(Or: How Not to be a Pain in the Butt)
I’m a vegetarian and a foodie (no, it is not an oxymoron). Sadly for me, I’m also drawn to those cold, Arctic places where meat is a way of life – and I know how rude it can be to refuse your host’s food. Here are some things I’ve learned while traveling as a vegetarian:
1. Most places will not cater to you.
Most people won’t even understand you, especially in poor countries. In places where many people wonder how they’re going to obtain their next meal, animal welfare is not at the forefront of most people’s minds. In places where good meat is the best and nutritious – and perhaps rarest – thing someone could offer you, they will think you’re crazy for refusing.
2. You need to learn some of the language before you can safely eat anything.
Most people can get by with menu pictures and a few crude gestures, but as a vegetarian you don’t want to eat the special of the day, whatever it is. You have to figure out which foods are always safe, which foods are usually safe, and what foods are made of meat. Bonus points if you know how to explain that you don’t eat meat, and double bonus points for knowing how to say “meat on the side.” Without this skill, you may end up like me, eating a healthy dose of horse meat because I couldn’t read the ingredient list. (They were called “vegetable spring rolls,” how could I have known?) If you are traveling in one region, your guide book or some internet research will probably be enough. If you are going on a round-the-world trip, see if this book appeals to you.
2. You might be seen as rude.
I spent a semester at a Buddhist studies program in Japan. We lived in a temple and were told from the very first day that we weren’t to waste any food – we must finish anything that we took, and leaving a single grain of rice was unacceptable. At the end of our meals, we would pour hot water or tea into our bowls and swish it around and then lap up the food remnants. This was deeply ingrained in us, and I faced a genuine dilemma when, after being assured that the soup was vegetarian, I tasted fish. I struggled to remain polite but I knew that I would look like a real jerk if I simply left it to sit there. Luckily, a friend sneakily took my bowl and finished it off for me, but another vegetarian made a big show about not eating it. I understand where she was coming from. The aversion to meat can be very deep, but be aware that some of your hosts may not be as generous in their assessment of the situation.
3. If you can, you might need to compromise a bit.
Unless you’re willing to entirely self-cater, you might need to accept the possibility that some animal products will creep into your meal. I’ve been fed all sorts of things that I’d prefer not to think about, and I’ve unknowingly eaten more than my fair share of horse, goat, and whale. If you don’t speak the local language, know that there is a very real possibility that this could happen to you. There might also be occasions when you’ll want to just try to put it out of your mind – I know this isn’t possible for all of us, but if you can eat that delicious French cheese without thinking about the animal enzymes in it, you’re probably better off maintaining that sweet, blissful ignorance.
4. You might want to plan your trip dates accordingly.
During the first half of my trip to Thailand, the vegetarian festival was going on, and it was a complete dream. When that ended, though, I was left trying to explain in an unfamiliar language that pescatarians eat fish, but I don’t. If you’re flexible in your travel times, you might have better luck going at certain times of year – you’ll be shit out of luck during a Mongolian winter, for instance, but if you eat dairy products, you might be able to fare alright in the summer. Most Eastern Orthodox countries love meat but observe a period of mandatory veganism (although they often seem to replace meat with MSG covered rice).
5. But there are plenty of places where you’ll be in heaven.
Everyone knows that India is a vegetarian’s paradise, but I’ve had surprising luck in some other places too. After a few months in beef-loving Argentina (a place where people add beef fat to their ice cream, just to add insult to injury), I was on Cloud 9 in Peru (and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia). Both places have cuisines which heavily feature quinoa, a fantastic source of vegan protein. I had my fill in Peru on some of the tastiest vegetables and ripest avocados I’ve had anywhere. You can’t walk a block in Cusco without stumbling upon a fresh juice stand, and there’s surprisingly delicious Indian food, too.
Turkey is another country I was dreading based on what people told me about the cuisine. What they didn’t tell me, though, is that mezze is sublime and nearly always vegetarian and served everywhere. Mezze is technically an appetizer plate, usually consisting of hummus, fresh bread, yogurt sauce, chili paste, dolmas, beans, and tomato salad. It’s absolutely perfect, and after eating it, I was never hungry for a main course, anyways.
In Israel, any kosher dairy place will be suitable for you if you’re ovo-lacto, but even the meat-centric places will probably have some delicious falafel. And – my apologies to all my Floridian friends – Mediterranean oranges are easily the most delicious in the world.
Japan can be tricky for vegetarians, but it isn’t impossible, and when you succeed, you’ll be treated to some of the most heavenly meals of your life. Your biggest issue will be avoiding fish sauce, but you should be fine eating many of the (delicious) convenient store foods available to you. Buddhist temples will also be great sources for finding veggie meals, and both Kyoto and Tokyo are home to some world-class vegetarian restaurants.
Where are your favorite and most challenging destinations as a vegetarian travel? Please share your with us tips below.