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!

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Food. Memories. Comfort.

Bread pakoras were one of my favorite childhood foods. Typical street food in India, prepared and sold by vendors on the road-sides, although much better when made at home for a once-in-a-while Sunday brunch. Pakoras and tea in general are considered great comfort foods on a rainy day.

So it rained today here in Indy. It doesn’t usually rain this hard here and for only a few minutes it was like monsoons were here in Indiana. Needless to say, it made me crave pakoras. I have made them before for pitch-in parties at work or friend’s homes. Always found that they were quite appreciated by the American friends and colleagues, so I thought why not share the recipe for my friends who like to try new foods!

Just to clarify the terminology before I go on to the recipe – ‘pakora’ in general is fried batter. Dip different things in the batter before frying it and you get different varieties of pakoras. Here’s what you will need:

  • Chick pea flour – Also called Gram flour or Besan in Hindi and can be easily found in any Indian/Pakistani store: 2 cups (makes enough for a family of 3-4)
  • Salt: To taste (I used 2 teaspoons)
  • Turmeric, red chilli powder, cumin powder: to taste (I used 1 teaspoon each). If you do not have these spices, no worries. You can be creative and use black pepper powder, oregano powder or any other spices you have on hand.
  • Baking powder: 1/8th of a teaspoon
  • Water: 1 cup (approximately)
  • Oil: for deep-frying.
  • Bread: 8 slices of wheat or any not-too-soft bread
  • Veggies: alternately, for different types of pakoras, you can use onion rings, very thinly sliced potatoes, chopped spinach and even cauliflower or broccoli (see? that just turned it into a healthy dish).

To make pakoras, mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, spices and baking powder) well in a somewhat flat-bottomed bowl (if you are making bread pakoras, the flat bottom will make it easy to dip the bread slice). The chick pea flour may have lumps. Squash them with a spatula.

Slowly add water to the dry ingredients, mixing constantly with a spoon/spatula to remove any lumps. If the batter is too thin, it will not stick to the veggies/bread and will fall off when you fry it. That’s why water should be added slowly and not all at once. Keep mixing until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth and of the consistency of pancake batter.

In the meantime, heat the oil on medium heat in a wok-style pan (or whatever you use for deep-frying). Drop a tiny bit of batter in the oil to check if the oil is ready. If the batter immediately pops up and dances in the oil, you are ready to go! Dip the bread completely in the batter to cover all sides, and drop it really slowly in the oil (be careful not to splash oil on yourself). Let it cook till it is golden on one side, then slowly turn over and cook the other side.

For veggie pakoras, mix chopped veggies in the batter and drop a few spoonfuls in the oil giving them enough space to dance around. Cook both sides till golden. Place the hot pakoras on a paper towel so that any extra oil is absorbed (healthy!) and enjoy with ketchup!

If you like this recipe, or have any questions about it or any other indian recipes, do let me know. I like cooking and blogging and would love to blog more about food and cooking :)