer in their proper state).

So here Bob is, on a plane, with a white paper pharmacy bag, containing a vial of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, for about 30 hours. That vial had warmed to room temperature long before we reached the hot and humid streets of mid-August Delhi.

After a day or two of orientation, Bob went in search of a medical professional, and carted that same white pharmacy bag around steamy Delhi for another 2 days before he found someone to stick the warm Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in his arm.

And surprise, surprise… by evening Bob was laid up in bed sicker than a dog. Pasty and pale, diarrhea and sweating. He was in bed for three or four straight days.

Now most of us assumed that Bob was probably suffering from a combination of Delhi Belly and a reaction to the stale Japanese Encephalitis shot that he had been carrying around, un-refrigerated, for days.

But not Bob. He was pretty sure his sickness stemmed from eating vegetarian. What could be worse than eating lots of vegetables?

Right when Bob started feeling better, his first destination out of his room was to a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have the American chain Subway in urban India) not too far from our hostel. He ate a sandwich stacked with three different kinds of meat. He felt better later in the evening, and much better the following day.

Bob attributed his miraculous recovery to the amazing power of meat. This only reinforced his original idea that he had gotten sick because for a week he was “forced” to eat so many vegetarian dishes.

Even as an undergraduate I had my international educator’s hat on. This was the excerpt from my journal:

After several vocal comments at dinner last night I pulled [Bob] aside and said that study abroad is about pushing your boundaries and being outside your comfort zone. I told him that he should take this as a learning opportunity about how other people may feel in the United States when roles are reversed. Often times, as a vegetarian, you have fewer meal options, you have to eat something you might not necessarily want, or you might have to do without. It can be very frustrating. I told him that for the first time, many students are able to go to a restaurant here and pick anything they want off of a menu without being worried about what could be in the dish, and that feeling is new and liberating for us. I told him that we don’t want him to “convert” but that we ask that he be more flexible and understand that it might be harder, because it is often harder for us in the US, and it is good to see the reverse side of an issue.

Sadly, Bob didn’t take my heart-to-heart truly to heart, and spent a majority of his remaining time in India hunting down US fast food chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. When we were stationed in Jaipur for six weeks he would have Domino’s Pizzas delivered to his host family’s house each night–I worry what that family’s impression of American students was after his stay!

So the moral of the story is… refrigerate Japanese Encephalitis vaccines and eat more vegetables!

“Chicken’s Younger Brother”

To continue with posts on food I don’t usually eat, but have had so far this week… today’s post is about jackfruit or katahar (कटहर) in Nepali, and also happened to have been my dinner last night.

According to wikipedia, jackfruit is the “largest tree borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds (36 kg) in weight and up to 36 inches (90 cm) long and 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter.” It’s also the national fruit of Bangladesh! They are massive yellowish-green fruits with a thick bumpy outer skin, almost spiky but too dull to poke you.

While visiting a friend’s village in the Terai region of Nepal in 2009 we stacked the back of the car with large jackfruits to bring back to his family in Kathmandu, but it wasn’t until last night that I actually tried one.

Can of jackfruit used for dinner last night

The fruit is sometimes referred to as “vegetarian chicken” or as D poetically put it last night, “chicken’s younger brother” (while AS said, “shhh… don’t say that or C won’t eat it!”). It gets this reputation by how “meat-like” the vegetable can be, especially after cooking.

I’ve never been big on fake meat, mostly because I was never a big fan of the taste and texture of real meat, and thus lack that “meat nostalgia” some vegetarians struggle with. Sure I’ll eat veggie burgers (most don’t look or taste much like meat burgers anyway), and on very very rare occasions I might try some veggie sausage for breakfast, but that is about the extent of it. So eating a fruit that has the look and texture of meat was kind of strange and a bit unnerving.

jackfruit curry, left overs after dinner was finished.

Can you believe this is a *vegetable*?--jackfruit on my dinner plate... when you pull the individual pieces of jackfruit apart the pieces pull apart just like real meat. I swear this almost looks like pulled pork! The fruit also has small "eyes" in it that look similar to meat fat or bone sockets.

The taste was fine, but it took me a bit to get over the texture.

Final analysis: would I eat it again? Sure. Is it my favorite? No. There are lots of other “kinda like meat” Nepali foods that I would rate much higher… like masura or titora, even nutri-(soya) nuggets.

We also ate fried parbar as well. Unfortunately no one at the dinner table knew what “parbar” was in English, and I can’t find it online. Found in Indian grocery stores, it is a small oblong shaped green vegetable that can be sliced into quarters, the seeds removed, and fried with spices to make a snack. I should have taken a picture, but since we had 10 people for dinner, and I was already whipping out the camera for the jackfruit, I didn’t want to go overboard. If anyone knows what the English name is, please let me know!

— update:

Yes! It was “pointed gourd!”According to wikipedia it is sometimes colloquially called “green potato” in South Asia… which makes sense, because once it was fried, I told AS it tasted a little like a spiced french fry with a peel.

This is what the uncut vegetable looks like:

they might look like cucumbers but they are different on the inside.

“Eating Animals”- Children and Food

I started reading a book on Sunday night that I am pretty excited about: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I saw it recently in a bookstore and the title intrigued me enough to pick it up, but when I read the description on the inside cover, it really hooked me—

“Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood-facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf- his causal questioning took on an urgency…”

I’ve mentioned my vegetarianism before. I’m not a veggie proselytizer, I’m not out to recruit people, and you won’t see me chaining myself to a slaughterhouse door, but my own vegetarianism is important to me. The more I hear about the factory farming process in documentaries like Food, Inc, and when I read about potential health issues from some types of meat consumption, it makes me feel more confident in my dietary choices.

I’ve also mentioned before that P is an avowed chicken lover. Of course, I’d  be happy (and probably his veggie mother would too) to have him phase meat out of his diet, but I also don’t expect him to give up something he truly, honestly loves. P has toyed with the idea of making the switch, but I don’t think it will ever happen. I’ve been told on many occasions that my veg momos don’t hold a candle to the chicken or pork momos my other friends voraciously consume, and I can see the excited glint in P’s eye when there is a nice goat curry or a packet of deer jerky around.

So that brings us to the discussion of how to raise children when and if we have some one day. I’ve already made my feelings on the subject known. I’d very much prefer to raise vegetarian kids, and once they are older (middle school/high school aged) they can decide for themselves, and I’ll happily live with their decision. P, on the other hand, though less vocal, has stated that he would prefer to raise kids that enjoyed chicken momo, etc. There isn’t a whole lot that P and I don’t agree on, but this is one.

Other friends have weighed in on the argument—“If you raise them veg, then they will probably not like meat anyway… you’ll be influencing them from the start! That’s not fair to them!” but I kind of feel the same way, if you start them off eating meat, what if they never think about life without meat? Or what if they decide later in life to be veg and they are uncomfortable with having grown up eating meat and they question me as their parent for not sticking up for them? What if they are angry that I denied them the pleasure of meat as a child? Since my own vegetarianism is so important to me, how can I morally let them eat meat when they are too young to make the decision for themselves?

That is what intrigued me so much about Foer’s book. I’m very keen to see what conclusion he comes to. It’s been quite interesting thus far, even though I’ve only just started.

One issue he raised which I had never really thought about before is food as a storytelling device. In his introduction he talks about his grandmother who survived World War II as a Jewish girl evading the Nazis by keeping on the run and eating whatever scraps of food she could find along the way. This personal history greatly affected her relationship with food. Her signature dish was chicken with carrots, and she would serve Foer and his brother this dish while telling stories over the dinner table. He says,

“Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us—our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable…”

and later notes,

“We are not only the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have changed.”

Wow, food for thought (no pun intended).

I’ll have to let you know what I think once I finish the book.

Musings on Food

I was sitting in my office during my lunch hour, munching on some leftovers, trying to think of something to write about, when I got an email from S. He and R live a few hours drive away from us, on a main route that P and I take all the time to visit relatives or other friends. They have become a major pit-stop on any road trip that we take, and now it is hard to drive that stretch of road and not stop, even if just for a cup of tea! Anyway, they know that we are staying at their place tonight so S said, “I figured we would make momo in honor of your blog” yesss!

Yet I have already written about momos, so I figured I would expand on the topic of food.

Green Dot- no worries for me!

Green Dot- no worries for me!

I feel really lucky. South Asian food, in general, is delicious, not to mention there are a lot of vegetarian dishes for me to choose from. When I studied in India it was incredibly liberating to walk into most restaurants in Delhi or Jaipur and see half a menu of vegetarian options, or entire restaurants where I could close my eyes and pick something at random off the menu and know with complete confidence that it was veg. I was a huge fan of Indian packaging with the “green dots” for veg food and “brown dots” for non-veg. I didn’t have to read labels or second guess. It was wonderful, and very depressing when I came home to the States and ate at a restaurant only to find I had two choices on the menu.

I sometimes joke with P that if I had fallen for a Korean, a Kenyan, or a Brazilian, I would have been in deep trouble since fish and meat are central to a lot of these communities’ favorite dishes. Yet South Asian food has a lot of variety, of both meat and vegetables, and it is easy for me to find something that I like. Don’t get me wrong, I think P might just die if he gave up chicken, but if we eat daal/bhat (lentils and rice) with saag (cooked spiced spinach), mushroom curry, or chana masala (chickpea curry), he is a pretty happy man.

Learning to cook Nepali food has actually opened up my own interest and experimentation with cooking in general. Now, if you come to our house for dinner (as many often do) it’s possible that you might have mushroom/spinach/gorgonzola pizza or that you might have daal, bhat and egg curry. I’ve come quite a long way from my culinary roots.

I gave up eating meat in stages in late middle/early high school. I was never a big fan of the taste. I had different philosophical, emotional, and personal reasons for not wanting to eat meat over the years, but now it boils down to time. It’s been a really long time since I’ve eaten meat—I’m in the double digits of years now—and I’ve lost an appetite for it, I just don’t find it appealing.

"Don't make me eat it! I'll just take the peas!"

"Don't make me eat it! I'll just take the peas!"

My family is at peace, for the most part, with my decision now (although I still get the “don’t forget to pass C the turkey!” jokes on Thanksgiving). Yet when I was a kid first exerting my interest in vegetarianism, it was a tough uphill battle. I spent many nights sitting alone as punishment at the dining room table long after everyone finished dinner because I refused to pick up my hotdog and eat it.

My parents, especially my meat loving dad, just didn’t get it. For him cooking meat was like a work of art—you grill it and spice it to perfection, you slow roast it to fill the house with its titillating aroma, you savor a good cut, and you don’t overcook it so that you can still taste the deep natural flavor of the meat. I think he enjoyed the process of meat eating as well. He loves to hunt and fish, and I think he felt a connection to the venison burgers he made, knowing that he had been an important part of the entire consumption process. As a kid I was appalled by this, but now I have a lot of respect for his way of thinking. I like that he is a sportsman who uses every part of the deer. He stocks his freezer with cuts of caribou and antelope, and slowly eats it throughout the year, gifting the meat to friends and family along the way. However when I was young this did not help me in diversifying my culinary choices.

Voila... dinner!

Voila... dinner!

We were a real “meat and potatoes” family, and every dinner consisted of a meat, a starch (mashed potato, baked potato, pasta, rice), and a boiled vegetable (corn, peas, carrots, broccoli, asparagus). Sometimes we had a salad as well. When I gave up meat I simply removed it from the equation. I’d have mashed potatoes and corn, or pasta alfredo with broccoli, or just a big salad. I wasn’t paying attention to proteins and I wasn’t really exploring other options, but at the time, especially after throwing veggie burgers into the mix, I was satisfied enough.

My repertoire of dishes might not have grown much beyond mixing pasta and lentils with “Italian seasoning” and olive oil had I not started hanging out with the Nepali gang. A whole new range of spices opened up to me- cumin (one of my favorites!), turmeric, garam masala, red chili and paprika, fenugreek, cilantro, different curry powders, even using garlic and onions like I never had before. Once I had a steady foundation of daals, and veg curries, I started getting creative with salads, soups and casseroles.

When we moved, some of the Nepali women I met asked me how to make American bake goods. My paternal grandmother had been famous for her pies, but other than Betty Crocker cake-in-a-box, I’d never really made my own homemade stuff before. Feeling like a cultural liaison (never wanting to miss an opportunity for east meets west) I asked my grandmother for some of her recipes, and started making cookies and pies so that I could show my new friends how to make these desserts. It was great. Nepali cooking gave me the confidence to cook South Asian, as well as American.

I don’t profess to be a great cook, and I don’t cook everyday (ask P, he will tell you!) but I enjoy the smorgasbord of food we now eat. We make a lot more from scratch (realizing that it’s cheaper and doesn’t take forever to make homemade pizza dough or waffle mix, and it tastes so much better!) and we can eat a greater variety of food.

Yum! I’m starting to get hungry for those momos!