Redefining Vegetarianism

I am not a vegetarian, although I have had phases and found them beneficial in terms of losing weight and feeling generally purged. I am mainly pescatarian because my wife, who is mainly vegetarian, is occasionally prepared to eat fish. At the age of eight my son was watching an episode of the X-Files in which a guy drowned in a vat of chicken slurry, and instantly stopped eating meat, although admittedly for about six months he was “a vegetarian who couldn’t help eating meat”. My daughter will never be a vegetarian although she does love some vegetarian food, provided it does not contain whole tomatoes (she’s fine with tomatoes in Bolognese etc) or peas of any kind. Peas are out.

So with this mixed bag of food preference our foreign holidays back in the day were, to say the least, interesting. We were sat in a Dutch restaurant for lunch after a long walk and because all of us were famished a three course meal was in order. The only starter my then 13 year old son could order was tomato soup. As he took his first spoonful some meat floated to the top. While the restaurant menu did not pick out vegetarian dishes we could not have expected tomato meat soup. A year later we were in Portugal where on two occasions omelettes were put in front of him topped with a slice of ham.

I was working with two lovely guys at the time who operated as my Portuguese distributors. They were kind enough to entertain us on several occasions during our week in the Algarve, with the farewell occasion being when we were all invited to Eduardo’s holiday home for a meal. They had prepared special vegetarian options for my wife and son, and Eduardo promised faithfully there was no crustacean seafood in the fish soup…except there was! I have a severe allergy to crustaceans that sometimes manifests itself immediately. Thankfully not on this occasion, although I did feel rough for several days afterwards.

Being a vegetarian, or worse a vegan, can be very difficult in some parts of the world. My son is now 30, and five years ago he took off on a solo round the world trip that took him to India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China before he finally returned to more familiar culture in Australia and New Zealand. His main challenge came in China where he existed on water, bread and fresh ginger for about a week after he cruised the Yangtse and experienced the Great Wall, but generally he was able to get by.

I had one of my vegetarian phases during a time when I regularly travelled to Ireland, and recall being in a carvery queue having to walk past the meat options. The vegetables included the rather unappetising sight of overcooked dark green cabbage which I declined, and then potatoes. By the time I sat at my table my plate contained a meal of mashed potato, roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, and chips! There were no other options and I needed something to soak up the alcohol.

Another regular haunt around that time was Germany, but I pretty well decided that vegetarianism was not going to be an option in most of the places I would be working. I do like sauer-kraut in small doses but a whole week of it is not my idea of food heaven. So with my family being half vegetarian I would have meat binges followed by meat cravings for a few days after I returned home. The Germans do offer a wide range of very succulent meats.

However, even German meat is surpassed in quality by the beautifully tender meat that was served in my cold meat ‘salad’ when I visited Mongolia last year. I actually got my order wrong. As the only Westerner in the room I was left to make my own choices for lunch, and opted for a noodle broth to start and a cold meat salad for my main course, all washed down with tea made with warm mares’ milk. The noodle broth could have fed at least half of the 15 delegates to the training course I was delivering, so I barely scratched the surface, and when the cold meat salad arrived it was an entire dinner plate stacked high with wonderful meat and a few leaves of lettuce on top. I am not sure there would be any way you could survive as a vegetarian in Mongolia!

Very often in my business travels I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask for vegetarian food. Sometimes it has been because I didn’t fancy a meat meal that day, sometimes because I was on a vegetarian kick. On other occasions it has been difficult to determine exactly what was being served up, and it would either have been impolite to ask, or perhaps better not to. The offer of food is an important part of a welcome in many cultures, and it can be very easy to offend by declining.

It is not always possible even with the most diligent planning to avoid situations where you are required to eat something that is not part of your personal diet, and in some cases it is actually better to avoid familiar alternatives. I spent ten days on business between Delhi and Bombay in the mid-1990s and in that time my various chaperones were careful to guide me to eat vegetarian food that would not disturb my delicate Western constitution. Then inexplicably and against all advice I had an irrepressible urge to buy a Wimpy burger from a van at the open air exhibition where we had a stand…I really should have stuck to my vegetarian diet! Food is a big part of culture, and these days when I am travelling to a new market I take with me food for my own consumption as a fall back in case of food hell!

Article written by John Reed - Associate of Strong & Herd LLP

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