The Delhi High Court recently directed that all food businesses must explicitly specify every ingredient that goes into the food, to ensure that vegetarian dishes are indeed vegetarian. It emphasises that the consumers have the right to know if the ingredients originate from plants or animals, or if they are laboratory manufactured, irrespective of the quantity that goes into the final product. This essentially means that even a speck of animal product would need the label to be brown to indicate its non-vegetarian origins. Does this mean that today’s green label is deceptive? It may not have perceivable chunks of meat but some ingredients may come from animal products not acceptable to most people like me, who religiously follow a vegetarian diet. As I read the High Court’s verdict, many incidents from the past came flashing back to me.
I was on a media trip to Thailand. When our hosts realised that many of us were vegetarians, surviving on salads and banana fritters on most days, they very graciously organised a complete vegetarian formal dinner. A food critic on the trip was offended—how can you offer this to a critic. On the same trip, a fellow blogger said that how can a vegetarian be a food blogger or a critic? This was my introduction to the hierarchical position of non-vegetarian food in the food media circles. No wonder, our lifestyle magazines are full of non-veg foods, absolutely ignoring my favourite maxim—isn’t everyone a vegetarian? We all consume plant-based food; in addition, you may also consume animal-based food. In India, it would be fair to say that even those who do consume non-vegetarian food, do not do so on a daily basis. A large number of people eat it occasionally, many consume it only outside their homes, or follow a vegetarian calendar like on Navaratri. So, if you look at the percentage of people who consume non-vegetarian food, it would be far less than that of non-vegetarians in the census.
At a global conference, a panel of the most celebrated Indian chefs discussed the business of food. When asked about the paucity of vegetarian dishes on the menu, they confessed that there is nothing called pure vegetarian food. They even cited a case of a chef who tried keeping the ladles used for vegetarian food separate and could not keep up. Since then, I have avoided eating at all kinds of fancy places that excel at making food look good, ‘instaworthy’ as they call it. But coming back to the Delhi High Court order—would it apply to the high-end hotels and kitchens of restaurants? If yes, how to ensure that the vessels used for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food are not used interchangeably? Are we going to put cameras in kitchens?
Forget about restaurateurs being bad boys and intentionally serving non-veg to vegetarians, there is a huge gap in understanding the issue. Recently, at a high-end hotel in one of the most sacred cities of India, the lunch buffet had a dish containing oyster sauce with a green label on it. When I asked the serving staff about this, he looked back and asked—Yeh vegetarian nahi hai kya? Is it not vegetarian? My head oscillated sideways and he very coolly said, “Ok, I will ask someone to change the label.” Then, I looked for safer options and moved on, but not without noticing that most of the serving staff has probably never tasted most of the presented dishes. Is this a training or a learning issue is another debate in my head. But as a vegetarian, it now tells me that you cannot blindly trust the staff.
Halal tourism was being promoted big time just before the pandemic stalled all travels. It always made me think, why have we seen no celebration of vegetarian food in India. We are largely vegetarian. If nothing else, we have the widest range of vegetarian cuisine in the world, be it our thalis, our deserts or our street food. Why are vegetarian food festivals not very popular in a country that is home to some of the largest vegetarian kitchens such as in temples like the Jagannath in Puri? I have seen vegetarian food festivals from Thailand to Canada. Moreover, Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary was celebrated across the world with vegetarian food but in India, we kind of ignored this. Vegan food festivals are coming up with missionary zeal but vegetarian ones are rarely heard. Don’t you think there is space for celebration of vegetarian food that is not just universally consumed but has so much range to experience?
Look behind the media blitz, and you see that one of the most successful food businesses in India are the Udupi restaurants from the South and Vaishno Dhabas from the North that are now found on roadsides almost everywhere in the country. At the cost of repeating myself, everyone is a vegetarian and it is evident in the footfalls that pure vegetarian places receive. Even Italian chains that serve vegetarian only have lasted longer in India than others. Maybe it’s time vegetarians assert their food choices with confidence.
Author and founder of blogging website IndiTales