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Indian vegetarians confuse their vegetarianism with veganism

My primary objection (and perhaps the only one) to adherents and proponents of vegetarianism is the air of smug, moral superiority they often adopt.

They are better than us, they say, because they do not kill animals.

When you point out that the production of most of the grain and vegetables they consume usually necessitates the killing of thousands of insects through pesticides and the like, they pretend not to have heard. And as for the argument that plants constitute sentient life, they have no time for that one either.


   Personally, I think vegetarianism is fine if you do it for religious reasons, because you don’t like meat or because you believe that while the taking of some form of life in the production of food is inevitable, it is better to minimize the number of deaths.


   But these are not the arguments that are often advanced by the morally superior kind of vegetarians. And of late they have claimed further vindication by pointing to the growing movement against meat and towards veganism in the West.  Look, they say, even the West has recognised that eating meat is bad. We were right, all along.


   Well, no. They weren’t.


   The problem is that Indian vegetarians confuse their vegetarianism with the veganism that is sweeping the West. And yes, veganism is trendy. Its most famous foodie convert may be the Chef Daniel Humm who has converted his three Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park into a largely vegan paradise. Humm tried to do the same at Davies and Brook, his restaurant at London’s iconic Claridges Hotel. When the Claridges’ management objected, Humm decided that he was better off closing down the restaurant than agreeing to any compromise suggested by Claridges.


   But veganism is not vegetarianism. And anyway, its current advocates don’t even like the term ‘vegan’; they prefer plant-based.


   An advocate of plant-based/vegan eating will not consume anything that comes from an animal. This pleases Indian vegetarians till they realise that this means that nothing from a cow is allowed. So no milk, no curd, no paneer, no ghee, no butter, no malai and no cheese. It also means no eggs, which vegetarians say bravely that they are okay with till you explain to them that most Indian vegetarians already eat quite a lot of egg in their cakes and naans. This would have to stop too.


   Veganism is far more extreme than vegetarianism. And the current craze has a rationale that has very little to do with religion or the so-called moral superiority of those who will not take animal life. The case for veganism is usually framed in terms of the damage that rearing livestock is doing to the world. Ruminant animals such as cows burp methane, a potent greenhouse gas.


"None of this is good news for Indian vegetarians, most of whom don’t actually like the taste of meat, let alone some synthetic version thereof."

   The increase in the farming of animals for food has led to unprecedented imbalances in the world. Over the last few decades, the global population of animals reared for food has tripled while the population of wild animals has declined by two-thirds. Chickens, bred for food, now make up more than 70 per cent of all birds on the planet.


   Vegans are worried by these figures and say we must eat less meat and chicken to restore some kind of balance. Not all advocates of a plant-based diet are fundamentalists. Many only ask that we either reduce our consumption of meat or that we stay away from industrially reared meat and broiler chicken. It is a movement based less on any kind of moral orthodoxy than on a rational concern for the planet.


   The problem for Indian vegetarians is that when they go abroad they usually look for vegetarian options at restaurants. These take the form of cheese toast, cheesy pastas, pizzas, milk shakes, ice-creams, omelettes etc. But what has now happened is that as the plant-based craze has hit restaurants, the vegetarian menu options have disappeared and have been replaced with vegan dishes. There is an element of tokenism here, of course. Most restaurants in the West don’t really like serving vegetarians or vegans but include a few dishes on their menus just to seem accommodating. Now, they can’t be bothered to distinguish between vegetarians and vegans, and simply opt for vegan choices. After all, they argue, all vegan options are vegetarian and therefore widely acceptable to non-meat-eating guests. On the other hand, vegetarian options may not be acceptable to vegans.


   So, out go the cheese sandwiches. Even buttered toast is a no-no.  Pizzas are out too though some places try and offer vegan-pizzas made with non-dairy cheese which can be disgusting. All soufflés are out too. (They contain egg). So are most cakes and ice-creams — in the West, these are made with eggs and restaurants can’t be bothered to make vegan versions.


   Moreover, the emphasis in the years to come will be on plant-based ‘meats’. These are mock meats made from vegetable protein. The intention is to recreate a meaty taste through technology. Some plant-based steaks will even ‘bleed’ on the plate (it's not blood but beet juice) to make meat-eaters feel better about going plant-based.


   None of this is good news for Indian vegetarians, most of whom don’t actually like the taste of meat, let alone some synthetic version thereof.  Nor are they thrilled by mock-meat that bleeds.


   So, contrary to the triumphant joy that some Indian vegetarians feel when they read about the West’s sudden discovery of plant-based foods, the move towards veganism is actually bad news for them. By removing dairy from the list of available options, it severely restricts their choices.


   When I interviewed Daniel Humm about his decision to go plant-based, two things struck me. The first was that his concern was limited to saving the planet. He was quite happy he said if people ate less meat; it was not his position that all meat-eating was cruel and reprehensible. The second was that each time I used the world ‘vegan’ in a question, he answered by using ‘plant-based’ instead.


   Humm, like many chefs who advocate eating less meat, does not like the associations that vegan brings with it. In the West it suggests hippies who eat nut-cutlets and pour scornful judgement on everyone else.


   The thrust of this current plant-based movement is not to be scornful or judgemental or to adopt an air of moral superiority while looking down on those who like meat. It is to look ahead at the future of the planet.


   Clearly, that is an approach totally at odds with the approach of some of our self-righteous vegetarians. And so, when I see them wandering helplessly abroad, looking desperately for a vegetarian pizza made with real cheese, I feel bad.


   Well, sort of bad…




  • Megha 05 Jun 2022

    Take it positively Veer. Now that a plant based eating movement is on rise, there's huge potential for our authentic Indian Vegetarian food being accepted more widely in the West. Indians are predominently Vegetarians, and we have a wide variety of yet to be exposed vegetarian dishes that we can offer to the West. Be it moong daal tikki in their burger or scrumptious daal and rice, it can all be added to their menu.

Posted On: 23 May 2022 10:35 AM
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