Friday, September 7, 2012

First impressions of being vegan in India

My first impressions of being vegan in India were multifaceted. For one, fruit and vegetable vendors are everywhere! Coming from a country with giant supermarkets lined with shelves of imported produce, it was crazy coming to a place with fresh options on every street corner. Getting coconut water from a fruit cracked right in front of you is a lovely experience. When it comes to the produce, it's fantastic seeing the selection change with the seasons. It's like an ever-enjoyable treasure hunt finding new options like the ephemeral tree tomato, or the butterfruit. Of course, it's never fun mourning the loss of mangoes when they go out of season in late August/early September.

At restaurants, it's relatively easy to find vegan options (here in the south, anyway, where they prefer coconuts and rice to butter and wheat like in the north). I was introduced to a number of delicious curries, dals, ragi, upma, rasam and more. South India is very veg-friendly. At nicer restaurants, the freshly-squeezed juices are delightful and highly recommended. Not from pushcarts, but definitely from restaurants with decent sanitation practices. 

In terms of finding Western vegan options, that's actually a bit harder than finding Indian vegan dishes! When restaurants provide Western options, it tends to be the stereotypical options like grilled chicken, cheese sandwiches, fish cutlets, lasagne, cheese pasta, toast, eggs, etc. I think most places cater to the Westerners who hate spice and opt for the blandest, safest foods possible. When I first came to India I invariably looked to the Indian dishes when given the menu. Slowly, I found the Western vegan gems in the city... but definitely not when I first arrived. 

One thing I also did was stock my hotel room FULL of produce. The fruit in India is so marvelous that I greatly enjoyed snacking on papaya, watermelon, sapotas, and custard apples in my room almost as much as eating the traditional vegan south Indian cuisine. 

As I slowly became a member of an Indian family and larger community, I gained insight about how Indians view vegetarianism. Some of it is spiritual; some of it is economic. It's a country that reveres cows (poor goats don't get the same royal treatment, nor do chickens or pigs) and one where a large swath of the population simply can't afford to eat anything but a vegetarian diet. I was amazed how quite a few families can afford a cook to come make a meal entirely from scratch, from fresh, wholesome ingredients. Nothing from a packet, bottle, or wrapper. Even spices are ground from the seeds stored in every Indian pantry. It amazed me that my family ate chapatis that were handmade within the hour--that just doesn't happen in the States. Even restaurants that pride themselves on fresh food have their bread made the night prior at best. I remember looking at my husband and his family, happily enjoying the lunch and thinking what a little luxury it is bestowed upon only 5 percent of Americans to have a cook make all-natural lunches. 

All of these first impressions made me look around and say, "yes, it's definitely do-able being vegan in India."

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