- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Saurabh Dalal has never tasted a Big Mac. Never ordered a Kansas City strip well-done. Never dived into a rack of ribs with a bib tucked into his collar to keep the barbecue sauce off his shirt.

Raised as a vegetarian, the 35-year-old Lanham, Md., man says he doesnt know what hes missed. He says he hasnt missed it, for that matter.

"The products on the market today are pretty amazing," Mr. Dalal says of the substitute meats, cheeses and even strawberry shortcakes that are available animal-free.

Mr. Dalal is a vegan, a vegetarian who goes beyond simply relying on a plant-based diet that eschews meat. Mr. Dalal also avoids all dairy and egg products and, like most vegans, will not buy anything made of leather or wool.

A vegetarian since childhood, he took the ultimate step to veganism about 10 years ago. The reasons, he says, are simple.

"My basis had always been ethical… theres so much that happens in this world were not aware of," Mr. Dalal says of how the dairy and meat industries treat animals.

For many, it is awareness that leads them to veganism awareness of animals as beings with feelings, awareness of the experiences animals used for food endure. The goal, many vegans say, is simply to reduce as much suffering as possible.

Mr. Dalal is president of the Vegetarian Society of the District of Columbia. According to its Web site (www.vegdc.com), the group is for both vegetarians and nonvegetarians and has more than 900 members in the Washington area. Its membership data do not distinguish among nonvegetarians, vegetarians and vegans.

The group hosts all manner of social activities with an educational purpose, of course. In addition to the monthly book club, singles events and restaurant gatherings, there are the monthly raw vegan potlucks where participants bring along dishes like corn with dairy-free pesto and pecan-wild rice loaf.

Many vegans in the D.C. area say they have chosen that lifestyle for ethical reasons, although theyre quick to point out that giving up meat and dairy products doesnt mean forgoing culinary diversity.

"Theres so much more available than when youre a meat-eater," says Allison King of Germantown, Md., who has been a vegan since 1994. She says that when people are able to think beyond a piece of meat, they open themselves up to other cuisines.

She and other vegans list a variety of restaurants among their favorites: Udupi Palace in Langley Park serves Indian food, Yuan Fu in Rockville, Md., has Chinese, and Thien Phuoc Vegetarian Cuisine in Arlington, Va., offers Vietnamese food.

Ms. King is a regular at the Vegetable Garden, a totally vegan Chinese restaurant in Rockville.

On a recent weekday, the Vegetable Garden ranked last year by Vegetarian Times magazine as one of the top 31 vegetarian restaurants in the country was doing brisk business, its 80-seats more than three-quarters occupied.

Owner Jack Sun, a vegan himself for about 10 years, says the General Tsaos chicken (which is actually firm tofu) and the Key lime pie (made with tofu cream cheese) are customer favorites.

Mr. Sun, 70, says he gave up meat and dairy products for health reasons. On the wall behind the cash register is some Chinese poetry he translates. It says that in old times, people never lived to be 70. Now, they may live to be 90. If you eat vegetarian, youll live to 100 years and beyond.

It is, in fact, a diet recognized for its benefits. The American Dietetic Association endorses a vegetarian diet as healthful and nutritionally adequate, and suggests that it may reduce the risk of some diseases. Vegans need to take special care in planning their diets, though, to ensure they are meeting nutritional needs.

Susan Woods of Bethesda, a first-time customer at the Vegetable Garden and a vegetarian who has not made the jump to veganism, says such restaurants are a godsend for vegetarians.

"There are too many options to sacrifice animals … these places make it easier on us by offering so many things."

While it may not offer a wide selection of dishes, Honest to Goodness Burritos is another popular place, where vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike dont mind standing in line literally for their lunch. The business is operated out of a vendors cart on the corner of 15th and K streets NW.

The menu may not look extensive customers have a choice of which flavor tortilla they wish (spinach, sun-dried tomato and honey wheat flavors are among the offerings), which type of bean (black beans and refried pinto beans are favorites) and a few extras. But dont be fooled. The glory is in the sauces.

"We have 20 to 25 sauces daily that customers can buy or get on their burrito, from mild and very sweet and fruity to sauces that are so hot you can only take a drop at a time," says James Tiu, who owns and operates the cart with his wife, Patti.

During lunch on a recent Friday, the customers were 10 to 15 deep, patiently moving toward the front, where a savory steam billowed out of the carts window.

Jessica McCann, a 26-year-old consultant who once tried veganism but decided she couldnt live without cheese, has been a vegetarian since she was 18 and converted her husband to vegetarianism. She brought a meat-eating friend to the cart for lunch.

Though she lives in Baltimore, Mrs. McCann works in the District and says she often enjoys eating at Honest to Goodness Burritos.

Ara Ramalingam of Arlington had adopted a vegan diet only days before and was confident hed be able to stick with it.

He was not gradually eliminating animal products from his diet, having never been a vegetarian before. Instead, he was going cold turkey er, tofu for health reasons, he says.

As the vegan movement has grown, Mr. Tiu says hes felt the change.

"We have seen a marked increase in business in the last year and a half, and we are getting a lot of vegan and strict vegetarian customers. Our vegetarian customers are very loyal, and we value them a lot," he says.

Loyalty is something Pangea in Rockville "the vegan everything store," its brochure proclaims has inspired in area vegans and, through its catalog, those in other regions.

The store is tucked away in a small strip of white warehouses. To say it is unassuming would be an understatement. But area vegans love the place for the great variety of goods it carries especially the hard-to-find items.

Making it easier for vegans was what Shari Kalina had in mind when she founded Pangea in 1995.

"I personally had a very difficult time finding things," she says at her office.

Ms. Kalina, 29, has been a vegan since 1992. She says the lifestyle is simply making "every effort possible to minimize the suffering that you cause."

"When I went vegan, I felt so good. So free, so relieved," she says.

The storefront is small, but Pangea a Greek word meaning "all earth" does most of its business through mail-order and its Web site (www.veganstore.com). Actress Alicia Silverstone, a vocal advocate for animal rights, is among its customers.

Mr. Dalal of the Districts vegetarian society says he often shops for gifts at Pangea.

Along the top of the walls are T-shirts some made of organic cotton with slogans like "Animal liberation, human liberation" and "Love animals, dont eat them."

The glass shelves below them are full of "cruelty-free products" from shower gels to toilet cleaners, hair coloring to substitutes for beef jerky, lipsticks to soy mayonnaise. In another room are racks of faux leather jackets and a selection of shoes, even Dr. Martens.

Its a far cry from 10 years ago, Ms. Kalina says, when no one had heard of tofu and a supermarket clerk led her to the baby formula when she inquired about soy milk.

"We want people to not be deprived," says Ms. Kalina, 29. "We want to make it easy and convenient and show people it is a lifestyle that they can lead."

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