“I was heartbroken when I saw how dairy cows were made to deliver a baby in order to keep producing milk and that every time they did, their babies were taken away from them to keep them lactating at maximum yields.”

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When Aishwarya Viswanath saw the cruelty cows are put through to provide us with the so-called essentials like milk and ghee, she turned into a vegan overnight – a concept that’s slowly but steadily gaining popularity and acceptance in the Indian society. The 27-year-old, however, did not stop there and went a step further to establish ‘The Real Green Café’, Pune’s first ever vegan café, A.S. Iyer finds out more about her journey.

Tell us about your childhood, what was your perspective on vegetarianism all along before you turned vegan.
My childhood has been a very dynamic and vibrant one. Coming from a defence f amily, it’s been full of travelling from one city to another. I have lived my childhood in different air force stations across different cities which has helped me a lot in terms of being a liberal and open-minded person. We, as a family were vegetarians and followed a pretty simple diet all along.

I have been into animal adoptions as well as carrying out animal rescue operations for the past eight years now. My interest and passion towards animals brought me in touch with several animal activists across the globe, thanks to Facebook and other social media platforms. It was one of these days that I happened to stumble upon a facebook post shared by a friend that highlighted, through an undercover investigation, how cows were treated in the dairy industry in the United States of America. I was appalled and disgusted to say the least. But there was some faith still left in me in the Indian dairy industry. I was sure that Indians would definitely be more compassionate towards cows, after all many of us worship cow and call her Gau Mata. And to find that solace that cows are treated with kindness and compassion, I conducted my individual research on the Indian dairy industry.

I was heartbroken when I saw how dairy cows were made to deliver a baby in order to keep producing milk and that every time they did, their babies were taken away from them to keep them lactating at maximum yields. Their reproductive organs were grossly misused by means of artificial insemination where workers used their bare hands to perform artificial insemination. These are, by the way, industry norms and accepted by the animal husbandary departments. Once they have outlived their profitability, these cows are sent to slaughterhouses. A cow’s average life spans about 20 years, but due to the severe trauma that they are put through, their average life span is just about four years, after which they are sent away to slaughterhouses.

Furious and depressed, would be understatements to express what I felt at that point and I decided to give up on all milk-based products and turn vegan overnight. I couldn’t live with myself if I would have continued to be a part of such holocaust of animals. Since then, there has been no looking back. It has been five years now.

What was your family’s reaction to your decision to turn vegan overnight? What were some of the immediate repercussions of your decisions in terms of daily home food?
Luckily, the transition to veganism happened while I was in United Kingdom to pursue my education, where I could embrace the vegan way of life pretty easily as there were many options available. However, my parents were shocked and not happy about me turning vegan, they felt it was some fad and that I would get over it very soon. I did have severe cravings for some of my favourite dishes, but I somehow controlled it knowing the truth behind it. When my parents realised that my shift to veganism was serious business, they often used to not tell me or hide about the food they had eaten thinking I would feel bad about it.

The Real Green Café, Pune

The Real Green Café, Pune

The major challenge awaited me in India, about six to eight months after I returned and my dairy-free, UK-imported pantry dried up. Fortunately, most of the dishes my mom cooked were vegan in nature and whatever was not, I would try cooking them myself. Most of my experimentation with food begun during this phase where I was trying to veganise all the dishes.

Have you managed to turn any of your family members vegan?
Except my younger brother Vaibhav, others in my family remain vegetarians. I guess family is the last and hardest to convince sometimes. Though the consumption of milk has greatly reduced in my house, it has not completely stopped. My family enjoys all the food I cook, but still haven’t reached the stage where they can give up milk completely. However, I feel I should continue with my work and slowly they will change too. Forcing them will definitely not help in this case.

What kind of changes has veganism brought about into your life?
I turned vegan only for animals, so I really didn’t bother much about the healthy aspect of veganism. I enjoyed everything which was vegan without bothering if it was good or bad for me health-wise. But it definitely has given me a lot added benefits in terms of high levels of energy, good immunity, and great, glowing skin.

How did you come up with the idea of setting up The Real Green Café?
From the time I turned vegan, I had a growing need to explore cruelty free alternatives for all of my favourite foods. I was already very fond of baking desserts, and I used to experiment a lot of baking vegan alternatives. I have a good share balance of some good and some complete disasters in the kitchen while trying out various vegan recipes. Plus, over the years, I developed the desire to own a vegan business, however the idea and inspiration to come up with a vegan food joint came up purely because of the lack of it in Pune. It was not only my struggle to find food devoid of cross contamination but also of many other fellow vegans who experienced similar daily struggles. Well-settled in my corporate work life, I used to do a lot of outreach programmes to educate people about veganism as I believed being vegan alone was not enough, and that I should educate more people. Many people like me were shocked to see how animals were treated and the ill effects of milk on health, but not strong enough in terms of will power to make the switch. However, many fell back to vegetarian alternatives eventually, because of the lack of many vegan options. That is when I decided to start a cafe where everything is vegan and people can enjoy everything without missing out on anything.

I enjoyed everything which was vegan without bothering if it was good or bad for me health-wise. But it definitely has given me a lot added benefits in terms of high levels of energy, good immunity, and great, glowing skin.

With that, I established The Real Green Café in 2014. The name of the café too was thought out consciously after coming to an understanding that by being vegan, you not just help yourself in terms of health, but also the overall environment, help reduce world hunger and a set of issues related to the environment. Thus, being green in real sense from every aspect. Moreover, I truly do believe veganism is the future of food, and it’s a passion that’s close to my heart for a variety of reasons.

What were the challenges of setting up your café?
I am a Management Accountant by training. The Real Green Café was born purely out of my passion. Having no formal background in the hospitality business was sure a challenge, and the biggest challenge was related to operating a full-fledged cafe. Cooking for friends and family is completely different from doing the same thing on a commercial scale, and that was a daunting task initially. But my training as a management accountant helped me solve any problems related to operation of the café, when they cropped up.

A common misconception that procuring raw materials must be difficult is also not true, because there are no real challenges in procuring the raw materials required in the café since we use the freshest of vegetables and fruits. Moreover, everything in terms of butter and cheese is made in-house using some of the most innovative ingredients, to ensure that we have all the dairy free alternatives required in preparing a variety of dishes in the café.

n16-30As for the market, it is still very new in Pune. People are still unaware of the concept and learning about the difference between vegetarianism and veganism. Luckily though, due to various awareness programmes and a growing concept in the west, veganism is picking up in this part of the world too at a steady pace. The silver lining however, is that many are willing to try out veganism as an alternative.

It’s been over a year and a half since you opened the first ever restaurant, how has the experience been, tell us about some of the most important lessons that you learnt over this period.
The experience has been beautiful for me. The Real Green Café is my baby project and a learning journey. Every day has been a new day for me with its own set of challenges and merits. The cafe itself has evolved in this period as a hub for activists, vegans, health freaks and more important, that a 100% vegan food joint can exist and can be successful. Many customers have turned vegan after the cafe started, mainly because they now have an alternative and are not compromising anything in terms of their food.

Plus, I have been able to carry on my work about spreading the word on veganism by hosting a variety of events in the cafe related to health and nutrition, vegan cooking workshops and other eco-friendly workshops. Most of these events are aimed at helping people choose alternatives to switch to a more sustainable way of living.

What are the other initiatives close to your heart?
Working for animals, all animals including farmed animals and helping people be aware that every animal, and not just their pet, has a right to live respectfully. Once the cafe is well set, I want to start a farm sanctuary where I can work on rescuing all animals including cows, chickens, goats, sheep etc.

Spreading awareness on different eco-friendly alternatives especially recycling and upcycling existing products, has been an initiative close to my heart, besides working for animal rights.

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