It's not easy trying to dine out when you don't eat meat or dairy products, and waiters don't understand your requirements.
In pursuit of a vegan lifestyle, Abu Dhabi offers little help
'Are you sure you don't want a bite? It's really delicious!"
It had been a long day at the gym and I was worn out and sore. It had taken me half an hour more than usual to find something appropriate to eat at Khalidyah Mall's food court, a place I've been a frequent visitor to since the day the mall opened its doors. I had finally decided to get some delicious-smelling, vegan Indian food and my friend was trying to persuade me to take a bite from her cheesy, meaty Burger King sandwich.
This scenario has occurred almost every day since I decided to go vegan earlier this summer. Being vegan means that in addition to forgoing any white or red meat at the dinner table, I also cut out eggs and all dairy products from my diet.
I am vegan because I'm equal parts idealistic and cynical. I'm cynical because I believe that corporations everywhere, whatever name or shape they come under, care about one thing and one thing only - profit. Animal and human welfare are sacrificed for the sake of a few extra millions in the bank accounts of most corporations.
I'm idealistic because I also believe change must start with one person. More than anything I believe that I need to be the change I want to see in the world. I feel better knowing that choosing not to eat meat saves hundreds of animals that I would have otherwise eaten in line with the average meat-eater's intake in a lifetime. The important thing is that at least I'm doing what I can to contribute to a cause I strongly believe in.
Unfortunately, avoiding animal products completely has been very close to impossible in the UAE. I have spent hours at various food courts and restaurants trying to pry from waiters whether they use animal products in their food. On one occasion, after interrogating a waitress at an Indian restaurant about the exact contents of each menu item, she cautiously asked whether I was allergic to dairy products and, hoping to avoid further questioning, I nodded.
And yet, despite our long conversation about the ingredients used to make their bread, and my claim about an allergy I don't suffer from, I discovered after consuming it that it wasn't vegan at all. Imagine my frustration at ordering a cheese-less pizza topped with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes only to find out too late that pesto usually contains Parmesan cheese.
All too often, for the sake of brevity, a dull salad ends up being lunch.
I often get dirty looks for opting for the fruit salad instead of the chocolate sundae when I'm out with friends or family. While the sundae sounds as appetising to me as it would anyone else, finding vegan ice cream is almost impossible and a homemade version frankly sounds more delicious.
I have become really good at demanding no cheese on my pizza and avoiding mayonnaise like there's no tomorrow, even if saying no to both consistently earns me incredulous looks and "you don't need to watch your figure" type comments. It's still difficult to turn down the odd chocolate bar or Subway cookie and, unfortunately, most people arrive at the conclusion that my "thanks, but no thanks" is the result of a misguided effort to watch my weight.
Coming clean about being vegan has been challenging because of the lack of understanding I'm usually faced with when I bring it up. A surprising number of people have no idea what it means to be vegan and fail to grasp the concept when an explanation is offered. Others sneer and go out of their way to enjoy animal products in my company to teach me a lesson for my "silliness".
Being up front about my veganism has pushed me to be defensive more times than I would like and has resulted in pointless arguments.
It doesn't matter to them that avoiding ingesting animal products means I have a dramatically lower risk of heart disease, cancer and strokes than the average meat-eater. Forget the fact that studies show vegetarians and vegans, on average, have a much healthier, better balanced diet than meat-eaters.
The only thing that matters is that I don't refuse my cheesy protein-filled beef burgers.
Veganism has opened to me a world of delicious, nutritious food that I hadn't known existed. The life of a dedicated vegan foodie suits me just fine.
Rabha Ashry, a second-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi, grew up in Abu Dhabi