My favourite dinosaur has always been the Brontosaurus. Like me, it must have also known what it feels like to be a vegetarian wandering amongst the world of carnivores.
Several times, I have been accosted by acquaintances and fellow travellers demanding to know why I am vegetarian, whether I eat fish, and how I manage to travel so much and still manage without eating meat. I have pondered over the last question myself, but more in the context of what I was missing out on while travelling. Considering that food plays such an inexplicable part in getting to know a country's character, being a vegetarian can feel as if you are just getting your toes wet instead of completely immersing yourself in the culture of a new country. Ruminating on this, I packed my bags for a trip to Vienna, wondering if I was going to end up nibbling only on the rye bread that would accompany the expected Austrian staple meals centered around beef and veal.
We arrived in Vienna late at night, ravenous and tired. We darted outside the hotel and rushed into the only restaurant in the neighbourhood without so much as glancing at the menu outside. The restaurant was fast emptying and the only people left were those lingering over the last remains of their bottles of wine. I looked at the menu in German, and caught sight of a 'risotto mit spinat.' Relieved, I pointed at it while the waitress shook her head sadly, saying that they had run out of spinach for the day. Meanwhile, my friend smugly ordered the lamb, adding solicitously that he would share the mashed potatoes that it comes with. Before I could yell that I would rather bite his head off, the waitress asked, 'Asparagus risotto?' It was comfort food at its best -- buttery, melt-in-the mouth delicious, accompanied by a basket of crusty bread with herb infused olive oil. Yes, it wasn't traditional Viennese fare, but when food is this good, it is almost criminal to complain. I went to bed well-fed and happy, dreaming of yummier things to come.
Whatever you eat in Vienna, wine is inextricably paired with the food that you are eating. We set off to experience the Heuriger ritual, where home grown wine is served in musty taverns, accompanied by local cuts of meat. We were in town during the low tourist season, so it turned out to be difficult to find one that was open. In earlier days, the sign of an open heuriger would be a bunch of fir or conifer twigs left hanging in front of the door, but we just decided to go with whether the lights were on or off. The heuriger we decided to enter was cheerfully lit and decorated with buntings, but there was nobody around except the owner and a waiter. It was like walking into a house just after Christmas, when all the guests had left, with the decorations waiting to be taken down. Nevertheless, the owner, who did look a lot like Santa Claus, welcomed us warmly and introduced the waiter as his son. Instead of corking open a wine bottle, he opened a tap from his keg and filled a large mug with wine. This was accompanied by a plate piled with cold cuts of meat, which I refused, shrugging apologetically and mouthing the 'v' word. Hearing this, the owner gave his son one look that made him whisk into the kitchen like a firecracker set alight. 'He won't be long,' Santa Claus winked at me mysteriously. The wine was fruity and fresh. As much as fresh is an uncomplimentary adjective to describe any wine, in this case, it meant that this was as delicious as wine can be. Just as I was about to ask for a refill, a plate magically appeared with a steaming hot pie, with a side of sauerkraut. The shell of the pie crackled crisply under my knife and oozed with quark cheese and potatoes underneath. With a dash of creamy homemade paprika sauce, it was one heavenly mouthful. At this point, I did notice slightly jealous looks at my plate from the opposite end where sat a plate of cold meat and cheese.
Vienna is famous for its bistro culture, where you while away afternoons with shots of espresso, slices of pastry and conversation. Pastries and cakes are one category where vegetarians are on equal ground with the rest, so I was suitably excited. We headed towards one of Vienna's famous pastry shops, situated near the buzzing central market square. The queue for a seat in the cafe was long, and as is most often the case, totally worth it. Even before we entered the cafe, the intoxicating smell of vanilla, cinnamon and brewing coffee hit us. Not being able to decide between the sachertorte (the Austrian take on the chocolate cake ) and the traditional apple strudel, we decided to order both. As I had my first mouthful of warm, luscious apples and flaky buttery pastry, the entire world dissolved into oblivion for one second, in that magical atmosphere which only extremely good food can create. It took me half the strudel to realize that I was actually seated next to a glass window where there was a life-sized bridal dress, complete with satiny shoes and a veil, all made of cake and icing. After a few 'Have your bride and eat her too' type jokes, we decided to burn these calories by walking around the city of operatic palaces and manicured gardens. As we dodged a few horse carts along the way, I couldn't help feeling that I had exactly the type of travel experience that I was wishing for -- a happy proof that you needn't let any culinary trappings stop you from exploring another country's culture in every sense of the word.