The idea of indulging in exotic foods is one of the high-points of traveling around the world. The aromas, spices, diversity and flavours of the local cuisine tells one a lot about a country. To really experience a country, one has to experience their food, cooking methods and the way they consume it.
But what if you are a vegetarian or vegan or have any other dietary restriction. You might have a hard time finding things to eat, but trust me, you will not starve. Not even in major meat / sea food eating countries like China, Vietnam or Japan. On the basis of my own experiences, I have compiled below a few practical tips and advice that will help you if you are traveling vegetarian or have any other dietary restrictions:
Learning how to say “I’m a vegetarian” or “I only eat vegetables” in the local language is not enough. On my first day in Norway, I told some girls in my hostel about how I was having a hard time finding food because I’m a vegetarian. That night, they surprised me by cooking a meal of broccoli fish. I was touched by this gesture and their thoughtfulness. Yet I had to apologetically turn down their dinner proposal because for lacto – vegetarians like me, fish is not a vegetable.
In Southeast Asia, they would almost always put an egg in my Vegetable Rice. And in Sapa, when I said “ Veg, no egg, no chicken, no fish, no seafood”- they brought me some horse meat!
So yes, traveling as a vegetarian can be difficult, challenging and annoying sometimes, mainly because the definition of vegetarian changes from region to region. So whatever it is that you don’t want to eat, learn to say all of it. Or better get someone to write it for you in the local language. Make sure that includes all kinds of locally served meat like the dog, horse, yak etc.
Faith helps. Many religions around the world encourages vegetarianism such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism as well as East Asian religions like Taoism. The monks, the priests and sometimes their followers consume only vegetarian cuisine. And so if you have any doubts, you can ask for devotion cuisine. The best thing about devotion food is that it is cooked in traditional style and usually consumed in a cultural way. I had a lot of devotion food in Central Vietnam and once had a chance to share Jai meal with a Monk in Laos. All these meals were delicious to say the least. Even if you are non – vegetarian, you should still try them. They are referred as:
- Shōjin ryōri in Japan
- Jai in Thailand
- Sachal eumsik in Korea
- đồ chay in Vietnam
- Zhāicài (fasting food) in Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong
They do grocery in every part of the world. Well yeah. And that’s why you can never starve. Grocery stores, even in traditional meat eating societies do stock up fruits, vegetables, bread, salads, juices, ice creams, chocolates, cookies and many more things. Also, ready to eat noodles, sandwiches and pizzas are available even in the smaller cities. God knows how many Spinach Pizzas I ate in Spain!
Booking a place to stay with a kitchen is always a good idea. Places where staple diet consists of meat or seafood usually sells cooked vegetarian food quite expensive. So it is advisable to stay in hostels, vacation rentals or hotels that have a kitchen or provision for a microwave or induction. That way you can also save a lot of money. Also, you get a native’s perspective when you go to farmer’s market or grocery stores frequented by locals to buy the ingredients.
Always make some space in your bag for food. This is important especially if you are doing a road trip or traveling overnight in buses or trains. For reasons beyond my knowledge, the restaurants where buses would halt in SE Asia and Mexico never had anything vegetarian to eat. That doesn’t mean you have to carry too much, just a pack of nuts or a few fruits and you are good to go.
When dining out, know the safe bets. When in doubt, try finding a Mexican, Asian, Italian, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern place to eat. They usually have something vegetarian in their offerings. I was almost always able to find some inexpensive Chinese and Thai restaurants even in expensive European countries.
Some safe bets are not always safe. Your fries might have been cooked in animal oil, your cheese burger may have a beef patty or your rice may be served with the oyster sauce. So it is always better to ask even when you are ordering the safe options.
We live in the tech world. There are many food Apps and finding the nearest vegetarian restaurant is now only a click away these days. Most people will vouch for this but not me. When I was traveling in Mexico, I tried many Apps, visited food forums online, and did endless Google searches yet I could not find any authentic Mexican restaurant serving vegetarian food. The places listed were either closed or were not serving vegetarian food anymore. But of course, it is worth a try.
All in all, the world is more sensitive to vegetarians nowadays. Four years ago, I had to survive on fruits for five days in Tioman Island but that’s not the case these days. Even in traditional meat eating societies, people are opening up to different food choices. If there is something listed in the Menu that you like, you can ask if they can prepare it without meat. My experience suggests that you will not be refused or be suggested something even better.
During my RTW trip, I had the pleasure of eating many authentic chicken/ meat/ seafood dishes done entirely with vegetables such as Hangzhou-Style Duck made with mushroom, Ikan Bakar (Balinese grilled fish) made with jackfruit, moussaka made with eggplant, and many more.
Also, most decent hotels offer vegetarian food. Vegetarian and vegan restaurants are flourishing around the world. Vegetarian restaurants are often more costly, but it is nice to eat at a restaurant where you can eat anything on the menu without thinking twice. In fact, I found a Vegan Only restaurant right in the center of Ho Chi Minh City.
Be flexible. Okay, let’s be honest that being a vegetarian (or vegan or on any other dietary restrictions) can be slightly difficult when one is on the road for a long time. Sometimes you just don’t get proper meals. The key to surviving as a vegetarian (or vegan) is to be flexible. As an Indian citizen, I’m used to eating proper meals three times a day along with regular tea, snack and fruit breaks. But my life was different when I was traveling. Sometimes, my food was only fruits or snacks or tea or biscuits. If you are in such a situation, eat what is available. You might be sick of eating boiled rice, dal – bhat, peanut butter sandwiches etc., but realise how lucky you are considering there are so many who go without food for so many days.
It is okay to make mistakes. Of course, I know I have blundered many a times. In my knowledge, I ate half of an egg sandwich in Barcelona and relished Oyster Sauce thinking it was Chilli sauce in Thailand, and there would be many other times I would have eaten something without knowing the actual contents. If that happens to you, just accept and move on! Or else you will suffer like a traveler I met in Thailand who refused to eat anything from the street because she was paranoid about eating some meat by mistake. She was eating at an expensive restaurant all the time and had to cut short on her trip.
In the end, I would like…
to advise you to never go starving in the hope of finding a proper place to eat. It is better to eat something (even an unloved snack) than going long hours without eating. And if you become friends with fruits, you will never have to really worry about food again.
If you have any thoughts, advice or tips, please do leave a comment. And don’t forget to share this post with your vegetarian / vegan friends!