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The Vegetarian Gourmet

By Steven R. L. Millman
Staff Reporter

During the last week the Vegetarian Gourmet has received numerous questions regarding the nature of vegetarianism. A typical question was, "A friend of mind eats fish but calls himself a vegetarian. Can he do that?" Well of course he can. On the other hand, the Vegetarian Gourmet could call himself a giant blue wombat. It wouldn't make it true, but he could call himself that. In a survey done a few years back of slightly more than 2,000 self-identified vegetarians, about one percent of them stated that they ate red meat on a daily basis.

So what exactly is a vegetarian? The dictionary defines a vegetarian as "a person who abstains from animal food, especially that from slaughtered animals, though often not eggs and dairy products." This more or less accurately represents the modern usage of the word vegetarian. In the past, a vegetarian referred to a person who abstained completely from any animal product with the exception of honey. Today we might refer to such an individual as a "true vegetarian," or vegan. This week the Vegetarian Gourmet will properly define the terms used to describe the continuum of food choices which make up vegetariana.

Vegan: A vegan or "true" vegetarian, stays away from any animal products. This includes dairy and eggs as well as any of their derivatives. Vegans can always be spotted in a grocery store or restaurant because they will be the ones staring endlessly at ingredient lists, asking questions about the precise makeup of a sauce. The vegan will shy away from things as innocuous as certain mints because they contain gelatin made from animal bones. Even certain products aimed at vegetarians are unacceptable choices because they contain hidden animal products. Most dairy-free cheeses, for example, contain casein, which is only found in animals or animal products. In addition, the philosophy that leads to veganism also often leads individuals to avoid products made from leather, goose down, or in some extreme cases even silk and wool.

Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian: This describes the kind of vegetarian that the Oxford English Dictionary was thinking about in the definition above. These vegetarians are similar to vegans, but do not choose to avoid eggs or dairy. Most of us mean ovo-lacto vegetarian when we say vegetarian. This is probably the most common type of individual among those who identify themselves as vegetarians.

Pseudo-Vegetarian: This is the Vegetarian Gourmet's own term for that kind of individual who eats fish but still identifies as a vegetarian. While clearly fish are by no definition any kind of plant, some people do consider themselves vegetarian while enjoying the occasional lobster bisque or salmon puff.

Occasional Vegetarian: These are the folks that give vegetarians and vegans such intestinal angst. They eat pretty much whatever they want whenever they want it, and once in a while skip the thick and juicy hamburger in favor of a cheese pizza and call themselves vegetarian. Maybe they could on the Bizarro planet, but not on ours. On this planet they are occasional vegetarians or simply health conscious meat eaters. While it simply isn't worth it to get one's underwear in a bunch about it, it's probably reasonable to point out to someone eating a hot dog that they are not really vegetarians because they didn't eat the ribs.

The Vegetarian Gourmet hopes that this has cleared things up for his loyal readers. Now on to the review!

Picante Mexican Restaurant

A Vegetarian Gourmet Best Buy of Boston!

735 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square.

Entrees: $3.75 - $7.95

Student Advantage Card gives you a free 16 oz. Soda.

As you walk in the door you are immediately confronted with a mixture of the hip and trendy with the cheap and kitchy. Brightly colored tiles with wood make up the interior design. There are vibrant colors, strange music, fake parrots, Christmas lights, and pink flamingos to shock the eyes and dull the senses. The seating is an odd arrangement of booths, tall tables with stools, and benches. In a word: fun.

There are plenty of choices for the vegetarian at Picante. The Vegetarian Gourmet settled on the vegetarian platter and a Papas burrito. The platter was huge, including potatoes in a red sauce with onions, Spanish rice, black beans seasoned with chili, guacamole, lettuce and roasted veggies. Cheese and sour cream are also available for the ovo-lacto among us. Everything on the plate was tasty, hot, and well prepared, if not all that pleasingly arranged (but for $5.95, who cares?). The Papas burrito was large, but not behemoth, stuffed with black beans, potato, peppers, and onions in a red sauce, wrapped lovingly tight in a flour tortilla. Again, cheese is available. It's a delicious and filling meal for the $4.95 price tag.

This would have been a good meal for the money and possibly ended up on the Vegetarian Gourmet's best buys of Boston with just what I've described above, but there's more! There is also a fabulous salsa bar including five different varieties ranging from the extremely mild (the Salsa Roja) to the very hot (the Super Picante). There were also some unusual salsa. You should try the chipotle, a brown salsa with a smoky taste. The Vegetarian Gourmet's suggestion is to bring a sampler of salsas back to your table and mix them until you find your own personal salsa flavor. The Vegetarian Gourmet liked a mixture of the Salsa Roja, Pico de Gallo, and Super Picante.

The restaurant is child friendly, serves beer and wine, and has a young, courteous staff. There are also locations at Davis Square and Downtown Boston.

Ask the Vegetarian Gourmet at millman@mit.edu! Fun and informative questions will be answered in next week's column.