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!

Denver

My first trip to the United States was the most memorable of all the trips that I subsequently made – for some good and some bad reasons.

I was here to spend 3 weeks in Denver at my company’s headquarter at the time, at the ‘1800 Grant St’ address that I knew so well but had never visited before. Denver is one of my favourite places in the US, mostly due to the fact that it was the first place in the US I visited and the beginning of learning so many new things about a world very different than my own. It also marked a turning point not just in my career but also in my life. Plus it’s close to the Rocky Mountains which makes it such a fun place to be at.

I stayed at a Residence Inn hotel, the ones that have apartment-like buildings and kitchenettes. Unfortunately, I had been misinformed before leaving India that you cannot take any food with you while travelling to the US, and on top of that, I did not have the slightest idea of how difficult it would be for me to find some vegetarian food. All I had was some home-made snacks and instant cereal that my mom had packed for me. To cut a long story short,  I starved most of those 21 days. Breakfast used to be fine because it was provided at the hotel and there was stuff I could eat. I used to take the hotel shuttle to work and back in the evenings and was too much of an introvert to ask anyone for help. Even when I did ask somebody once about where I could find vegetarian food, he asked me to google it. “Really?” I thought. “And how do you think I will get there?”. It sounds ignorant now, but at that time, I had no idea about the power of google and mapquest. I had lived my whole life without ever needing them before and its funny that now I cannot go through one day without using Google.

So I just used to survive on the breakfast bags they provided at the hotel which had a fruit and a muffin maybe. For dinner I used to eat Mom’s snacks, but before long I was longing for some real food. One day I asked the hotel people about where I could shop for some groceries and took the shuttle to a Safeway close to the hotel. I did find some instant noodles that were vegetarian (I hope) and survived on them for the next few days.

Then one day as I was waiting for the shuttle outside the office, I met another colleague from the Chandigarh office who was visiting Denver. I had never talked to him before, but he was a kind guy and asked me if I needed help with anything. He said he could show me some places where I could buy vegetarian food and I jumped at the offer. I still remember I bought a frozen pizza and some frozen rice and Mexican refried beans. I was happy I was going to eat a real meal that day. Went back to the hotel, heated the pizza as per instructions, started eating and hated it. It tasted so bad, I had to throw it away. Then I tried the frozen rice (wondering why anyone would freeze rice) and the beans. Had to throw that away too. My taste buds were just not used to the spiceless frozen foods. So I just sat and cried and then had my cereal and went to bed.

One day I asked one of the friendly ladies in my team about where I could find vegetarian food and they decided to take me out for lunch. We went to a Mexican restaurant close to the office and for the first time in many days, I had good food. I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the Mexican food was very similar to Indian cuisine. It was probably one of the happiest days of my first visit.

One of my colleagues from India office had just recently been transferred to the Denver office. He and his wife along with their one year old little girl were staying in a temporary accommodation across the street from the office. He invited me to his place for lunch one day. I still remember what his wife cooked that day. They were still living out of the suitcase, looking for a home and taking care of a baby at the same time. I was grateful beyond words and had to really restrain myself from asking them if I could please have lunch with them every day.

If you didn’t know this about me before, you would know now that good food is really important for me. I did learn a lot during that first trip. In fact, on the subsequent trips, I would become an expert on finding Indian groceries and restaurants wherever I went and cooking Indian food in the hotel kitchenettes with the limited supplies I had. I also became more tolerant of the tastes of different cuisines and would actually miss them when I went back home.

I made a new friend, a very nice colleague who took me sightseeing and shopping on a weekend. She was divorced and had started dating again recently. All foreign concepts for me at the time, so discussions with her were really interesting. Also met a friendly and kind African-American shuttle driver who knew all about Gandhi and Bollywood. Above all, I gained confidence, personally and professionally. That I could train people who knew better than me in many different areas. And that I could survive going halfway across the world, alone, without having ‘real’ food for so many days, without having anyone to tell me how to survive, and still come back home safely.

In many ways, I am a completely different person than I was just 6 years ago. And it all started with that first trip. That is why Denver and 1800 Grant St will always be special places for me.