How to remain a vegetarian in the US

A long time back, during one of my first few visits to the US, I was telling someone, that I was a vegetarian. A friend who was listening to that conversation said – “probably not anymore”. He used to say that when you eat outside food, you can never be sure of what you are eating. It bothered me a lot, but I did not have much of a choice at that time.

Things are different now and I am a little better at identifying what I should or should not eat. What I have found is that it really is not as simple here as it is in India where all food packaging has to be marked with a green or a red dot to identify it as suitable for vegetarians (green) or not (red). Animal by-products are used in a variety of different forms, in foods that you cannot imagine would need them.

So I decided to make a list of such foods to avoid if you are a vegetarian and wish to do so. If you’ve been living in the US for a long time, you probably already know about these. This post is mainly meant to help vegetarians who have recently moved to the United States. So, here goes!

1. Cheese: Surprised? I was too. Probably because ‘paneer’, the Indian cheese, can be made at home from ingredients as simple as milk and lemon juice. The various different types of cheeses you get here though, contain an enzyme called ‘rennet’ which is usually derived from the lining of the stomach of calves. It is not always clearly listed in the ingredients. Many times you will just see ‘enzymes’ in the ingredients of the cheese. Most likely it is still animal-derived rennet. To avoid this, when I eat out, I ask them to leave the cheese out of my dish. You can also buy cheese made from microbial rennet at some health food stores or the good old Amul cheese with a big green dot on the package from an Indian store. If you are craving pizza, Little Caesar is one pizza place that uses vegetarian cheese (made from microbial rennet) on their pizzas.

2. Yogurt: I’m not kidding. There is a reason that the yogurt that you buy is so smooth and creamy. Many of the varieties that are available contain gelatin, which is derived from the collagen inside the bones of animals. If that bothers you, use the variety that contains pectin, which serves similar purpose as gelatin but is derived from plant sources. And then use it to make your own gelatin-free yogurt at home. It is worth the little effort!

3. Gummy bears/candies: These contain gelatin too. Think of anything that has jelly-like consistency and an unnatural neither-solid-nor-liquid form – jello, gummy bears, marshmallows – they all have gelatin.

4. Refried beans: One of the few foods I can eat in a Mexican restaurant. Originally it was made out of lard (pig/beef fat). These days many restaurants do not use lard but some still may. It never harms to confirm, and re-confirm, even if you annoy the hell out of the server, even if they don’t understand a word you say and you don’t understand a word they say.

5. Soups/sauces: Even if the soup or sauce itself doesn’t have any meat, it could have been based on a beef/chicken/meat broth. Make sure your soup is made with vegetable broth. Recently I found out that my favorite alfredo sauce (served with pasta in Italian restaurants) can sometimes also contain chicken broth. So now I always double-check before ordering.

6. Thai food: Their seemingly harmless (sorry meat-eaters!) veggie fried rice and soup dishes may have a fish or shrimp-based sauce. I used to go to a family run place that served a “vegetarian” soup I LOVED. Although they are the nicest people ever, we did have some communication problems. After my repeatedly asking whether that soup was vegetarian even after getting an answer in the affirmative, they finally got fed up and brought out the bottle of the sauce they used in that soup. It had shrimp in it! I was a vegetarian no more! If this had happened a couple of years ago, I would have probably gone to the restroom and wept for the animal I just ate, but a lot has changed in the last couple of years. Now I just go to the Thai food place that explicitly lists food items as vegetarian on their menu. Goodbye nice Thai couple :(.

7. ‘Burger’ always means it is has beef. So does a ‘patty melt’, even if the description doesn’t mention any meat. It is not like India, where a “burger” can have a veggie patty. Trust me. I found this out the hard way.

8. Caesar dressing for salads has anchovies – a type of fish (yuck!) (sorry again meat-eaters!).

That’s all I can think of right now. If there are any other foods that you know of, that vegetarians should avoid, please do share. I will be forever grateful!


The Fog Horn

A story I read in school – ‘The Fog Horn’ by Ray Bradbury. It had me thinking 18 years ago. And it still makes me think about that fictional lonely creature. Can you feel its loneliness too?


“OUT there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower. Feeling like two birds in the grey sky, McDunn and I sent the light touching out, red, then white, then red again, to eye the lonely ships. And if they did not see our light, then there was always our Voice, the great deep cry of our Fog Horn shuddering through the rags of mist to startle the gulls away like decks of scattered cards and make the waves turn high and foam.

“It’s a lonely life, but you’re used to it now, aren’t you?” asked McDunn.”

Read the rest of the story here:

Experience Pigeon Forge

Just got back from a trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with the family. I am not going to bore you with all the details about the trip, but there were so many fascinating things that happened that I cannot help but write about them, before they fade away in memory like so many others already have.

So here is a quick list of things I learnt/experienced/realized during this trip:

1. That even a vegetarian can grow to love traditional Southern (American) food, even if it means having a salad (probably not-so-southern), mashed potatoes and dessert (yum!) for lunch. I now have a newfound love for scrambled eggs and buttermilk biscuits and we will have to visit Cracker Barrel much more frequently because of that.

2. That there is an ‘America’ I know nothing about in spite of practically living here for the last 7 years. On one of the days during our visit, tired of all the money-making business around us, we made an impulsive decision to drive to the mountains. We did not know that we would cross over into North Carolina and get a chance to peek into the going-abouts of a predominantly Native American town, Cherokee. The town was unusually quiet for a Friday afternoon with most of the shops closed and streets deserted (probably because of Good Friday?). At a convenience store, I saw a native american family who were nothing like the american families I am used to seeing. Made me wonder what it would be like to be an alien in your own home, cornered in, er… a corner? In the wonderment, I also got carried away and bought some souvenirs from a tribal crafts store supposedly carrying handmade Indian goods, only to find a little ‘Made in China’ sticker on them when I got home. At least it was not ‘Made in India’, otherwise I would have felt guilty about indians taking away american indian’s jobs too.

3. What I have gathered from hearsay about southern culture, always gave me the impression that people from the south of USA are more conservative than their northern counterparts. For the same reason, I was not expecting a warm welcome and might even have been a little apprehensive about us being the only ‘different’ people there. Wrong. The kind of warmth exuded by the people was nothing like what I have experienced before in the US. Not meaning to say that I have not found other places to be friendly, but this was by far the friendliest places I have visited in the country. It might have also had something to do with the quaint rusticness of the people, that reminded me a little bit of home, or the southern accent that I find so charming.

4. There is no right answer to the question “where are you from?”. One time, I answered “India” and they said “I know, but where do you live here?”. The next time, I answered “Indianapolis” and they said “But where are you from originally?”. To top it, my smart Alec son asks accusingly later – “Why did you say you are from Indianapolis? You are from India!”. %#$#%$

5. I also found out that Santa Claus is not for real! Just kidding. I knew that. What I did not know was how magical he is. Well, now I know. Better late than never.

6. The best things in life are free.. technically. It’s kind of amazing that some of the best parts of our trip were the only ones that were free or cost very little. Like listening to this song sung by the old man himself. Watch the video below (it is still uploading and will be live approximately half an hour after this post is published). It is pretty amazing if you can ignore the noises the children are making and me moving around shaking the camera every 10 seconds.