September 2003: Over the years, Abarita Dänzer has changed the way that Westerners eat - and enjoy - vegetarian food. He is not about to stop...
"I turned vegetarian for ethical reasons," Abarita recalls. "I thought there must be more harmony in God's creation than to torture animals so that we can live."
His change in diet alarmed his friends and family. "People thought I was very strange and in danger of not having enough nutrients, but I've proved that this was absolutely not true. Now people turn vegetarian for health reasons."
As the concept was considered so unusual, there was little available in Switzerland to provide for a balanced vegetarian diet. However, two years later, he was studying meditation and spirituality under the Indian-born mystic Sri Chinmoy. As a student of Sri Chinmoy, Abarita would learn a crucial lesson: innovation.
For over 20 years, Abarita has seen innovation as part of his job -- not in the fields of music or poetry, like his teacher, but in the world of food manufacturing. In 1981, he opened a tofu factory in Zurich, producing a range of dairy alternatives for vegans, lactose-intolerant and health-conscious people. At the time, a few years before tofu became the "miracle food" of the 1980s, such a business was almost unknown in Europe.
Of course, he cannot claim credit for introducing this food the West. He learned of tofu not by visiting Japan or China, but through frequent excursions to the United States. "What we found here in America was not existing in Europe. We offered this to [European customers], and then we innovated the field."
As part of this innovation, he helped to popularise tofu products in Europe, turning the bland, protein-rich food into a tasty delicacy, and making meat alternatives. His company, Secrets of Perfection-Flames, introduced non-dairy drinks to its product list in 1985. That same year, it became the first company to produce milk-free "yogurt".
"When we were successful with our yogurt, when the yogurt experts said 'Oh, we like this yogurt which you make from soya milk,' this was a victory," he recalls.
More recently, the company formed a packaging line, mainly for their milk alternatives (soya, cereal and rice drinks). To ensure that the new packaging machine was a worthwhile investment, they have invented many new kinds of drink, including eight flavours of rice drink and 12 flavours of their ever-popular Swiss Soya Drink.
For Abarita, however, the greatest innovation is in the packaging. As he sees it, packaging for such a product should ideally have a spiritual aspect.
The solution, as Abarita describes it, is "Food and Art". Sri Chinmoy has painted over 150,000 paintings, in a series known as "Jharna-Kala" (Fountain-Art), to signify the artwork flowing from a state of spiritual inspiration. In the past, Abarita has used images from Jharna-Kala paintings in tofu and water products. Now, he is employing these images to package a "gallery" of 27 new drinks.
Choosing which Jharna-Kalas to use, to identify which flavour, was obviously a task which delighted him. Through changing colours and brush strokes, Sri Chinmoy uses each piece of artwork to manifest different meditative qualities. The unsweetened drink, for example, is represented by a predominantly blue painting, whose "a beautiful, soft appearance" matched the flavour; the "naturelle" (original) flavour has a design to highlight its "bland, very 'brown' taste."
"Each Jharna-Kala has a very strong identity," says Abarita. "This identity goes together with the identity of the drink inside. People recognise psychically, much faster than by reading, what's inside. So for cappuccino, you have strong colours of red and dark blue... Vanilla, chocolate, smoothie, Hawaiian, tropical, anything you can imagine in the flavour, you can find a soulful expression of these things in the Jharna-Kala world."
Though his products are very popular in Switzerland, and distributed in many other parts of Europe, Abarita doesn't assume that his drinks will take over the world like Coca-Cola. However, he believes that, as before, they will help to pave the way for healthy, environment-friendly (but still enjoyable) foods. Moreover, he believes that the packaging -- matching flavours to works of art -- adds a new dimension to the product. Food, like art, can also inspire the soul.