JK, dear brother, is in Japan with some of his colleagues to receive one of the most prestigious awards given for the industry, the Deming Prize.
In the evening, he posted a picture in the group saying this was his vegetarian seven course meal menu. Look at the featured image. Vinay, my nephew asked immediately what vegetarian dishes would be served for seven course. I posted, well, it would be rice, rice, rice, rice, rice, rice and followed finally by rice as dessert. I also shared some of my frustrating experiences on being vegetarian while travelling abroad.
Since I have started the blog with Japan, let me narrate my first experience at a Japanese restaurant. Suarabh, my colleague and I were attending a training program in Bangkok circa 1998. We were staying in Marriott by riverside, a hotel in Bangkok metropolitan area. The hotel was huge and had many restaurants. The management had arranged lunch in one of the restaurants every day and on the second or third day it was the turn was for the Japanese restaurant.
It was also the first time I saw the interactive kitchen. Saurabh and I, with some difficulty convinced the staff to get us some vegetarian food. I was watching with some interest how the food was being prepared. It took a while for our food to arrive and when it did I realized Saurabh was missing. I thought he must have gone to rest room and when he did not appear for five minutes I went searching for him.
I eventually found him pacing the lawn furiously and he was puffing hard. I told him the food was served and let us get going. He said, “Bhaia you go and eat. I am not coming.” I asked him what happened. He answered all the cutting of fish and meat at the live counter had spoiled his appetite and he did not want to eat there. I told him he would be alright. It took some time to convince and when we retuned to our table, we saw our plates were removed and most of the colleagues had gone back to class. We rushed to the coffee shop, each grabbed a soft drink and ran back to class.
Every single vegetarian who had travelled abroad would have some funny story to share. Mine started on the day I first landed in a foreign soil, Sydney, Australia. I had a tiring flight thanks to our colleague who made the arrangement. I travelled by road from Pune to Mumbai and flew to Singapore via Thiruvananthapuram took a flight to Sydney via Brisbane and when I eventually landed in Brisbane my baggage did not come. By the time I found out that while I had to fly via Brisbane because there were no seats in the direct flight, my baggage flew to Sydney directly.
When I reached the hotel in the afternoon after bout thirty hours of travel and waiting, I was so tired and fell asleep. In the evening I went to the restaurant and ordered dinner. The lady who served me assured me vegetarian food was not an issue at all and she would fix me up a good pasta. The pasta did arrive and I realized something was not right. I called the lady to check and she said it was vegetarian, only some fish was there. I explained to her that where I come from vegetarian means no fish or eggs or meat. She did arrange a pasta without any of these but the only problem was it was so bland. That’s when I found out the magic of Tabasco Sauce. It was a savior during all my travels at least in the western world. When you add a significant quantity on rice or bread or pasta it the hot sauce at least quenched a bit of craving (for the hot and spicy food).
While it is relatively easy to find vegetarian food if you are in the west, it is in the far eastern countries where vegetarians have tough time. In the west you can always find an Italian restaurant (pasta and pizza) and Mexican food (rice), but in the east say Philippines or Indonesia or Thailand the vegetarians have a hard time. In cities anywhere in the world you can find Indian restaurants. But paper mills are not based in cities but far away from them. The second problem is, when you are in group of people from dozen different nations and everyone is eager to taste the exotic local food, vegetarians behave as a dampener to their enthusiasm by refusing to eat anything the country has to offer.
Visiting Paper Mills away from the city always proved to be a challenge for me. Once I was visiting a large paper mill in Thu Tum in Thailand which was two and half hours drive from downtown Bangkok, with Ravi Kumar, another colleague of mine from India. Our coworker in Thailand picked us up in the morning. We were caught in one of the most infamous traffic snarls in Bangkok and to make up time we skipped breakfast. We finished work and started back for the city and I told my colleague let us stop somewhere for a late lunch.
He stopped somewhere on the highway and I was hoping to get some hot meal like we used to get on the Indian highways in a dhaba. But the small restaurant had nothing for us. While the local guy could order something, Ravi Kumar and I could not get anything. Eventually we asked the guy to cut some cabbage leaves, mix it with rice and serve us. Thai rice though delicious is very sticky, so Ravi and I could not eat it. Even today I am able to remember the highway, the drive, the small eatery on the roadside and the tiny bowl filled with rice and cabbage leaves. Only when we reached our hotel, we could get some food.
So, the search for vegetarian food in countries from Indonesia to Egypt continued for many years. One incident stays fresh in memory not just because of food but what followed afterwards as well.
In one of the review meeting in Bangkok our boss announced that he would take us for dinner and asked the local guy where should we go. He recommended a restaurant which served only fish. Off we went there in the evening.
It was a huge restaurant and had a banner probably 40 feet in length that announced, “If it Swims, we have it here.” It was kind of super market meat section but only with fish. You picked up a bucket, went around the glass cases and selected the fish you wanted to eat. Then you paid for the fish, proceeded to your table. A chef would arrive and ask you how you would like the fish to be prepared. Once you have done explaining the recipe, he would collect your fish and proceed to the kitchen.
Oh yes! they had all the fish you could name. I think they had everything except Blue Whale on display.
I could not find anything to my liking but saw some potatoes stacked in a corner and bought some quantity. When the chef arrived I told him to make something out of it. We were drinking our beer and after an hour the food started to arrive. I was hoping that boiling potatoes would take less time than preparing an exotic meal out of fish, so my dinner would arrive at first. But it never came. After a long struggle, I located the chef and asked him what happened to my potatoes and he said he had already served it. What actually happened was, he made something out of it and put it on the table. Amidst the dozens of dishes that were served I could not see the only dish ordered. The people who were seated at the far end saw the tiny plate which had potatoes and without asking if it was ordered by any one ate it as well. So my dinner was only beer and some chips.
After the dinner everyone went to see the famous night life of Bangkok. I thought I would rather get back to hotel and get something from the coffee shop.
I took a cab and asked the driver to take me to Marriott on Riverside. He said OK and started the car. After few minutes he asked me again where I wanted to go. I told him the destination and he said OK. But he kept asking me the same question and I began to suspect something was wrong. I asked him did he not know the place. He said yes. Unfortunately I was not carrying the hotel card or key tag. He first called someone, a fellow driver I think, but could not get an answer. Eventually he called the taxi company and connected to someone who spoke English and gave the phone to me. I explained to her where I wanted to go. She said OK and spoke to the driver. He nodded his head, kept the phone down and told me, “Oh Malliott on Livelside? I will take you.”
I understand the hotel is now called Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort. If you are going there please remember to tell the cab driver you want to go to Anantala Livelside Lesolt.
Featured Image – Japanese Vegetarian Menu