Jul 15, 2011

Travelling Vegan - Roma, Italia!

It has been a dream of mine to travel to Italy and eat the food I love the most, made from authentic and not imported ingredients. And my wish was granted in the form of a ten day trip through three cities. If we had more time (and money) we could have disappeared in Italy.

Before going I was scared. Knowing the love for cheese and meat the Italians have, what will a vegan eat? I was even more scared when I saw the shock on the face of a good friend - an Italian restaurateur as I told him about my predicament. But thanks to the internet and thanks to a significant number of lactose intolerant Italians, I must admit, I ate much more than I had prepared for.

Rome is overwhelming. The city reminds me of New York with its small buildings and busy people. The subway system is as confusing as it is if you are travelling through the New York subway for the first time. The only difference architecturally is the grandeur of the Roman Empire and how some parts of the city have just stopped in time. It's a city full of tourists, touts and tour guides.

I must've spent all my free time at home looking up vegan brands in Italy and one name stood out on a few websites - Valsoia. Valsoia is a company that makes everything out of Soia (Soya). They are an Italian based company that makes everything from Soy Milk to Ice Creams to Yogurts out of Soy. The first thing I did when I entered the supermarket in Rome was to head straight to the freezer section. And there it was staring back at me - Soya Ice cream in many different varieties (Cornetto, Ice cream sandwiches, Sticks...). I wanted to take them all! Of course I tried as much as I could and they were great. But since I was in Italy, what interested me more was Gelati. Again with Gelati, there isn't much information out there about what to expect when you go to a Gelateria. The internet gave me a few places in Rome and Venice that had Soy and Rice milk based Gelatis. I was wrong, I underestimated the Italians!

Averaging anywhere from 4 to 6 Gelatis in a day, we devoured every Gelati. Rome is full of

Gelaterias, even if it's a hole in the wall they will put up a freezer and sell it under the guise of a Gelaterie Artigianale. The prices range from 2 t0 6 depending on the size, cup or waffle cone and flavours. Since we went in June it was summer, all the berries were in season. Frulatis (gelatis made with fruit, ice and sugar) were almost always vegan. The attendants at the stores knew if they had milk or not. Many were even without sugar. They melt in your mouth, the flavours just stay on your tongue and give you the perfect hit. All the gelatos available in India are way too sweet but that's because we have an excessive palate. Everything is either sweet or spicy, there is no in between.

One Gelateria I found online that made soy gelatos was Gelateria Blue Ice. I'd read about it, saved the address but found this by mistake while walking back from the Vatican. I had stuffed myself with a strawberry gelati (their small serving is huge!) from another gelateria and had no inclination of giving myself a brain freeze. But I could not miss this opportunity and I am so glad I didn't. That day they had hazelnut (nocciola) made with soy milk and it was HEAVEN! Everywhere I went I tried to sample a new flavour. Over ten days, I must've eaten strawberry (fragola) the most. But my favourite was and always will be the nocciola. I can give up anything for another bite of that, anything!

Hazelnut and Chocolate Gelato from Blue Ice


Wild Berry and Black Berry Gelati

Eating out wasn't trouble at all and one place was on all the vegetarian websites - Il Margutta. A vegetarian restaurant since 1979, Il Margutta is situated at the end of a narrow alley close to Rome's famous Spanish Steps (we had a bit of difficulty finding it). It's a very quaint and charming restaurant with open air and indoor seating. We chose open air, because it was a beautiful evening. In Italy many restaurants have what is called a 'cover charge'. They usually levy a 2 charge per person to cover the cost of their cutlery and table covers. Some restaurants will advertise 'No Cover Charge'. Many restaurants will also charge for water and bread. Il Margutta charged us for everything.

We went into Il Margutta mostly because it was Rome's only vegetarian restaurant that we knew of and I was hoping they would understand vegans better. They have an extensive vegetarian menu with some vegan options. They didn't have a few vegan dishes listed on the menu which I asked for, but we settled for the Risotto with Courgette flowers and a spaghetti with cherry tomatoes. The food was excellent of course, but we would've enjoyed it a little more if we hadn't stuffed ourselves all day. For dessert they had two vegan options and they were nice enough to give us a little bit of both - a carrot cake and a chocolate cake with a serving of soy gelato. The cakes were made with walnut flour and were dense, flavourful and so good! Il Margutta is a bit on the expensive side and I'd suggest eating light the day you plan to eat there. I only wish they were a little more vegan friendly.

Otherwise, I ate Pizza everyday, every single day! Turns out the Italians love their Pizzas even without cheese. Same with the pastas. All the menus had at least two Pizzas without cheese and meat. The Margharita - tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil (tell them to avoid the cheese) was on every menu. Or you can request the pizza or pasta you want without cheese. There are some Indian and Mediterranean restaurants in Rome which would probably be vegetarian friendly, but when in Rome do as the (vegan) Romans do! A very sweet lady at our hotel told us about an Indian restaurant that served very good Samosas near by. But I don't think it would be the same as the ones you get here. They never are.

Pizza Marinara

Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil

There was lots to choose from, no need to starve. Almost anything that is freshly made can be altered to become vegan friendly. You only have to look out for the pastas made with eggs, squid ink pastas which are black in colour, milk and cheese. It helps to learn the key words of any language before going to a country where English is not the first language. And when I say key words I always start with food. A lot of the food in the supermarket is labeled in Italian and it really helped because I knew that 'uovo/a' is 'egg' and 'con latte' is 'with milk'. Bread and Olive oil with Balsamic vinegar is to die for and all the restaurants either greeted you with a free bread basket or asked you if you wanted some. I can eat it every single day.
A million varieties of Pasta and more

Rome is abundant and will surprise you. The food and the grandiose of the architecture will take you to the era of the Roman Empire and back. You will want to preserve every bite of what you see and eat.

Next Stop: Positano!

Give me some Protein!

As I was waiting for a video about the new FDA guidelines for contanimation of food in the US to load, I was treated with an ad for Bob Evans juicy farm burger menu. They showed beautiful, colourful farms with even more beautifully animated colours of crops and then CUT TO the burger - A huge (American size) burger with lots of cheese. Of course they mention in passing that the burger comes from a 'juicy' 100% black Agnus (which is beef) and also that the burger is topped with bacon (which is pig). What is funny is that there were no pictures of 'happy' cows or pigs in the entire ad. We have now graduated to advertising that at least 60% of any meal's origins don't need to be shown.

I've wanted to write about protein for a long time but I kept putting it off because there are so many articles all over the place about our protein requirements and where we should be getting it from. I have talked to many people who are of the opinion that they need animal protein to survive, put on weight, build muscles and so on. Of course I disagree, but why is anyone going to listen to me? I don't have any written proof that I am qualified to make such comments. What I only have is proof that I am alive (and kicking) and that like me, there are hundreds and thousands of people all over the world who are doing very well without any animal protein in their diets. There are also many many doctors who highly recommend omission of all animal protein from the diet to reverse many diseases and to stay healthy (I have a list of books below). So many people also ask me why do I want to live longer by being so restrictive. I think I'd rather live longer and healthier rather than die with a disease.

So what is the big deal about protein? And why has it gathered so much press that everyone is so concerned about getting 'enough protein'?

Proteins are organic compounds made up of amino acids and are essential constituents of any living cell. Proteins as nutrients are required to build, maintain and repair tissues in our bodies. Aside from water, protein is the most abundant molecule in the body.

This is my three line definition for protein. Of course books and more can be written about protein but I'll leave that for the Phds.

Where do we get our protein from?

Apart from the protein that our cells are made up of, the amino acids that form protein can be obtained when our stomachs digest the food we eat just as we get carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, etc from our food.

The next BIG question on people's minds is usually where do I get my proteins from?

The moment people know about my food choices (or the lack of it), there are two questions that I get asked the most. One being about calcium (which I will write about someday) and the next about protein. There is this (unnecessary) worry about not getting 'enough' protein. What people might not realize is that they are getting too much of it!

For that I always remember what I learned at Dr Nandita Shah's workshops. When was the last time you saw someone who was deficient in protein? I hope you have not, but to be deficient in protein you have to have been starving. This is a very valid deficiency in India more so in Africa and it is called Kwashiorkar. We learn about it in school and it is accompanied with a picture of a listless, pot bellied child with his rib cage showing from the back. It is a deficiency mainly caused because the child has not been eating anything or eating way too little.

So where do I get my proteins from?

From fruits and vegetables of course!

The human body is designed to be herbivorous. An article by Dr Nandita Shah in Upper Crust gives a good idea of the comparison between our digestive systems and those of the carnivores.

But milk, meat and eggs have lots of protein. And vegetables and fruits are not enough.

Milk, meat and eggs are classified as animal protein and fish is meat too.

The problem with any animal protein, as I have read in many many books and have been told by many doctors, is that it is very similar in its make-up to the proteins found in the human body. The body is not able to differentiate between the good and bad cells and hence attacks itself. This is one of the main reasons why auto-immune diseases and cancers are on the rise. A very comprehensive research study is available in the book The China Study by Dr. T Colin Campbell.

Apart from that, animal products do come with cholesterol and saturated fat. MNCs advertising zero cholesterol butters and yogurts are just saying there is no cholesterol or saturated fat in .000001mg of their butter! No one reads the fine print anyway and butter tastes so good and makes everything else taste so good.

The whole protein myth probably started when the non vegetarians came across the vegetarians, when the meat industry realized they needed a new strategy to combat the rise of the vegetarians. That is my theory. But this protein myth is so widely accepted that now even in nutrition school they are taught that Indian lacto-vegetarian diets don't have enough protein and Indians need to start eating eggs and chicken. Try telling that to my grandparents, who have been raised on lacto-vegetarian diets all their lives, or even their parents who probably had a bath if they were in the same room as an egg. There is also another line floating around that protein from meat, milk and eggs is superior to plant protein. Also that our bodies have evolved to consume and digest meat. Of course, that is why we have claws, canines, hunt for our meat, eat it raw, have the saliva to digest meat, have a short small intestine so that the meat passes by quickly through our systems and are not constipated at all.

How do I know I am getting enough protein?
For one I show no signs of protein deficiency and like me the scores of people on healthy vegan diets are also healthier than ever.

The problem these days is of too much protein. People on non-vegetarian and vegetarian diets alike are eating more animal protein than ever and it's showing. Everyday there are reports of how obese and overweight people are getting. But every other day there are reports to show that we need milk for strong bones and eggs for protein. The most ridiculous advertisement I spotted recently by India's favourite butter brand,was about how butter is on top of the food chain! Thanks to India's 'White Revolution' we are now going in the same direction as US and Europe. And I don't need to mention that the US has the heaviest population on this planet.

Protein deficiency is caused when your body is not getting enough or any food. Developing countries where famines and droughts ensure that no food gets to its people, are subject to kwashiorkar - a disease that affects children the most.

Cutting out animal protein certainly doesn't mean you cannot eat anything. There are a multitude of fruits, vegetables, grains and pulses you can eat and how!

The Devil that is CARBS!

Carbohydrates are very simply carbon, hydrogen and oxygen come together needed to provide our bodies and brains with energy. Without them we would be comatose zombies! (Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin).

Thanks to the Atkins diet and so many others, Carbohydrates have been tagged as the bad guys. So you can eat all the dead animals and cheesy food, just avoid the fruits and the grains and you will be as thin as you want. You will lose weight but that will only be your initial water weight, if you continue to be on this diet life long you are asking for some trouble (aka osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer and so on). I also think diets that say you need one nutrient more than the other have got it all wrong because no one nutrient can work in isolation. They all need each other to synthesize and transform into energy for us.

As long as you fill you your plate with complex carbs (brown red rice, natural unprocessessed sweetners, whole grains) and avoid simple carbs (sugar, white rice, polished grains, white bread and even store bought brown bread in India) you will be doing your body a whole lot of good. Of course don't forget your fruits, vegetables and legumes.

I don't sit in front of my plate and measure 1/3rd carbs or 2/3rd proteins or 5/7th minerals or any such thing. I think the whole concept of a diet by classifying foods according to their main nutrient is bull crap. I eat whole, healthy and as much raw as i can.I don't count my calories and I do not measure every meal. I make sure I eat at least one fresh fruit a day though I'd like it increase that. There's a multitude of junk food you can eat even if you follow a vegan diet. Almost everything that is fried is vegan except when they add cheese or milk powder to it. I can go on and may be even write a book with the amount of information that is available out there. Finally it boils down to whether you want to believe it or not. If you still believe you need to have egg white and a piece of chicken to survive, I can only ask you to open your mind to the possibility that it might not be good for you and you won't know unless you try.

Books you must read:

The China Study - Dr T Colin Campbell
Skinny Bitch / Skinny Bastard - Rory freedman and Kim Barnouin

for an extensive list of books available in Mumbai at the SHARAN Library, try http://sharan-india.org/resources/sharan-library-books/

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