Around Malaysia, India, Singapore, Australia, and now San Francisco, you can sometimes happen across one of a chain of restaurants known as Annalakshmi. These are tasty vegetarian restaurants that serve all-you-can-eat buffets as well as a wide range of drinks and breads at a price that can’t be beat: whatever you feel like paying. If you check out the SF branch’s website, you can find out all about its principles of athithi dhevo bhava (The Guest is God) and the fact that it’s staffed only by volunteers. What they don’t tell you is that it’s nice because it gives you Indian food off-the-beaten-path. There are no standard veggie Indian dishes like regular dhal or vegetable samosas or whatever. Instead, you get food that grandmothers cook, weird dishes without regular names or, oftentimes, identifiable ingredients. But it’s all vegetarian, so you know you can’t get in too much trouble.
We went to the KL outlet last night for our dinner. There is a woman who works there refilling the chafing dishes and stewpots who is very very nice, and who clearly has an interest in creating and nurturing vegetarians. She always asks us "Do you take vegetarian food always?", to which we always answer "usually." Last night she followed up with a new one: "Is it for compassionate reasons?" Tough to figure out how to answer that, because in reality, it’s not. But we nodded politely and helped ourselves to an unidentified mushroomy fried thing. We think that in the grand scheme of things, it’s the ends that matter, not the means.