Cover pic for this post with the text 'On1y The Best', the 'On1y' formed using the On1y logo
Text 'What is Veganism?' against background of grapes

ThinkVegan | The Heart of Veganism

Yesterday, there were two social commitments I ended up avoiding. The first was a wedding of a relative followed by lunch. The second was my folk, who did go for the wedding, returning with a few close relatives, who in the evening, they then took out for dinner. Now, the only thing vegan at Muslim weddings is water, and the dinner was at a Rajasthani restaurant where ghee flows like water.

Thus, my parents, especially my mom, had to do overtime explaining to folk why I wasn’t coming, and then what veganism is. Many people in India still don’t know what it is – they think it’s another term for vegetarianism – and Muslim folk don’t even know what vegetarianism is. I mean, they do, but you know what I mean.

In the evening, my sweet hapless mom came up to me and asked, “What exactly is veganism? What exactly do I tell them?” I did my number of asking her back – to know how much she knew. She managed to an extent (she does make vegan dishes for me, after all), and I filled in the rest.

So, is veganism just about avoiding animal products, things that have come from the exploitation of a sentient being? When you really become vegan, or when you become really vegan – in spiritthe answer too goes beyond. And this came out in the recent Chennai super-rains.

Man wading through neck-deep water in the recent Chennai floods

We were stuck at home for four days due to the water and two days due to no electricity. We did whatever work we could in the natural light, and then went to sleep early. We rationed our provisions, wanting little, wasting nothing. We performed our ablutions sparingly and absolutely thoughtfully. It felt like living in the village or in the early 1800s. And when the power came back and the water subsided, we didn’t rush to the nearby supermarket – there was still enough at home. Veganism is about austerity.

Then, you finally went to the supermarket, and found people hoarding up for the next 100 years. You spotted only two packets of your favourite snack left – anything is food in times of flood. So, you took both, right? But what if someone else wanted it – even if one – as badly? Veganism is also about thinking about the other. Comes from thinking about the “really lowly other” – the animals.

Mostly empty racks at a Chennai supermarket after the recent floods

The rain and the collected waters receded, but fear psychosis took over. Words started flying around that there’s an even greater storm coming; this – these two – was/were just the appetizer/s. Someone’s got to keep the calm in the storm and tell people that for all practical purposes, the worst is over, storm can’t strike the same place thrice, and that if indeed it does, with what you’ve just experienced over two-three weeks, you can handle it. Being/Keeping calm. Veganism is about that too. Coming as it does from patiently answering countless and ceaseless queries like “Where do you get your protein from?”, “Don’t animals die in farming?”, “It’s not sustainable”, the epic “What would you do if you are stranded on an island with only a goat?”, and from fighting for the freedom of beings whose protection laws have been formed by humans.

Graphic with text 'Over 1.5 lakh illegal structures in Chennai'

Life finally started getting back to normal, enough for people to then play the blame game: ‘Rampant construction.’ ‘Improper planning.’ ‘Building on marsh land.’ Veganism is, and always has been, about being sustainable. Sustaining animals, their habitats, the earth, and thus humans. Else, the next deluge will happen in less than 100 years. If not earlier.

Really short: Vegan’s about… thinking with the heart.Self-created logo for my ThinkVegan philosophy

Logo of The Brew Room on table

IrfindingVegan: Room for Vegan

IrfindingVegan Logo

A coffee shop. A hot cup of coffee on the table. A warm piece of cake alongside. The rain slamming the French windows of the coffee shop outside. You comfortable and assured inside with the knowledge that you’re inside and at the sight of the coffee and cake that await. Are there any more experiences more comforting than this in modern, urban life? Only if you add ‘weekend’ to the mix above.

But turn vegan, and you have to go cold-turkey on all the above. Almost all cafes in Chennai/India are non-vegan (not surprising given how much both the city and the country love their milk and “worship” their cows – and only a vegan can tell you all the things wrong with that, both nutritionally and ethically), and very few are vegan-friendly (there is CCD with its Vegan Shake, Starbucks which doesn’t make a bad soymilk-based coffee, and yes, there’s always black coffee). But what about that quintessential modern, urban, and English accompaniment to coffee – the piece of cake? What if you crave for it, even if just a bit, no matter how much vegan control you exhibit? The Brew Room, Savera Hotel’s indoor-cum-outdoor coffee shop on Radhakrishna Road is your answer. (I gather they also have a branch – a stand-alone – at, but of course, Besant Nagar.)

The entrance of The Brew Room

I had read about The Brew Room offering vegan coffees when I went through its launch PR article in the paper, but when I visited there a few months ago, was as disappointed as the staff seemed clueless: I had to explain what ‘vegan’ is, and when one needs to do that, you know they ain’t got the green stuff. But they were obliging – and warm and cordial – and the Nepali chef on duty then went to great lengths to make my sandwich vegan and the server assured me the iced coffee I was having was vegan. I’ve forgotten both item names now (although the sandwich was nice), but think it’s because I was disappointed at their “false PR” and decided not to go there again.

But a great deluge and a best friend visiting from my best city in the world (Bombay/Mumbai) can have you changing your mind. My friend and I just got out of a popular South Indian city eatery, where we were waiting for the heavy rains to subside and so filling up while there, but it almost started dripping again (like it has been all the past week), so we decided to head to Brew Room, which is close by.

He still had appetite, but only just, so he went for a soup, and I knowing that I wouldn’t find much there, and not having the appetite for a sandwich, went for an Americano. My coffee came while he had gone to the restroom, and so did the chef on duty. The chef informed me they didn’t have the tomato soup my friend ordered, so would we be okay with a broccoli soup? It seemed fine, except that I wouldn’t be able to share it if I wanted, as it had cream. I suggested waiting for my friend to affirm, but he seemed to be taking time drying up. I finished my coffee in that wait (my way of warming up), and friend still not having returned, decided to get up and walk around.

Fairy lights on the cupola of a wrought-iron gazebon on the lawns of The Brew Room

The fairy lights on the trees outside and through the rain and fogged glass were pretty, the Kollywood AD types at the behind table were still in conversation, I was already familiar with the décor and ambience, so went to one thing there that seemed mutable: the cake/pastry selection.

The cake/pastry section at The Brew Room

Like most vegan folk I’m sure, I’m not wistful about food things I’ve given up. (I don’t know why non-vegan folk make such a big deal of this, admiring our control; it’s simple: we trained ourselves to give it up, and found compassionate, equally healthy alternatives.) Plus, I find cake too drying on my palate (only less drying than biscuits); blame maida, I guess. So, my mouth wasn’t watering (odd that dichotomy, no?) at the fare on display. But. But. But. But if there’s a vegan option, I wouldn’t mind. There were not one, but three vegan cakes, all of different sizes and appetite as well as fattening value. Making me feel like Ms Goldilocks. (What’s a guy version of Goldilocks? Boldilocks? How typical, how sexist, how chauvinistic. I know.)

I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for even one – after two dosas and one coffee – but also wasn’t sure I could resist at least one. So, asked for the smallest: the pumpkin muffin. But not before exclaiming and exulting and then looking askance at the chef and the server. The girl server was the same as last time, so my questions were aimed with more fervour and enquiry at her: Did you start vegan cakes only now? Did you have them earlier? Do you not promote them? Do you not know what vegan is? Their responses: No, sir, we had them earlier too. Yes, sir, we know what vegan is. So, I had to ask another: So, how come I didn’t notice them earlier? Now, no one can ever respond to that.

Glad to know they indeed have vegan options (so, that wasn’t a “fake PR piece” after all) and excited at this prospect – it’s at the latter end of my weekend city-walk route, en route to my almost-standard weekend activity of an evening movie at a multiplex – I returned to my table and awaited the muffin. My friend had returned by then (and affirmed to broccoli), and I gave him the vegood news. Vegetarian but not vegan and not a lover of sweets (just like me), he understandably didn’t have similar exciting emotions to display. Plus, his soup had come. So, while he scooped up his thick non-vegan soup, I forked my just-arrived, just-warm muffin. I don’t remember the exact subtleties of taste – but I was quite full by then. Or was I? For I then ordered the next-sized banana cake slice. And then the lavish chocolate pastry. What I can remember and say is that while non-vegan folk would not know the difference for the first two (I believe the substitute for dairy milk was vegetable oil), that in the third is fairly detectible: I could sense cashew milk in the chocolate cream and shavings on top. I asked for the baking chef to confirm this, and thank him, but the regular chef on duty told me he had left for the day but he would convey my appreciation to him. (See what I mean by cordial?)

I asked for one more muffin, as a parcel, not for myself, but for my parents (who keep thinking that by having turned vegan, poor me doesn’t get to eat any of the nicer things in life). Well, I plan to do nice again very soon, only this time also with coffee. And nothing says ‘nice things in life’ than those two warm, brown things together.

Here’s the Brew Room site: The Brew Room

And here’s their FB page: The Brew Room on FB

 

Famous image of Einstein showing his tongue, with an illustration effect

IrfindingVegan: Refinding Senses

IrfindingVegan Logo

“You will become weak.”

“You will feel constantly deprived of energy.”

“You will suffer from severe calcium deficiency.”

“You will lose weight.” (Smiley.)

When you tell people you are turning vegan, you will hear a lot of grim things about your physical future, and the odd positive thing (such as that smiley-inducing one above). Well, I took 1.25 years to go vegan and have been vegan for almost seven months now (and have been vegetarian for over 19 years), and none of that has happened. (Sigh, not even that positive one – proving yet again that weight loss is the result of a combination and complex interaction of multiple factors.)

Illustration of the story, The Princess and the PeaWhat no one tells you though, or at least I didn’t come across in these 1.5 years, is that turning vegan turns on (heightens) your taste-buds and even other senses such as smell and sight/perception. Or this could just be me. But I have been steadily noticing that I am no longer able to tolerate even the slightest excess of sweet, salt, sour, spice and masala in my food (the last three being the most “hit”). I’ve kinda become like the princess in that tale about her and the pea.

Even more, I’m able to easily figure out whether someone has added some special flavouring/seasoning to a food item and what this seasoning/flavouring is. A couple of months ago, the friendly neighbour lady sent my mom a dish as part of the daily exchange of Ramzan iftaar items. One sampling, and – even while noting it was delicious – I was able to identify why: she had added special taste-maker (probably Maggi) to enhance the drool-worthiness of the dish.

But things got sealed last week. I had gone to this new restaurant – new even concept-wise, as it’s a weigh-and-pay restaurant, where you pay for food not by the menu but by the amount/weight you eat. (Read the review here.) Seal # 1: while it’s not a vegan eatery, I could correctly sense which of the vegetarian items were not vegan, having only the slightest of cream. (Of course, this could be from the knowledge gained from 1.5 years of vegan research.) But it gets better. After round 1, I knew the food, the taste was different (from Chennai standards; it’s a multi-cuisine restaurant, having Indian, Chinese and Continental), but wasn’t right then able to figure out what was different about it. So, decided to try out the taste-bending items (nutty pulao, baingan wedges, veg biryani) once more to determine the cause. (Of course, I didn’t repeat the spicy peas, as they were, well, too spicy.) Along with the three mentioned items, there was a new item, the daal, which the owner had made specially vegan (without cream) for me. I wiped these four items clean, and by then the cause was as clear as my plate: Their chef had to be Bengali; no one makes food such a delectable combination of sweet, salty, oily, spicy and tasty. I went up to the owner to confirm this. Not sure, she in turn asked her husband, who, not sure, in turn asked the manager, who, sure, responded: “Yes.”

With the way things are going, I think I’m heading to becoming a sniffer dog. Or if it gets more pronounced, I will soon become a cow, not being able to tolerate anything else along with my greens. And then, someone will yoke me and use me to plough the fields or pull a cart, or in a worse case, send me to the abattoir… sigh, perpetuating the animal-cruelty cycle.

I actually wrote this as a guest post for the site, Bleed Green, in the ‘Green Living’ section (but with a pic and a title more appropriate for that site). Bleed Green, as the name suggests, is a site for all things green: sustainable energy, organic products, and of course, the vegan life. Find the post here: Turning Vegan, Turning on Senses

Logo of Chennai's first weigh-and-pay restaurant, Weigh-Out

IrfindingVegan: Weighing and Eating

IrfindingVegan Logo

IrfindingVegan has been about finding vegan eateries and products and writing about them, mostly in a good light (but that could be because most vegan stuff has good light). However, I’ve decided to extend its scope now. No, not because it’s difficult to find vegan options in a country like India, where while a good part of the populace is vegetarian, many parts are still to even register the concept of ‘veganism’. (Or maybe that’s why: As food, and religious, lines are divided very strongly along the habits/practices of vegetarianism/non-vegetarianism, it’s difficult for a third option to find a squeak in.) Even a city like Chennai, where I stay, while known for its veggie fare, has only three all-vegan restaurants. (But this could be because the city loves its curd and ghee too much to know any other way of life.)

Anyway, I felt the urge to extend the scope of this series because being vegan, if you take it intently, turns out to not so much about eating vegan but about living vegan. Living pure, living frugally, living consciously, and in the case of this post, consuming consciously (rather than conspicuously), and therefore wasting minimally.

Let’s start weighing

Newspaper ad for Weigh-OutSo, last week, after seeing its ad in the papers for a week, I visited Weigh-Out, an all-day buffet restaurant where you don’t pay for food by the menu but by the weight. Going by the ad, it seemed to be close to my ex-office. So, I figured it would be easy to locate. I couldn’t be wronger.

Weighing Google Maps

The actual location of Weigh-OutI Google-mapped it before going, on getting there (to the area), and even after getting there, but just couldn’t spot it. As per G Maps, it seemed to be in a small hotel, which is right next to my ex-office building, but as I knew this hotel well, knew it couldn’t be there, but still went in. And was told the same by the manager. Stepped out, and going by the address, felt I should try the opposite side. Did so, and there it was. (That in the image taken from Weigh-Out’s FB page is the actual location.) Moral of the story: Don’t trust Google Maps too much.

Weighing the exteriors…

The building looks new and spanking, and it’s got the Weigh-Out boards on all road-facing sides. So, you can’t miss it – that is, once you junk G Maps and look the old-fashioned way.

And the interiors

Part of the interiors at Weigh-OutStep in, and it’s quite spacious. Or maybe because it’s new, not many know of it yet. I look around inquisitively, and a lady comes up to me. I guess she’s the owner. Guess confirmed.

Weighing the concept

A patron weighing his filled-up plate at Weigh-OutShe explains the concept to me. “It’s only a buffet, an all-day buffet. You get a card, take a plate, fill up, and go to weigh the filled-up plate at the weighing counter. The guy there swipes the card, informs you how much (by weight) is on your plate. You eat to your fill, but obviously need to weigh and swipe with each filling. At the end, you go and pay for the final weight/amount.”

This wasn’t so easy to understand when she explained it. I’ve made it easier (hopefully) after going through one cycle during my visit. And I guess they factor in the weight of the plate.

Weighing the price

In their ads too, they say it’s 70p/gram. So, I ask her how much a typical bill for one comes to. She tells me that if you eat well, it comes to 400ish. Mine came to a bit above that. But I was hungry that day.

Weighing her response to “I’m vegan”

I inform her I’m vegan, and then proceed with my typical assessment of whether the other person understands what that means. We almost make a game of it. Earlier, I had asked her name, tried to spell it, and almost got it correct, just interchanging two letters (‘Buelah’ instead of ‘Beulah’). So, ask her to tell me what she knows of vegan food. She gets it right. Weigh-Out 1, IrfindingVegan 0.75. (Hey, ‘u-e’ is good enough.)

Weighing the vegan fare

A view of the vegetarian section at Weigh-OutThere is enough vegan fare, and some non-standard options, such as baingan (brinjal/eggplant/aubergine) wedges and nutty pulao. I fill up my plate with some salads (aloo/potato chat and spicy peas), the baingan wedges, gobi/cauliflower manchurian, noodles, and two varieties of rice (nutty pulao and veg biryani).

A view of the desserts' section at Weigh-OutI have a perfunctory look at the desserts’ section, and am not surprised: apart from cut fruits, there’s nothing vegan (but obviously). So, skip them. I also don’t have much of a sweet tooth.

Weighing the taste

The chat’s a bit spicy, but palatable; but the spicy peas are too spicy and tangy for my taste. The wedges are not very oily and give the taste of both the baingan and the besan (gram flour) in equal measure. The noodles too are nicely between crunchy and soft, and go perfectly with the equally perfectly-done manchurian. The biryani again is a bit too spicy for my palate. But the winner is the nutty pulao: everything in the right measure – nuts, sweet, salt, spice, oil.

The food overall has a taste that reminds me of something, but I’m not able to get my tastebuds on it just yet. So, decide to do a refill with most of the first-round items, but leaving out the very spicy peas, and this time, there are two new items: sautéed broccoli and daal without the cream, which the owner has had made specially for vegan me.

Getting the taste

I’m glad she made the daal, because that, and the second round, helped me nail where I’d tasted this kind of food before. It’s the distinct taste of Bengali food, which while leaning toward the sweeter side, also has the right blend of salt, oil and spices, and of course, baingan. (Bongs seem to love this king of vegetables as much as they love the king of fish, the hilsa. Their favourite way of cooking it, the brinjal, is frying – it’s called baegoon bhaaja – so, the wedges were a noticeable change. Their favourite way of cooking the hilsa is… hey, ask a Bong; I’m vegan, remember?)

Checked this (whether the chef is Bengali) with the owner after paying my bill, and again she confirmed it. Incidentally, further down in the same area, there are several Bengali messes, serving more humble Bengali fare. So, did the chef come (graduate) from there? Maybe I’ll find out next time.

Weighing Weigh-Out

Neat-tasting food. Decently priced. Amiable ambience. So, will it work? Let’s weigh what it’s got…

Location: This initially seems an obstacle. It’s in a commercial area with several other mainstream restaurants, but maybe that’s why it will work: upwardly mobile office-goers who want a decent-sized meal but with some space and quiet. And this is confirmed by the second point.

Concept: Would the concept itself work, or as I asked her at the beginning, “Is it too ambitious for a conservative place like Chennai?” She replied that they are aimed at people who want decent-tasting food and don’t like wasting or overordering, and she seems to be having quite a few people showing interest so far.

“Tension-eating”: This isn’t eating in a hurry or eating out of a psychological condition, but like this… Quite a few times during my meal, I kept on thinking, ‘I just ate 50 bucks’ more worth’, ‘Now, I ate 75 bucks’ worth’, ‘There goes 125’. I was counting my morsels the way many people count calories. It seemed tension-inducing. The last thing you want when eating a nice meal. Or was that just me?

Positioning: Again, this could just be the ad-guy me, or maybe not. While weigh-and-eat is an innovative concept, is it a sustainable one? Do we go to a place for how less it, and you, waste, or how good the food tastes? (Well, as I said at the beginning, maybe if you’re vegan.) Guess we’ll have to weight, er, wait this one out…

If interested, visit their Facebook page (from where I’ve taken the pix): Weigh-Out on Facebook