Meatless Mondays Make for Mad Guests at Pondicheri

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Houston restaurants such as Backstreet Cafe have long offered Meatless Mondays, popular with vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike who enjoy eating meat-free meals that emphasize fresh, seasonal produce.

More than 30 percent of Indians, meanwhile, identify as vegetarian. There is a national system in place there to identify which foods are vegetarian. In many areas of the country -- from north to south -- vegetarian cuisine is preferred by both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike simply because of the region's long history of cooking vegetable-based meals.

Neither of these facts swayed the upset customers who came to Pondicheri last Monday and found that the Indian restaurant had switched to a Meatless Monday concept.

"Approximately 50 people turned around and left when they heard we were not serving meat," said Pondicheri chef and owner Anita Jaisinghani. "Some yelled at the counter server -- who happened to be my son valiantly trying to defend his mother. One demanded a chicken frankie and told my son, 'I know you have chicken back there, just pack one up for me and I won't tell anyone.'"

"One threw the menu on the counter and stomped out," Jaisinghani continued. "Another one emailed us demanding an explanation for this 'baffling behavior.'" Jaisinghani was baffled herself.

After all, it's not as if Meatless Mondays nor vegetarian-based Indian food are unprecedented. And the lack of chicken on a menu -- even when it's regularly there, and even if you have your mouth set for it -- is certainly never grounds for a full-blown, adult-size temper tantrum.

The Meatless Monday at Pondicheri was an experiment, headed up by Jaisinghani, that she calls "a small and simple attempt to lessen our impact on the environment." The chef has been an advocate of more mindful meat-eating ever since reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. The move was also partly inspired by her own childhood in India, where her mother encouraged the family to go meatless one day a week. "It was considered a 'cleansing' of sorts, I think," she says, both "physical and spiritual."

"We got all geared up, cooked some vegetarian specials, printed whole new menus, et cetera," she said. Throughout the day, Jaisinghani says, a few customers did appreciate the new menu and some, she reports, "came in just to support it."

Those supporters, however, were far outweighed by angry customers demanding their chicken frankies. "I am surprised," she said of the reactions, "and a little bit amused and saddened. Are people this addicted to their 'protein'?"

"I've lived in Texas for more than 20 years," says Jaisinghani, who also owns and runs the popular Indika, which has plenty of vegetarian specials of its own. "While I always knew [Texans] were meat eaters, I never realized the extent of it!"

Jaisinghani remains "a little nervous" but undeterred, and wishes to keep the Meatless Mondays going at Pondicheri in hopes that the weekly vegetarian menus will find their own fans.

"I'm going back to my roots in a lot of things I do these days, and I have decided to stick to my guns and keep doing it."

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