Pass the Vegetables, Please
If you sum up the number of years the three members of my small family have been vegetarian, there would be a septuagenarian chewing vegetables at our dining table. I consider myself a late bloomer, as I became vegetarian in my 20s. My husband switched to vegetarianism in his early teens. My daughter, Karuna, now 11 years old, has been vegetarian from birth (in fact, even as a fetus).
It’s not easy to be a vegetarian in the Philippines because vegetarians are a minority and the awareness of many Filipinos of what constitutes vegetarianism is abysmally low. Family and friends pitied my daughter for never having tasted meat, thinking she’s missing out on gastronomic pleasures, and by extension, pleasures in life. They smugly predicted that my daughter would quit being vegetarian once she was exposed to the junk food world through classmates in preschool, not to mention insidious commercials showing juicy hotdogs and crispy fried chicken. This dietary catastrophe never happened. On the contrary, she grew up refining her understanding of what it means to be a vegetarian. At 6 years old, she picked up a pack of gummy bears in the supermarket and did what nobody trained her to do: she turned it over and looked at its list of ingredients. “I can’t have this, Mom, it’s got gelatin.” She knows that gelatin comes from an animal source, specifically from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of cows, chickens, pigs, or fish. There’s no way she’s going to have anything gummy now, or ever—and that includes marshmallows.
Hi, I’m Karuna, and my Mom’s right. I am a proud vegetarian. I always make sure to read ingredients of food products and I know that we can’t just remove pepperoni from pizza because the essence of the meat is still there. I made the right decision during my third grade pizza party. There was no vegetarian pizza available so I had to just watch everyone else enjoying their pepperoni pizza while I was going hungry. My teacher offered to remove the pepperoni from the pizza but I politely declined and explained that it wasn’t allowed. I would rather go hungry than go against my commitment to vegetarianism.
With us, artificial meat flavoring in food products is not allowed because the origin of these may still be from animals, including fish. Filipinos consider fish vegetarian because it isn’t labeled as meat, but the fact that fish and other seafood are marine animals and their flesh is meat means that fish is not vegetarian.
A shorthand I use to explain to others what is and is not vegetarian, especially to confused but well-meaning cooks and waiters in restaurants: “We don’t eat anything that has a face.” This translates to not eating any meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, or their by-products. Generally vegetarians live on a diet of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. But there are different types of vegetarians. My daughter and I are lacto-ovo vegetarians so we can have dairy products and unfertilized eggs (which will never produce hatched chicks). This diet provides us with a wider range of choices, like milk, yogurt, ice cream, and pastries. My husband is a lacto vegetarian so he can have dairy but not eggs or egg-based food products. At home we sometimes have two variations of the same dish—tortang talong with egg and tortang talong with cheese. Both taste good. Another type of vegetarian is a vegan who, apart from not eating any animal product and eggs, eschews any type of dairy product such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. So if we see a “suitable for vegetarians” label on food products, it may be safe for the lacto-ovo or lacto vegetarians but may not necessarily be acceptable for vegans.
In eating cooked food outside of home, I’m very careful about the “invisible” add-ons in making vegetarian dishes suspiciously delicious, like fish sauce, oyster sauce, chicken stock, or beef broth. Once, in a lunch meeting at work, I spat out an innocent tofu when I tasted oyster sauce with it. In another meeting, an alien taste in the potato croquette that I could not identify turned out to be tuna. In both instances I refused to eat the offending food served to me. Temporary hunger is a viable option.
In the first grade, I was forced by two of my classmates to eat tocino. Being a shy young kid, I wasn’t able to assert myself and ate it, not knowing what it really was. I told my Mom later that day that I had a suspicion that tocino was nonvegetarian even though my classmates insisted that it was vegetarian. She then spoke to my class adviser the next day to explain about my vegetarian diet and that I am not allowed to eat anything but my own food for lunch. In response to this incident, my teacher spoke to the entire class about respect for diversity.
People think that the vegetarian diet is boring, merely boiled or steamed vegetables. Some of my classmates even said that broccoli is yucky. But think of the ways we cook veggies nowadays: tempura, sautéed, baked. We even have vegetable broth to make our soup taste yummy. Besides that, even steamed or boiled veggies can be delicious if you are used to them.
In a grade school convention I attended in Teacher’s Camp in Baguio last year, I requested vegetarian meals. I felt like a VIP when the cafeteria staff served me steamed veggies and boiled potatoes cooked specially for me. And I liked them! Even my vegetarianism rubbed off on my teachers. When I couldn’t finish my food, (because I am a light eater and sometimes, I would bring along vegetarian noodles) they helped me out and also found the simple vegetable dishes delicious.
In my fourth grade, I had this classmate who was somehow against vegetarianism. She would say things like “Vegetarianism isn’t healthy. You probably don’t get enough protein.” She had outrageous ideas, such as what if all the food in the world was made entirely out of meat. But I reasoned out, how could there be meat without the vegetables, as animals eat plants, right? She finally got a taste of her own medicine when it was announced that on every Friday in July as part of Health Month, all students had to eat veggies as part of their lunch and everyone’s food would be inspected to make sure they complied.
A common, irritating question that nonvegetarians ask to challenge the vegetarian diet is: Where do you get your protein? People wrongly assume that the human body can only get protein, calcium, and other minerals from consuming animal products. There are many plant-based sources of protein such as soy products, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. For the lacto-ovo vegetarians, dairy products and eggs are additional sources. As a mountain climber in my younger days, I had more than enough strength to go on three-day climbs with my stash of vegetarian food (bread, baked beans, soy-based vegemeat, dried fruits, granola bars) that I generously shared with my curious mountain-climbing companions. The same question hounded me when I was pregnant. They couldn’t believe that one could be a healthy pregnant vegetarian. But I was. I enjoyed my daily diet of tofu, boiled eggs, dried fruits, four-cheese pizza, on top of the usual vegetable dishes. I had to go easy when I went slightly over the 30-lb weight gain near the end of my pregnancy.
My classmates have asked me why our family commits to vegetarianism. I told them there were two reasons: first is respect and compassion towards animals, based on Buddhist tradition (my Dad says for ethical reasons), and second is for health reasons. Unfertilized eggs and milk are not going to harm any animals, since they need not be killed to obtain these products. Plus, I love cheese.
Over time I have discovered that being vegetarian has unforeseen benefits beyond being healthy and ethical. I have developed positive attitudes—I daresay virtues—as a consequence of this discipline: simplicity, gratitude, and humility. I have learned to accept any vegetarian dish, be it bland or tasty. In a three-week stay in Dumaguete, I brought a pack of nori seaweeds, which I used to roll rice in for a pared-down sushi. By extension, I have cultivated simplicity in my own life by appreciating the things that I have, and giving away things that I don’t need or use. As the vegetarian options usually available in parties or wedding banquets are usually “bookend fare” (bread rolls and pastries), I have relied, without expectations, upon the kindness of family and friends to prepare a separate dish for me. An image of a Buddhist monk and his begging bowl comes to mind. I feel grateful and humbled by these acts of kindness from others.
I once overheard a foreign delegate in an international convention held in Manila crack a joke: What do you call a vegetarian in the Philippines? Answer: Hungry. But the joke only reveals a partial truth. We have flourished as vegetarians. You can tell from our round bellies that we don’t go hungry. I prefer not to advocate so strongly to nonvegetarian family members and friends. Instead, I delight in introducing them to the tastefulness of vegetables and vegemeat by cooking for them or treating them to vegetarian restaurants. Now that’s exposing them to a whole new world of gastronomic delights.
Written by Seann Tan-Mansukhani and Karuna Mansukhani
Illustrations by Ronald Samson