Somewhere between the cabbage-patch countryside of western Carpathia and the shimmering cornfields of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I hope to find vegetarian nirvana.
You wouldn't think I would need to find it, having grown up in south India, where vegetarian food is as plentiful as the Hindu temples. But having made my home in the Western Hemisphere, I have to discover a place that recreates the flavors of my native land. And when I do find it, I have promised myself that I will settle there.
The definition of "vegetarian" is somewhat nebulous, and most restaurants have to recite a series of questions before they determine what type of vegetarian you are. Here is a typical scenario in a restaurant that I visit. After sitting down and studying the menu, my husband and I decide that there is only one dish that looks remotely vegetarian--the black bean chili--but we have to determine that it is not cooked in lard. The waiter appears, genially smiling, ready to take our order.
"Our specials for the day are shrimp ragout sautéed in a fish sauce and garnished with a tender celery stalk. Our soup special is..."
"Excuse me," my husband interrupts. "We are vegetarians."
The waiter's smile disappears. He looks perplexed. "Well, do you eat white meat?" he asks.
"Do you eat chicken?"
"You eat fish, don't you?"
"No. We don't eat meat, fish, chicken, or pork. We don't eat anything that moves."
The waiter gives us a look as if to say, What else is there if you don't eat meat, fish, chicken, or pork.
"I can bring you a vegetable plate," he says finally.
"All right," my husband says grudgingly, knowing full well what will appear on our fancy "vegetable plate."
Twenty minutes later, the waiter reappears. With a fancy flourish, he opened a large silver dome in which rested several stalks of artfully arranged asparagus with a sprig of parsley on top.
When I first came to this country some 10 years ago as a Foreign Fellow to Mount Holyoke, I missed Indian food terribly, even though Mount Holyoke was one of those enlightened institutions that served a "vegetarian alternate" with every meal. The aforementioned "alternate" was not one of those overcooked, under-spiced, never-chopped clumps of vegetables that masqueraded as a vegetarian dish. Mount Holyoke had hearty, flavorful fare from around the world. But I missed the searing heat and gunpowder brittleness of south Indian cuisine.
One day as I was complaining about how much I missed the green chili-paste that formed the basis of many of my favorite dishes, a fellow Indian pressed a thin red bottle into my hands with the instruction, "Carry this with you always. It will salvage your taste buds."
To this day, nestled between the lacy handkerchiefs and neon lipsticks that crowd my purse is a thin red bottle of Tabasco sauce.
Over the years, my taste buds have learned to tolerate and even relish pastas, enchiladas, pad Thai, and other foreign food as long as it is vegetarian. I haven't been able to bring myself to eat meat, and the fact that a friend described a hamburger as tasting like "chewing gum" hasn't helped.
When traveling, we developed techniques. In South America, where beef chorizos were the staple, we feasted on fruits and tomatoes. In Germany, the land of sauerbraten and liverwurst, we subsisted on hard German black bread and cheese. In France, we spent an entire week eating baguettes stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and cheese. In Mexico, we ate yogurt. In Eastern Europe--Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia--we let the castles and crystal fill our stomachs and lived on fresh air and water.
After years of doing this, I despaired of ever finding decent vegetarian food. Then one day, in a grand stroke of cosmic irony, we found our vegetarian nirvana right in our backyard. There is a Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens, that we visit often. After our Mexican trip, we went to the temple one weekend and spotted a grimy sign that said "Canteen" right next door.
One Sunday morning, we decided to check it out. Immediately, we were surrounded by comforting sounds and smells--the sizzling sound of a dosa being poured on a pan, the smell of coconut chutney and onion sambar. There were no waiters. Instead we had to stand in line and recite our requirements to a sari-clad woman who would then sing out our order to the cooks. "Two dosas, one plate vada, one idli, and two coffees."
We have eaten at the temple canteen numerous times since, and as far as we are concerned, they serve the best vegetarian food this side of the Bay of Bengal. I don't even have to move. All I have to do on a Sunday morning is cross the Queensborough Bridge from Manhattan to Queens,, go to the temple, and head over to the canteen for some good food.