What's a strict vegetarian to do when McDonald's comes to town?
In land of the holy cow, not even the fast food is sacred
McDonald's, the fast-food chain, is making plans to open an all-vegetarian outlet in the foothills of the Himalayas. The outlet will cater to Hindu pilgrims visiting the shrine of Vaishno Devi, a powerful female goddess.
Plans are also afoot to open another all-vegetarian McDonald's outlet near the Golden Temple of Amritsar, hallowed ground for the Sikh community.
Nor is the king of fast food alone in going veggie in India. Subway has two all-vegetarian outlets - one in Delhi and another in Mumbai. According to news reports, Domino's has eight restaurants serving only vegetarian pizzas, mostly in Hindu pilgrimage towns such as Shirdi and Haridwar. Pizza Hut plans to do the same with two all-vegetarian outlets in the state of Gujarat.
As a lifelong vegetarian, perhaps I should greet this bit of news with unadulterated glee. But I don't. I see this penchant for prohibiting meat in fast food chains as an unholy trend in the land of the holy cow.
I am as tolerant as the next person, but I have to ask, perhaps facetiously: is nothing sacred?
Fast food should be unhealthy, greasy, ubiquitous and, above all, standardised. Customising a burger to suit the needs of a particular community goes against the tenets of fast food.
No more can I wave away importunes from my children who beg to be taken to McDonald's with a "Sorry, it's not just unhealthy. It's against our religion to eat there. You see, they serve meat in their outlets and we cannot eat that."
One person who is excited about the all-vegetarian McDonald's outlets is my mum.
Like many Brahmin women, my mum refuses to eat in any establishment that is tarnished by the presence of meat. Women - and men - of this proclivity, worry about many things: careless cooks using the same vessel to stir fry meat and vegetables; using the same ladle to stir soups that fall on different sides of the vegetable-meat column; meat-eating chefs tasting vegetarian dishes and thereby polluting its pristine nature; and other such nebulous doubts that arise when a kitchen isn't separated into vegetarian and non-vegetarian kitchens.
What will a chef who eats anything know about the food preferences of vegetarians, my mum will ask with a sniff.
With McDonald's going vegetarian, my mum is dying to try the McAloo tikki burgers and french fries that her grandchildren rave about. She simply doesn't get it when I shake my head sorrowfully and mutter, "How the mighty fall. Happens to the best of them."
As a finicky vegetarian who dislikes slimy noodles, cold pasta and limp dumplings, I see the irony of my stance. I realise that I am a cog in the wheel of food-customisation, a perpetrator of this particular crime. I have attended my share of Thanksgiving dinners, inflicting terrified hostesses with my awkward food preferences.
For instance, I've often asked, out loud, if the "stuffing not be stuffed inside the turkey, because once it goes inside the turkey, it will become non-vegetarian and I cannot eat it. And I love stuffing. Before it is stuffed that is".
Most dinner hosts will stare at me quizzically - too stunned and too polite to say anything.
There are a hundred answers to that particular request; and I can enumerate all of them. My favourite reply to my question is: that's why our Pilgrims call it stuffing. Translation: eat the stuffing as is, or stuff it.
Fast food outlets have their place in the global food universe, but that place doesn't lie in the realms of customisation. I mean, what's next? A halal-compliant McDonald's? Oh, wait. That already exists, as does a kosher McDonald's.
We've gone so far down the path of fast-food catering to every taste that soon enough I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a vegan McDonald's followed by a raw food McDonald's.
Come to think of it, a raw food sushi-type McDonald's might just work. But a politically correct, customised McDonald's is about as appetising as biodynamic beer.
Even as a vegetarian, I sneer at the latest move by McDonald's. And as a mother, this particular all-vegetarian outlet has just made my life more difficult.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir