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Tips for Eating Vegetarian & Vegan Food When Traveling

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!

Of course, it is vegetarian. See all the greens, cabbage and horse. Of course, Horse is vegetarian. LOL
Of course, it is vegetarian. See all the greens, cabbage and horse. Of course, Horse is vegetarian. LOL

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
đồ chay in Vietnam
đồ chay – Buddhist vegetarian food in Vietnam

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.

Hostel Kitchens are a fun place! The picture on right is the Tomato Noodles I cooked for a meal.
Hostel Kitchens are a fun place! The picture on the right is the Tomato Noodles I cooked for a meal.

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.

When in doubt, try finding a Mexican, Asian, Italian, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern place to eat.

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.

Veg Moussaka
Moussaka made with Eggplant

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.

What a lucky discovery!! A full course vegan meal costs 5$ at Phuong Mai Art & Cafe, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
What a lucky discovery!! I got a full course vegan meal for 6$, right in the center of Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

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.

Make snack your friend!
Make snacks your friend!

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!

22 thoughts on “Tips for Eating Vegetarian & Vegan Food When Traveling

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Even i too make many mistake while eating. But accepting it make good. I too agree with different definition of vegan across globe. People see with surprise if i say i am vegan. But really fruits are real friend in any traveling

  2. Whenever i read your blog, a part of me also becomes a gypsy along with you, travelling along relishing all cuisines, like being drenched in it.
    More Power to you.

  3. All four and five star hotels seem to have some vegetarians dishes. Same for air conditioned restaurants, which tend to be a bit more aware.

  4. Here is one tip stick with it! Here is some ideas1.)Don’t over complicate it you can have a PB J scwindah on wheat bread for extra protein and a quick meal (8grams protein for bread 7grams protein for peanut butter)2.)Use old ideas with a new twistLike a veggie/fruit shiskabob- same thing except for with fruit or veggies you can dip the veggies in ranch (if you dont eat milk or eggs try cucumber ranch) and fruit can be dipped in yogurt or PB 3.)But if you want a quick spaghetti meal or something with zchuchini in it or something you can definitly put quick meals in the microwave too if you eat cheese mac n cheese is quick and very high in protein (like stouffers has 30 grams of protien) 4.)By vegetarian cookbooks like The Vegetarian Teen a Recipe Book >Have fun with your new life its going to be worth it hih

  5. Leena, this is a treasure for fellow vegetarians who love travelling but miss out due to this crucial part of our life.
    I am living in Goa for the past year now and people feel sorry for me as I cannot try the local (non-veg) delicacies. In fact, it is the other way round. I have found culinary bliss here, even for vegetarians. I explored lots of restaurants and found really tasty veg dishes. All said, it cannot be compared with your feat as I am still in India where there is one definition of “Pure Veg”!
    Thanks for such an insightful article!

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