Being born into the Tam-Bram community (originating from South India) would mean that one is a vegetarian first by circumstances (read birth) and later by choice, if at all one chooses to continue sticking to a vegetarian diet. I am no exception to this tradition, at least not so far. A few generations back, people belonging to this community refrained from eating onion and garlic even, since they were not ‘satvik’ in nature. Although this has been relaxed to a large extent in the modern world, most people from the community continue to refrain from consumption of meat which is still a taboo, considering that it involves killing.
I was given an assignment in South East Asia a couple of years back and was sent to Singapore to set up the company’s operations there. The minimum tenure of the assignment was 6 months. The base location was Singapore though I would have had to travel around the ASEAN region. The length of stay was extendable beyond 6 months depending on how the assignment would have shaped up. For a 6 month assignment, I chose not to experiment with my culinary skills and instead, opted for the easy way out: restaurants, eating joints or any eatery offering vegetarian food. This would also save me considerable effort in lugging along vessels and some cooking essentials. I wasn’t sure of the place I would be staying in and the cooking facilities available there, either. So, eating out seemed the logical solution; at least initially.
Singapore has a large Indian Diaspora and I was assured by most people I enquired with that getting Indian vegetarian food wouldn’t be an issue. I was also referred some Buddhist vegetarian restaurants by friends and relatives but when I checked them out, I found that they offered dishes labelled as ‘mock meat’; rather amusing, confusing and unheard of (especially for a strict vegetarian like yours truly who doesn’t even have cakes with eggs in them). Given the Buddhist influence in the region, there are several vegetarians by choice and many of them are even ‘vegan’, I learnt after reaching Singapore. Quite amazing in a region which is generally non-vegetarian in its diet and consumes various species of the animal kingdom, many of which may not be consumed in other parts of the world.
Several restaurants and eateries in the ASEAN region display that they are strictly vegetarian on their sign boards but their menu cards would take me by surprise. The menus listed delicacies prefixed with ‘chiken …’, ‘muton …’, ‘beeef’ etc. a rude shock to vegetarians like me who would quickly walk out of the restaurant, embarrassed at the discovery without bothering to check further. You would notice that the words chicken, mutton and beef have been deliberately misspelt in my previous sentence and that’s how dishes are spelt in the menus of these so called ‘vegetarian’ restaurants. This is to distinguish themselves from restaurants serving regular meat based dishes and to indicate to their guests that these are not traditional non-vegetarian delicacies but rather vegetarian dishes disguised as ‘non-veg’ food.
Soya nuggets are commonly used substitutes for meat in these restaurants. 😀 It took a lot of convincing from a close friend to even venture into these restaurants again. Thereafter he introduced me to the chef and owner and only after a long chat was I even prepared to try some of the dishes they served. The restaurateur pointed out the deliberate misspellings in the menu and it was after a fair amount of discussion that I got convinced about the ingredients they used in cooking. Thereafter, the non veg like names mattered little to me. I don’t recollect the names of the dishes I tasted as they sounded quite exotic. Food tasted very good though, I must say.
I have no views on non-veg food as such; just that it doesn’t appeal to my palate and I don’t find the necessity to try it either. The idea of killing an animal to satiate my hunger is something I can’t come to terms with. Most non-vegetarians would argue that plants are living beings too and in several instances, plant life is taken as well, by vegetarians. More on that later as it deviates from the scope of this piece.
While the discovery of ‘mock meat’ certainly did not metamorphose me, I just learnt to be more open, outgoing and liberal in my world view. Travel can be a very humbling and leveling experience. It certainly broadened my horizons.