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Ordering vegetarian in omnivorous Van

So, you want to go out for dinner and eat vegetarian. Aside from avoiding Gotham and the Keg, there are a few things you need to know before you order. Assuming you don’t have the luxury of eating at an all-vegetarian restaurant, there will usually be a small sub-section of the menu devoted to your needs. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every dish intended as vegetarian will actually be a vegetarian option.

Remember: this is a meat-eater’s world. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is. With that in mind, however, you’re well-prepared to approach any menu and avoid getting slipped chicken-stock-laced rice or gelatine-infused sour cream. It’s not that the people cooking your meal want to sneak an animal onto your plate, but in my experience it is rather that a small number of them simply don’t understand or think seriously about the food they cook. I have, for example, been served beef stock with the excuse that “It’s just like salt.” No it isn’t. Take off your apron, stupid.

Before I list the essentials of ordering vegetarian, here’s one crucial piece of advice: don’t be a problem. Remember that your food is in the hands of others and, while most cooks are good people who take their responsibilities seriously, some of them will screw with your dinner if they feel like it. For example, I am familiar with a story about a certain local vegan rock star who will remain nameless. When he asked for a special-order vegan meal, the kitchen apparently saw this as an excuse to play a trick on him and put chicken stock in his food. Afterwards, they all laughed about it, especially since he had later come back to the kitchen to thank them for the meal. It’s important to remember that people who have no connection to the vegetarian lifestyle might not take things like this seriously. Meanwhile, some people, no matter what they do, no matter where they work, are just jerks.

Here are the essentials of vegetarian restaurant-going:
1) Ask about the stock they use. Is it vegetable, chicken, beef, fish? Just because you avoid the soup, don’t think you’ve escaped this question. Stock flavours many, if not most, of the dishes that come out of any kitchen. It is in the rice, the sauces, and often finds its way into the potatoes. In your average Greek eatery, it is nearly impossible to avoid chicken stock, which you will find in soup, rice, potatoes, and very often in their “vegetarian” options. That’s not to say that you can’t eat Greek food. I love Greek food. You just need to be aware.
2) Anchovies. These little fish are everywhere. You will find them in almost every Caesar salad and in absolutely everything which contains Worcestershire sauce. Anchovies, you may be surprised to know, are a must-have for traditional Caesar salads. Even the places which don’t crack open a can of little fishies to make their dressing will with 99% certainty add Worcestershire (pronounced woo-ster-sher), which is basically just tamarind and anchovy. If uncertain, simply ask if there’s any in the dish you are about to order.
3) Gelatine. Again, it’s crazy how much you will find in your food. Gelatine, along with lard and glycerine, are products of the rendering process, and thus derived from the bones and connective tissues of animals. They are extremely common in foods like sour cream and yogurt for texture, as they are completely flavourless. Your best defence here is to study your food labels in the grocery store, so as to learn where you might expect to find them. It’s about developing a sense of what constitutes a “red flag.” Lemon curd is thickened with egg yolks, Bavarian cream usually with gelatine. There, now you know how to order a Danish.
4) Don’t be annoying. I know, we just went over this, but it’s important. Try not to make your requests complicated, don’t send your server back to ask the kitchen more than once, and try to order off the menu. You’d be surprised how far a little mutual respect can go. If in doubt, just ask them to hold the sour cream, or whatever component of the meal is giving you doubts. Asking them to check for gelatine will involve taking a stressed-out cook with a dozen other orders to prepare off the line to search through the fridge so that he can read the fine print on a sour cream container. Honestly, that’s asking a bit much. All it takes is one difficult table to screw up an ertire dinner service. Make your orders simple and they will like you that much more the next time you come in.

Having been happily vegetarian for almost twenty years, and having cooked in restaurants for over a decade, I can tell you that there are many wonderful meatless meals out there. Ideally, you’ll be able to go somewhere like a nice Japanese, Indian, Chinese, or African place, where they will often have a healthy section of the menu dedicated to vegetarians (that said, check any Japanese item for hidden fishies). However, if that’s not the case, you can always find a way to enjoy yourself if you remain vigilant. I know, it’s a hassle. You just want to go out and eat. But just like a celiac, the way of the world is weighted against you. You’ll find that it’s less grief to assess the situation than to worry about whether you are inadvertently eating some part of some kind of animal, hidden somewhere within your food.

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