K.R. Banerjee

DURING MY travel abroad by several international airlines, I often have difficulty in getting proper vegetarian food. The problem arises, perhaps, because of lack of uniform definition and understanding of the word "vegetarian." English lexicographers have added their own share to the confusion by giving it different shades of meaning such as one who lives wholly on vegetable food or fruits and nuts and sometimes eggs and dairy products or one who eats no meat or animal products like eggs or milk.The existence of such multiple definitions often results in Westerners enquiring whether Indian vegetarians eat only vegetables and why dairy products which are derived from animals are not prohibited. A simple explanation is that religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism preach non-violence and advocate against the killing of animals, fish and birds, which translates into vegetarian eating habits of some sections of Hindus and also Jains and Buddhists. Furthermore, certain types of food, although vegetable in origin, are avoided based on the reactions they produce on the body and the mind. Thus alcoholic drinks are strictly prohibited. While Jains do not eat any root vegetables at all, some strict Hindu vegetarians do not eat onions and garlic. However, dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, butter and cheese are considered healthy and are recommended for consumption. Although the above habits cannot be adequately described by the word 'vegetarian,' yet it is perhaps the most appropriate word and is widely used by Indians.

Health benefits

There has been a growing awareness regarding the health benefits of eating vegetarian food in many parts of the western world. As a result, many westerners are now avoiding meat as it is high in cholesterol. Despite this growing awareness about vegetarianism in the western world, many international airlines do not exhibit much awareness regarding the dietary habits of Indian vegetarians.This lack of awareness is especially problematic if one has to inform the airlines regarding their requirement for 'special vegetarian' meal when travelling overseas. The special vegetarian meal needs to be booked at least 48 hours in advance of travel date.The Indian passenger normally knows only two classifications - vegetarian and non-vegetarian - and indicates his/her preference for vegetarian food. The booking clerk as per the airlines chosen books in some vegetarian category, the contents and implications of which the traveller does not fully know. Many classifications of vegetarian food have been introduced by foreign airlines such as vegetarian non-dairy, vegetarian lacto-ovo, vegetarian Hindu non-dairy, Asian lacto-ovo, Asian vegetarian, Vegan vegetarian, Western vegetarian with dairy, Western vegetarian without dairy, and Jain vegetarian. The classification varies from one airline to another and is confusing to an infrequent traveller. For instance, Jain meal of some airlines excludes not only all root vegetables including potatoes but also dairy products. Vegan meal is strictly vegetarian without dairy products whereas lacto-ovo contains eggs and dairy products. The Indian vegetarian traveller should insist on knowing the contents and should, inter alia, insist on dairy products to be included which are sometimes omitted.The problems can still linger as sometimes unacceptable non-vegetarian dishes are served as part of vegetarian meal. For instance some items such as yoghurt, which may contain gelatin, are often served.Gelatin is made from animal skin, tissue and bone. It is widely used in yoghurts, sour creams, ice-creams, candies and sport drinks. Many vegetarians unknowingly consume these items. To avoid these situations, a vegetarian should always peruse the ingredients of the items. A strict vegetarian needs also to avoid cakes, which usually contain eggs.Hinduism is the only major religion in the world with a streak of vegetarianism. Because of the vast number of Hindus as well as other vegetarians in India, whose number far exceeds the number of vegetarians in the rest of the world, the food and beverage departmental heads of foreign airlines abroad should try to understand the habits of Indian vegetarians and accommodate their dietary restrictions. One way to do this is by examining the type of meal offered by airlines in India. For instance, a simple vegetarian meal as served by Air India or other Indian airlines with dairy products will meet the requirements of many Indian vegetarians. Further, if the meal is prepared without onion and garlic, which can be termed "Veg w/o O&G," it will meet the needs of many strict Indian Hindu vegetarians.