Mock-meat and all that
Coping with a certain kind of ambiguity in vegetarianism
Recently we celebrated the fourth Chinese New Year in our office in Singapore. The office walls were covered with red pamphlets embroidered with images of golden pigs, the zodiac sign of the year. The air was filled with traditional and twinkling music, and our minds were preoccupied with the idea of food.
My colleagues and I reached the town hall area, a large space for gatherings at the centre of the office. The management on its part had conveyed messages of goodwill and good luck. We, the members of the captive audience, with our prying eyes on food, were listening reluctantly and just waiting for the trigger words — ‘thank you’. As soon as those awaited, golden words were uttered, there was a round of roaring clapping that was deafening, and everyone rushed towards the line for food.
Before the meandering line turned almost monstrous, I had managed to find a slot for myself and started inching forward slowly and purposefully. Soon, the twinkling music was overlaid by chatter, chuckling and clamour. Seconds went like hours and minutes like years. However, the hour remained an hour. The moment finally came and I reached the actual buffet table. I took a plate and cutlery, and held some tissue beneath it. But even after moving along the entire spread on the tables, I could not manage to find any vegetarian food. Everything appeared to have a tag of blood about it.
Such virtual mocking of vegetarians is not uncommon in many gatherings. There were several of us there who were vegetarians. Despite expressing my dietary preference aloud, I had often been asked: What about fish? Whereas egg is concerned, more often than not there would not be even be a question, and it would land on the plate comfortably. During such situations, trimming expectations to the bone
and finding some items of food that would address hunger at least momentarily, would suffice for people like us.
Just then, a member of the organising committee approached me and pointed towards a corner. I wasn’t expecting much. Anyway, I moved to that corner but could sense little optimism. There was some stuff, all covered up, kept there. I peeled off multiple layers of cellophane covering what looked like dishes, marked with the vegetarian logo of a green-colour circle with a diameter greater than the normal Indian bhindi.
There were a little rice and some leafy vegetables floating in the greasy soup. In an adjacent compartment, there was some brownish stuff covered in greasy sauce. It appeared like a loaf of meat, which induced inquisitiveness but stressed out all my senses. My eyes, nose and skin did their part. However, the ambiguity remained. The final responsibility rested on the tongue to taste it. With some hesitancy, I took a small bite. All ambiguity melted like mist. It was nothing but meat! It induced nausea and I immediately vomited everything including the breakfast I had had earlier in the morning.
The whole event came to a standstill and all eyes were on me. Once again, a member of the committee approached me with compassionate eyes and started enquiring about my health and well-being. With a frowning face, I lambasted him and asked, “Why have you put chicken in a vegetarian packet?” But she said, “Do you know, it is the food of the time for vegetarians.” But her response made me further anguished. You mean to say this meat is the food of the time for vegetarians! She became agitated and said in one breath: “It’s not meat but mock-meat. It’s made with much effort to replicate the taste, texture, and aroma of meat with purely vegetarian stuff.”
Certainly, it was made with relentless efforts, great precision and unbounded passion, to ensure a replicated taste, texture and aroma, and deserved unquestioned appreciation. However, another question arose: Why do vegetarian foods have to be dressed in the likeness of meat?
Since the question came, a flurry of underlying questions fluttered. Are the taste, texture, and aroma of meat the pinnacle, and should all items of food, including vegetarian food, which have their own distinct natural
taste and texture, colour themselves in their shade? Should vegetarians be forced to go for items that wear the disguise and taste of meat? Have the dietary preferences of vegetarians become ambiguous or misconstrued?
I will certainly not clamour for any relentless efforts to make mock-meat widely available. However, I will request for little steps to understand vegetarianism as a dietary preference.