I have thought of myself as a vegetarian for about seven years now. After having dinner last week with Dilip Barman–president of the Triangle Vegetarian Society–I am no longer sure. I eat fish on occasion, and although I have heard the term pesco-vegetarian tossed around, I was dubious about whether I would be considered a valid vegetarian. Barman was more than happy to set me straight on the fish issue, as well as some other misconceptions about vegetarianism. We sat down to dinner one evening at Durham’s Greenhouse Cafe, to dispel some myths and enjoy some great vegetarian food.

Poring over the menu, I settled on a Tofu, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich, and Dilip contemplated the selection while explaining that he doesn’t eat any meat, fish or eggs, and only occasionally eats dairy–giggling when he admitted that chocolate is his greatest weakness. The 39-year-old software engineer tells me that he has been a vegetarian for most of his life and was raised by vegetarian parents, although he ate meat and dairy growing up. His parents, who immigrated to the United States from India, introduced him to meat as a child. “My parents were concerned partly that I would have trouble assimilating, but also because they thought that, as a vegetarian in this country, I wouldn’t have as many options,” he says. After leaving home for college, Dilip says that the choice to become a vegetarian seemed an obvious one, citing ethical reasons for his diet. Like a lot of vegetarians, he says that when he began grocery shopping, the thought of eating meat became less appealing. “It is different when you are eating prepared food, like a hamburger, as opposed to when you are in the grocery store and you see that this is a dead cow. I found that I could live quite easily without causing the death of animals for my food,” he says.

Many vegetarians are motivated because of animal rights issues–the activist vegetarian is the stereotype–but there are a number of reasons that people choose to avoid meat. Among them Barman lists health concerns, the environment, religious beliefs and concerns about world hunger. With respect to the health benefits of vegetarianism, I couldn’t help but ask that stale but irresistible question: Is it difficult for vegetarians to get enough protein in their diet? Barman laughed off the question with what I am sure is his stock response: “How many people do you know who have suffered from a protein deficiency?” I had to admit that I haven’t ever met anyone who suffered from a lack of protein–although it always seems the first issue to come up when you consider vegetarianism. Barman says that, on the contrary, Americans tend to get more protein than they need. “There are cases of protein deficiency in the world, but the majority of those are found as far away as sub-Saharan Africa. In the United States, protein deficiency is very rare,” he says. Barman also refers me to the American Dietetic Association, who’s 1997 position paper states that “scientific data suggest positive relationships between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension and some types of cancer.”

Why people become vegetarians has a lot to do with where they draw the line in their diets. Some are stricter than others. Many–myself included–who avoid meat, still eat fish. “There is a term, pesco-vegetarian, but it is synonymous with non-vegetarian,” he says. Instead, Barman classifies vegetarians into three main groups: ovo-lacto vegetarian, lacto vegetarian and vegan. Ovo-lacto vegetarians are the most common vegetarian group, avoiding meat, but still consuming eggs and dairy. Lacto-vegetarians are similar, in that they consume dairy, but avoid eggs along with meat. “Many Indians who say they are vegetarian eat dairy products–like ghee, the clarified butter that is used in Indian cooking,” Barman explains. Vegans are perhaps the strictest vegetarian group, forgoing any animal products, avoiding meat, dairy, eggs, and sometimes honey. “Veganism goes beyond what you eat, it is more of a lifestyle,” he says. While it is impossible to live completely animal-free, vegans try to live with as few animal-derived products as possible.

With such restrictions, it is easy to think that vegetarian food could get pretty boring. Barman, who teaches vegetarian cooking classes, says that people are surprised, especially when they begin to experiment with food (see the sidebar for one of his favorite recipes). “Most people find that when you move to a vegetarian diet, your options expand, especially when you start looking at ethnic cuisine,” he says.

And this is really why the vegetarian society exists: to provide an environment where people can learn about and enjoy vegetarian food. Of the 175 members, there are vegetarians, vegans and carnivores alike. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to join the group. “It is hard to change your diet. While I do think eating meat is bad, I also think that life is hard, and the role of the Triangle Vegetarian Society is to get the education out there and let people make their own decisions,” he says. Each month the society holds a potluck and also reviews one area restaurant. Rating restaurants in five categories (vegetarian selection, quality of food, vegetarian sensitivity, service and price), they list an impressive number of reviews on their website, www.trianglevegsociety.org.

As for Barman’s favorite restaurants? He gives rave reviews for the Dhosa Inn in Cary, specializing in Southern Indian cuisine. In Durham he is loyal to Parizade, which hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the society. “I love Parizade because they really know food and they can custom make everything,” he says. “I love The Rathskeller in Raleigh as well. They have some of the best grilled tofu and their menu is well labeled as to which foods are vegetarian and vegan.”

With all of the options out there, I asked Barman if he ever feels like he is missing out. “Oh come on!” he scoffs, taking a last bite of mushroom ragout and polenta. “This is delicious.”