The Vegetarian in Antarctica


The Vegetarian in Antarctica

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

In my long innings as a voracious traveller, I’ve been vegetarian in 40 countries and 125 cities. Next year, I’m off to Antarctica. Of course, I’ll be vegetarian there too. It can’t possibly be any harder than being vegetarian in China.

I went there in 1974, one of my first trips ever. I was in Hong Kong on a cruise liner and nobody on that ship had ever met an Indian, forget a vegetarian Indian. Worse, nobody could understand English. Not one person. I had to eat just boiled rice and salt for the duration of the cruise. That trip taught me two important lessons about travelling: A) The world is not going to accommodate your palette, you have to accommodate it yourself; and B) The solution to almost everything lies in achaar.

Go ahead and roll your eyes because you’re now seeing me as one of “those” Indians who carry achaar instead of enjoying “local food”. Gasp! Does she carry theplas too? The answer is an emphatic yes. When you’ve been in the predicaments that I have, looked hungrily at tables filled with food you can’t eat, and served fish with the earnest argument that it is the closest thing to vegetarian on the menu, achaar and thepla tend to become your best friends.

Travel and food are not as intricately related as we like to think. Yes of course it would be glorious to eat salmon in Norway, but I can’t. Instead, I ate a lot of pizza. It is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and tracking down a Norwegian vegetarian restaurant is about as expensive as buying fox fur. Pizza and fresh fruit saved us but once we left land even those options vanished. We got on a cruise to the northern town to see the lights. It was a ferry, not one of those luxury liners that have mountains of food made and thrown away.

During that time, Maggi came to my rescue and the water kettle became my knight in shining armour. I became proficient at the hostel-created art of making Maggi in the kettle. I spent glorious chilled afternoons looking out at the fjords and the icy coasts with a warm mug of instant noodles in my hands. Believe me, they looked just as fantastic. Plus, the Norwegian liner’s corridors that would smell of raw and pickled salmon, now smelled familiar – of our comforting contraband noodles.

The vegetarian travellers’ guide to seeing the world has a few important chapters. Breakfast is the first one. My husband and I have learnt to usually have a big breakfast in the hotels we’re staying. Some restaurants truly have an unbelievably huge spread – one even had Malabari parathas.

The second chapter of the guide is to be armed at all times with long-lived goodies: a few packets of aloo bhujia, some mathri, a few sachets of pickle, and the much-maligned thepla! Yes, it’s true that my people carry bundles of theplas even to Antwerp on diamond-selling jaunts. Back in the day, women would stay at home rolling them out to ease the men’s passage over the kala pani to the kala money. Now when I see theplas being made in huge stacks every year, I feel grateful knowing that these much-abused flatbreads help me see the world.

If you’re excited by travel and seeing new places, food shouldn’t stop you.

When breakfast and thepla time is over, your fall-back options for lunch and dinner will usually be a fresh food basket of some cheese, vegetables, and bread, and you will have to make your peace with a humble sandwich on most days… Unless the travel Gods send you a kind local with a thing for Indian food who will shock you by welcoming you with a huge, delicious Indian spread. It’s as rare as sighting a three-toed sloth but it happens sometimes. It happened to us in Scotland circa 1986, and we felt like we’d died and gone to heaven.

But other than these surprise gifts, we don’t go chasing Indian restaurants in remote locations at the cost of everything else. Not only is the Indian food there shockingly expensive but also outstandingly bad. I’d rather eat toast and spend money on a museum ticket than eat in one of those ridiculous balti places.

As a vegetarian, you can see the world if you don’t make a giant fuss about food. If you’re excited by travel and seeing new places, food shouldn’t stop you. You go to a place for its charm, history, it’s bounty of nature, the people, and the experiences it offers. You learn to make food a functional need and once that mind-shift happens, it becomes really easy.

Thirty years ago, when nobody in the West understood what it meant to be vegetarian, it was tough, but these days, in most parts of the world, I can get what I ask for. Chefs even go the extra mile to make something that isn’t on the menu for me. If there’s nothing, I make a meal out of my dessert. Fill it and forget about it is my mantra.

Each of the countries I’ve been to have only further fed my compulsion to travel. You know they call it wanderlust, and I think it’s true. An uncertainty about food can’t take that away from you. And food most certainly won’t take away from my upcoming trip to Antarctica. I’ll have my theplas and a lovely new technological advancement in the world of the vegetarian traveller called achaari mathri – the savoury snack that comes with a built-in layer of achaar inside. It is a meal by itself.

And to people who complain about smelly achaar on flights, I want to say, “If I can put up with your smelly tuna and beef goulash and pork stir-fry for 12 hours, you can deal with a little achaar.”

I come from the generation that had to deal with the smell of salmon in planes that still allowed smoking! Think about that when you find yourself turning your nose up at a poor fella shoving achaari mathri into his mouth. He may be eating crap food but he’s still going to have the same exotic experiences as you.