When The Veg Variant Is Added As The Default Option

Caffeinated Thoughts
11 min readJun 9, 2024

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Are vegetarians treated better in India? Depends on where you live and whom you ask.

Photo by Simon Kadula on Unsplash

Introduction

I had gone on a long drive to the outskirts of my city last weekend to unwind and relax after a long week at home. Anyone living with their parents in their late 30’s and performs all the tasks at home as their primary caregiver along with their own day jobs knows exactly what “a long week at home” feels like. I was yearning for this drive particularly since I hadn’t done a highway drive in a very long time, a few months to be exact. Nothing hectic. The drive is just about 90 minutes or so one way, but soothing and therapeutic nonetheless.

There’s a Mc Donalds right by the highway located inside what’s known as a highway mall here. The mall has all kinds of facilities one would require during an interstate drive on a highway such as rest rooms, changing rooms, refreshment points with restaurants, cafes, and ice cream parlours, expansive seating within a large courtyard; fountains, landscaping, dim lighting, the works, rooms for lodging, and even a petting zoo. Well, if you consider a bunch of rabbits rounded up into a play pen to be a petting zoo that is!

I wasn’t returning from another city. I just wanted to do a small drive to this highway mall, get a Mc meal for the road, and then head back home all just to clear my head. I’ve been visiting this highway mall ever since it opened a few years ago, both while returning from other states, as well as for short drives like this one. Sometimes I’d do small hikes on the hillocks around the area and then end up having a late lunch there while returning.

I was eagerly looking forward to trying out the meaty, double-pattied Maharaja Mac at Mc D’s as it was something that came out during my early days of being vegan where I strictly didn’t consume any meat. No shame in admitting that here. We’re all humans, not stones destined to remain the same shape forever.

Cultural reservations regarding vegetarianism and animal products

In India, we’ve culturally apportioned some places to be for vegetarians and some others to be for non-vegetarians in our collective psyches even though the other option might also be available there. And since Mc D’s comes under one of those places collectively recognized as one for non-vegetarians, I naturally expected the cashier at the counter to add the non-vegetarian version of the Maharaja Mac to my bill by default. And then it happened. Click! (sorry scratch that, digital displays make absolutely no noise when items are added to it). Well well well, what have we here! It was none other than the vegetarian version of the Maharaja mac. My jaws almost dropped to the floor when he added the vegetarian option by default. When a customer orders a Maharaja Mac it is almost unquestionably assumed to be non-vegetarian, and hence the look of shock and disbelief on my face when the veg option was added as the default.

But to get to the reason for my shock and surprise, we’ll have to dig a bit into why veg options are always seen as the secondary or last option in a traditionally non-vegetarian restaurant or fast food joints across India.

Okay now first and foremost as an ex-vegan, seeing the veg option added as the default in a place like McDonalds felt like a breath of fresh air. Shaming vegetarians with non verbal cues such as adding the non vegetarian option by default, or claiming that the veg option isn’t available when it clearly is, acting standoffish when asked about veg options, being laughed at when asked about separation of utensils while cooking, to complete avoidance used to be the norm once upon a time in India. And still is in many places.

Why?

Because, like I already mentioned, we as Indians have culturally reserved restaurants in our collective psyches as either for veg or non-veg. Yes, a non-vegetarian can always go to a Darshini restaurant or a South Indian Tiffin house. But a vegetarian will seldom step into a non-vegetarian joint. A vegetarian would never step into joints which are popular for their meat based offerings such as KFC, Mc Donalds, Dominos, or even the local non-vegetarian restaurants for a couple of reasons.

Culturally, an Indian seen ordering the vegetarian option at a non-vegetarian joint has always been frowned upon. I remember those days the waiters at my favourite Chinese restaurant always looked down on me whenever I ordered the vegetarian option and only became more casual and welcoming in their behaviour once I became a regular there.

In India, one goes to a biryani joint to eat Chicken biryani, not veg pulao. You go to KFC to have a Zinger burger or a leg piece bucket, not to have the Veg Zinger. And you go to club, pub, or a bar for similar reasons. To pair some juicy succulent meats along with some great tasting beer and spirits. Even though vegetarian options might be available at certain prominent non-vegetarian places, it’s just considered a complete faux pas to specifically go there just to order the veg option.

They’re there just for that “that one vegetarian in every group” sort of thing.

The only reason veg options even exist in such places is because even restaurants are aware that any group usually consists of one or two vegetarians who wouldn’t want to be left out. Or even a non-vegetarian who might not be consuming non-veg on that particular day due to religious reasons. Or a non-vegetarian might be on a diet that day and might not want to partake in such gluttonous extravaganzas, or they might be going through a mourning period at home during which meat consumption may be forbidden. There are many reasons a dyed-in-the-wool non-vegetarian might not join you for a gala feast consisting of meat on a particular day in India.

That’s the only reason you even have vegetarian options in such restaurants.

Don’t get me wrong. Vegetarians are very much acknowledged and respected in India. But that respect is usually reserved to the Pure Veg joints and Darshini restaurants which they frequent and not fast food chains or new age resto pubs where partygoers hang out, which are usually considered to be the stomping grounds of hardcore meat eaters.

Even though vegetarian options are available at hip and trendy bars and pubs in India, don’t expect them to be cooked in separate kitchens using separate utensils or cleaned using separate equipment. There’s cross contamination happening at these joints big time. Oh yeah! Its the main reason principled vegetarians and vegans fiercely avoid such joints altogether.

The cultural perception of vegetarians

Vegetarianism is largely seen as bland and boring in India and by extension so are vegetarians. The moment a vegetarian enters a continental or a non-vegetarian restaurant in India, all bets are off. He is made fun of and ridiculed in front of his friends and office colleagues. Talk to any vegetarian in India and you’ll hear endless accounts with various variations of “Just try a piece of chicken for my sake”, “You have no idea what you’re missing”, “Have only the gravy/rice without any of the pieces, what’s the harm in that?”, and “At least try consuming eggs for protein, you do know the chicken doesn’t have to be killed for it right?”

A vegetarian accompanying his friends or colleagues to a get-together at a friends house or a group lunch at a restaurant is just asking for it. He knows for a fact that he will, undeniably and without a measure of a doubt, be put on the spot for his vegetarianism or veganism. And he will be poked and prodded until he satisfies the non-vegetarian’s curiosity on what deep reason could possibly be there so as to give up something so spectacular and mindblowing (*rolls eyes*) as meat.

While it is a well known fact that hardcore vegetarians (and by that I mean those who are vegetarian for religion, culture, and tradition) completely avoid restaurants where non-veg is served, it doesn’t take away from the fact that customers ordering the vegetarian option at non-vegetarian joints are still frowned upon and afforded a much lower level of respect in India. The absolutist binary thinking comes into play at exactly this moment. I can almost hear the restaurant staff sniggering to themselves, “If he wanted to be respected as a vegetarian, he should be dining at a Pure Veg restaurant and not searching for vegetarian options at non-vegetarian ones” through their non-verbal cues.

In fact, if my memory serves me right, it wasn’t very long ago that a customer took a popular fast food chain to court because they had messed up his order and had served him non-veg instead.

For such a goof ups committed by an international chain on Indian soil is equivalent to religious desecration.

As incidents of such nature started becoming more commonplace, orthodox vegetarians knew better than to accompany their friends to such restaurants even if vegetarian options were available for fear of inadvertently ingesting animal products, a blatant attack on their religious, cultural, and moral values.

This is the second reason why purist vegetarians strictly keep away from non-vegetarian joints in India. (Two big examples that instantly come to mind are Brahmins and Jains who are staunch vegetarians as per their religious teachings) The lack of separation when it comes to areas for storing, cooking, or cleaning food is a reality that religious vegetarians find too hard to digest (pun intended).

While the rules mandate a clear separation of veg and non-veg at least when it comes to cutting boards, knives, and preparation areas, restaurateurs maintain that such rules are anything but straightforward to follow:

“Mainstream restaurants say it is impossible to follow the system unless you are a fast food joint. “During peak hours when we serve 15 tables with a menu of 150 dishes, there is a lot of pressure in the kitchen,” said Pradheesh Narayanaswamy, owner of the Mexican restaurant Mexitoes. “Having a double kitchen system is too big an investment,” said the owner of a continental food restaurant in Race Course. “Though we keep the tawas, oils and cutting board separately, we never assure customers of using separate dishes, refrigerators and ovens” said Narayanasamy.”

I could resonate with this particular sentiment very well because this was something that used to happen a lot to me during my early days of veganism. On one instance my friend and I had been to this Chinese restaurant (the Indo-Chinese kind, not the authentic chinese) for lunch. And it is a well known fact in India that Chinese restaurants do not have separate kitchens for veg and non-veg food. A piece of chicken had inadvertently fallen into our vegetarian rice dish. While my friend just chucked it off to the side and didn’t mind it one bit even though he was a vegetarian, he reminded me of how his orthodox uncle, a vegetarian brahmin, one of the staunchly vegetarian castes in hinduism would have reacted to such a grave faux pas by the restaurant.

“He would have brought the entire place down”, he said, when asked what exactly would his uncle’s reaction be if he were to experience such a thing whilst dining outside. And by that I knew he implied that his uncle would have given the waiters along with management a piece of his mind, and would have probably dragged the restaurant to the courthouse as well.

“It would have ended really badly for the restaurant if it were him here instead of us. He would have definitely caused a scene! They should thank all their stars that it’s us here instead of him”, he said.

Foreigners might have been succesfully sold on the myth of the vegetarian nation and might assume that vegetarians are culturally significant in the country. While that might be true for the most part, a vegetarian is always viewed as someone who is backward or conservative with their outlook in life, in cities and small towns alike. Someone who, similar to a teetoler, is boring or doesn’t know how to have fun.

Its the school kids who were treated as outcasts because they couldn’t accompany their friends to Mc D’s or KFC growing up. Its the young adults who were othered for ordering the veg option while dining at a biryani house. Its the corporate employees who were othered for saying no to booze at the office party (In India alcohol consumption is synonymous with meat eating). This is the primary reason why a large number of Indians secretly consume animal products outside without the knowledge of their family members.

Final Thoughts

I’m fully aware that cashiers adding the vegetarian option by default to the order or fast food chains proudly advertising vegetarian offerings in their promotions might just be the tip of the iceberg, but is a step in the right direction nonetheless. I’m also aware that I live in a freaking huge country, and my experience with one branch of a global fast food chain in a cosmopolitan city is by no stretch of the imagination even a nibbling of a sample size to be able to be considered as progress on the treatment front. There are entire cities in India where the opposite happens; that is, non-vegetarians being frowned upon and given the side eye for making enquiries about non-veg food in the few predominantly vegetarian states up north.

So what are some changes that we expect to see in the coming years which can actually be considered real progress on the portrayal of the country as a “vegetarian nation”?

Well for starters, we could certainly do with families, friends, and work colleagues treating us better whilst dining outside together.

Next, we could definitely do without restaurant staff giving us bewildered and astonished looks that someone could possibly enquire about the vegetarian option at a restaurant known for its non-vegetarian offerings, those such as Biriyani houses and Indo-Chinese restaurants for example. They could instead welcome such enquiries with a smile and a pleasing attitude, the kind usually reserved for their discerning non-vegetarian customers who don’t have to think twice before enquiring about what they would like to order at the restaurant.

Thirdly, global fast food chains as well as local non-veg restaurants could at least make some attempt to put a set of SOP’s in place regarding the handling of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food so that the two never get mixed up, and vegetarians can confidently walk into a non-vegetarian restaurant without sweating about cross contamination or being served a non-vegetarian dish accidentally.

As a vegetarian residing in India, do some of these points resonate with you? How have you been treated so far as a vegetarian who accompanies his/her friends to non-vegetarian joints across the country? Do let me know in the comments bar to the side.

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Caffeinated Thoughts

No niche in particular. I am a keen observer of society and gain my inspiration for new articles from observation.