Traveling as a Vegetarian

 (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:

Eat me!

Welcome to Vegetable Heaven

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.

Dinner in the temple

These are the monks I ate with. You don’t want to mess with the monks.

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.

Hey baby, want to try a taste of my meat cheese?

Okay, we might be able to overlook the rennet, but there are chunks of meat floating in this Argentine cheese!

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.

Yum yum yum

An old woman makes vegetarian gözleme in Turkey

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.

24 Comments

  1. Ramsey says:

    Hi,
    I’ve only been a vegan for a few months but I’ve traveled a lot as vegetarian the last 12 years, including living 1 year in Mexico, where they were convinced I wasn’t really experiencing their culture because I didn’t eat the meat dishes. Tropical environments are so easy! Fruit! Fruit! Fruit!
    The greatest thing about couchsurfing.org (that’s where I found your blog) is that you can stay in somebody’s home where you can most often cook for yourself and your host. I love cooking and I always offer to cook for my hosts to avoid difficulties and misunderstandings.
    Otherwise I find it wise to always carry a lot of simple snacks with you like carrots, cashews, etc. If you snack on fruits and nuts all day you don’t mind skipping a meal as much when there’s no vegetarian or vegan option.
    Finally, I don’t feel ashamed to refuse food from people. I feel it is fair to expect them to accept my choices as much as I accept theirs. People seem to be concerned that I’m missing out on something when I don’t eat meat and dairy, so It’s not like I’m depriving them of something.
    I look forward to the coming adventures traveling as a vegan!
    Btw, I see you’re located in the bay area. I’ll be visiting family in Santa Rosa soon. Are there any interesting vegan events taking place in the Bay Area in September?

    • Lehua says:

      Thanks Ramsey. I love the tropics for just that reason. Ahhh, the avocados. They just grow on trees there!

      It seems like there is a pretty fair number of hosts around the world who are vegetarian, so that helps a lot. And I think even CS hosts who are omnivores are at least more likely to be understanding or to have had other guests who are vegetarians/vegans.

      I’m sorry I can’t help you with events. I haven’t looked that far ahead because I’m leaving the bay area on the 1st, and going to ICELAND to work on a horse farm. But the area is sooooooo vegetarian/vegan friendly. Probably the friendliest place in the country, and maybe in the world. Do you go there often?

  2. Eduardo says:

    Ciao, I think the food is union between people of course. So, it is difficult to understand for a person (who eats meat), you do not want to eat. I understand. but I’m vegan for many years and I always try to explain why I do not eat meat. I usually explain before cooking and I never found it difficult to share my choice. when you do not agree, I gently, not offend anyone, I eat what I can (bread, fruit …) and then when lunch is finished, I get thanked. Different cultures scared, I think. I smile and then I take my way ….
    I’m not vegan only for animals, but for the world that we live. Vegan is important for me, for my friends and animals, this is what I think. this is my life and I can be different every day, everything is natural.
    good trip

    • Lehua says:

      Sometimes the places where it is hardest to explain your eating habits, it is also easiest to get really good ingredients for making your own food: fresh bread, local fruit, everything from small farms. And the more we travel, the most those cultures that are surprised will get used to it and accept it as a rational choice.

  3. erik says:

    interesting entry.

    FYI, the vegan passport exists, by which you can make yourself understood in roughly 95% of the world that you are (even) vegan and don’t eat all animal related products.

    indeed is a challenge, because even if the person cooking for you understand that you do not eat meat, they do not see anything wrong in making a beef soup, taking the chunk of meat and serving it, innocently.

    I’m just surprised to hear that Japan was a difficult country, I thought it was one of the easiest; besides I think there is a fair share of population which is vegan due to religious beliefs (not sure of this last statement)

    I hope vietnam, cambodia and thailandia are not too tough for even die-hard vegans, but yeah, I know already unwanted stuff will go down my throat :(

  4. Lehua says:

    Wow Erik, I just looked up this vegan passport, and it is so cool! I didn’t know such a thing existed! So cool. (everyone else, it is here: http://www.vegetarianguides.co.uk/products/veganpassport.shtml)

    Raphaela will have to answer you on the part about Japan, she was the one who went there. I think part of why it was so hard is because she lived in an non-vegetarian monastery for most of the three months, and cooking for picky foreigners wasn’t their main priority. She can answer you better, though

  5. Raphaela says:

    Hi Erik, thanks for the input! That’s super helpful.

    I found that Japanese people for the most part didn’t really understand vegetarianism, and I would find bonito on everything! I lived in a temple there, and while we mainly ate vegetarian, it was also strongly instilled in us to eat what we were offered – when townspeople would bring the temple gifts of fish or meat, they were graciously accepted and provided, so I definitely had trouble there.

    By the way, I’m in Iceland now and I’m having that issue with beef stock in the soup. Also with vegetarian food that is cooked with/touching meat. It’s hard not to be a pain in the butt, but I’ve found that most people are understanding once you tell them what you can and can’t eat. Except the ladies in New Zealand who exasperatedly told me to just “scrape off the tuna!” from a tuna sandwich ;)

  6. Meryn says:

    Pacific islands were the hardest place to be vego I’ve been to. Harder than France, Japan, Thailand, Eastern Europe…

    Fish, pig and chicken are staples, and even though it’s possible to explain that you are vegetarian, and that means no animal, people would often just shrug and say “we don’t have that” – that means we are not going to try because as far as we’re concerned there’s absolutely no possibility of food without meat.

    The only ways to eat vego seemed to be
    1: go to a market and prepare yourself – this means either camping or apartment accommodation.
    2: go to a very expensve international hotel – usually somewhere where cruise ships dock.

  7. Raphaela says:

    Meryn, thanks for the input, those are really helpful tips! I haven’t traveled around the Pacific Islands, but I spent a month in New Zealand 7 years ago, and I was surprised by how hard it was for me there.

    I’m planning a trip to Greenland next month, and I plan to stock up on supplies in Reykjavik (staples like peanut butter and pasta, maybe dried berries and spirulina) before I head out.

  8. Great job!

    I think You got most of points.

    When I travel to other countries I try to look for somebody that lives there or was there and simply ask them how to obtain veggie food in local markets or restaurants what are their names and prices.

    Mostly I cook for myself so it’s not big problem but I didn’t have an ocassion to travel to some distant countries much. In Europe it never been a problem (I find Czech Republic – mentioned in upper post as very veggie friendly country and full of delicious things to eat)

    Unless you don’t travel to some exotic country eating in restaurants won’t be a problem for lakto-ovo too as most of them servs international food like pizza, pastas and so on…

  9. Ninlaret says:

    I had lovely vegetarian food in Czech Republic as well; would be hard to don’t eat for a week. :P
    What I meant is that the traditional Czech food I came along, was always a big chunk of meat with knödels/potatoes.

    • Lehua says:

      Ninlaret, I was recently in the Czech Republic, and I see what you mean about the traditional czech. A lot of times I just ended up ordering appetizers and side dishes. But ever restaurant served good eggplant dip on bread, and I found a place that had mushroom goulash. Mostly I ended up eating falafels at the many many Turkish places there. But no complaints there, I love falafels.

  10. Ninlaret says:

    I don’t know if this is what you mean…

    But..

    *You can try to learn how to say you are a vegetarian and you don’t eat meat/fish, or write it down, in the language(s) of the country(ies) you are visiting.
    *Looking up restaurants and (popular) dishes before you actually visit the country can also help a lot (I did that before going on my last trip to meat-eaters Walhalla Czech Republic).
    *And I think local markets are great places to find your fresh fruits and vegetables for making your own dinners.

    I hope these is the kind of feedback you where hoping to get, otherwise I’m sorry, than I misunderstood your request. :)

  11. Raphaela says:

    Thanks for all the helpful tips and comments, everyone! I found traditional Czech food to be really really unfriendly to veggies – that said, some of the most scrumptious food of my life was obtained in Prague! They have some world-class vegetarian restaurants there.

    I’m going to Berlin soon – anywhere I really need to check out?

  12. esfand says:

    Come to Indonesia, its quite easy to find vegetarian food :) as long as you know name of the food in Indonesian. yeah, sometimes it really hard to find the veg food that we want, thats why sometimes i do bring my own kind of dry food while travel around another country, in case i cant find vegetarian food. this is a website link of some vegatarian restaurants around my ou country, who knows you’ll gonna need it someday :) http://www.vegetarian-guide.com/vegetarian-restaurants-indonesia

  13. That’s right about traditional eating in Czech or European countries. What I meant to say is that here in Poland (which is very close to Czech Republik) its hard to buy veggie food. Even if they are in big markets they are often products that pretend to be a meat alike (althought I don’t eat meat I don’t have enything against meat alikes as long as there is no animal suffering involved, but sometimes it’s just frustrating that only veggie food in stores pretends to be a meat), there is few of them and they are quite expensive. In Czech Republik even in small markets you will always find something veggie to eat, they are cheap and there are lots of them. They are sooo tasty and dont pretend to be a meat – just taste on their own. I like that and often go to shopping to Czech Republik :)

  14. Lehua says:

    Yuck. Why would someone who chooses not to eat meat want to eat something that tastes just the same. Plus it is always such a weird texture: slimy or chemically. I guess some people like it, but I’m not a big fan of the fake meat. (other than pepper tofurky, but that just tastes like pepper.)

  15. Ninaret says:

    I ate a lot of times in a place called Countrylife. They serve wonderful veggie foodz! Even if it looks like a sausage, it’s not! Also vegans can eat their fill here. I found Bohemian Bagel had a pretty good veggie bagel and I loved their chocolate muffin. I also visited a Medieval styled restaurant that served a great dish that involved a pancake and sauerkraut. Just awesome! So yeah, look in between the meatdishes and you will find it. But traditionally the Czechs like the meat! It’s just how it is.

    And nothing wrong with falafels and eggplant dips! :D

  16. That’s right about traditional eating in Czech or European countries. What I meant to say is that here in Poland (which is very close to Czech Republik) its not so easy to buy food specialy made for veggies (that excludes restaurants whose getting better year by year). You can find things like this in big markets and towns but they are often products that pretend to be a meat alike (althought I don’t eat meat I don’t have enything against meat alikes as long as there is no animal suffering involved, but sometimes it’s just frustrating that only veggie food in stores pretends to be a meat), there is few of them and they are quite expensive. In Czech Republik even in small markets you will always find something veggie to eat, they are cheap and there are lots of them. They are sooo tasty and dont pretend to be a meat – just taste on their own. I like that and often go to shopping to Czech Republik :)

  17. My reason is I like meat. I love the taste but I don’t like way it is produced. I don’t like animals to suffer for my apetite when I have lots of delicious things to eat. That’s why sometimes I look for same taste but without cruelty included.

    Although as I say I hate when ALL veggie products here in Poland pretend to be meat alike. Like there where no other delicious tastes…

    Back to topic – Im not sure if it was mentioned but sometimes we can be also suprised by dishes we seems to know for beeing veg like cheese or bread. In some countries they can ad animal fat to bread or pizza pastry. In some cheese in Poland the can still use animal renin (although mostly its BIO because it’s cheaper that way) and add gelatine to jelly gums or even yoghurts.

    Here in Poland sometimes they can add greaves to dumplings or potatos because that’s how they are serwed traditionally in here. Those are things worth mention when you going to trip to Poland :)

    [editor's note: for those in the US, greaves is salty, fried animal fat.]

  18. Tomos Burton says:

    Saying things like ”No it’s not an oxymoron” is not helpful. Why are you assuming that that will be the default response? You’re not aiming this at losers.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      This is the response we have received when we tell people that we don’t eat meat, especially in countries with meat-heavy cuisines or where meat is an aspirational food. Pretending people don’t think this way wont make it go away.

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