Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Eating shoots and leaves: The art of travelling as a vegetarian

Survival tips from a seasoned veggie wanderer

Yet again, I found myself acting out the role of a human rabbit, poking wretchedly at my plate of wilting raw vegetables. The others in my group were tucking gleefully into their succulent cuts of meat. I could see they were trying to sympathize with my plight between mouthfuls, also trying not to laugh as the wait staff substituted my plate of raw veggies (first course) for a plate of boiled veggies (main course).

I was part of a visiting media group, and the restaurants had been notified in advance of my vegetarian status. But this was France, where they took their meat seriously, so perhaps I should have known better than to expect actual food.

This has happened to me in the past in other countries—Japan immediately coming to mind. At that time, when I was a travel rookie, I had found it easy to overlook it, assuming that something had got lost in translation (and if that doesn’t happen in Tokyo, where will it?).

Towards the end of last year, Lonely Planet had declared vegetarian and vegan travel as one of the top travel trends for 2018. It does not, however, make it any easier for those travellers among us who choose to shun meat and seafood. 

Will I get anything to eat? Do I need to carry food with me so I will not starve? What if there is some meat in every dish I find? 

If you are vegetarian and an avid traveller, you know these questions. While travel for vegetarians is easier than before, with more Westerners adopting it as a lifestyle choice, it definitely comes with its challenges.

The easiest way to reduce the stress of vegetarian travel is to approach it with the knowledge that wherever you go, people eat much of the things you do—vegetables, grains and cereals, and if you are not vegan, dairy products. Although spontaneity and serendipity are at the heart of a great travel experience, a little planning ahead never hurts. 

Shivya Nath was born in a “Punjabi butter chicken-relishing family and raised eating everything". She adopted vegetarianism, and more recently veganism, as an ethical lifestyle choice, and says that once the basic research is in place, it is not that difficult to figure out where and what to eat.

Erin McNeaney, one half of the popular Never Ending Voyage says much the same thing, “Planning in advance makes travelling as a vegetarian much easier. I recommend always packing snacks (nuts, dried fruit, granola bars and so on) in case you struggle to find something to eat, especially on days when you are on the move." 

Here are a few tips, gained from my own travels over 12 years and 42 countries as a vegetarian.

Do your homework

The simplest thing to do when you begin to plan your trip is to befriend the Internet. I travel a lot on work and leisure and I have found myself having great vegetarian food in countries as varied as Cambodia and the Czech Republic. No, I am not talking about carrying theplas and khakras to eat in the hotel room.

A bit of research on websites like trusty old TripAdvisor or apps like Happy Cow (and what a delightful image that name evokes!) and Vanilla Bean (take a moment to enjoy that fragrance) makes the holiday more relaxed and fun, leads to not having to constantly forage for vegetarian food or poke suspiciously at the food on your plate.

As Nath puts it, “Use an app like Happy Cow to map out vegan-friendly places near you, check the country’s vegan hashtag on Instagram and post on its vegan Facebook group, and you’ll be sure to find some delightful, cruelty-free food."

“I like to create a custom Google Map with the places I want to visit as well as restaurants to try, so I can combine sightseeing with nearby restaurants," says McNeaney.

Use social media

Seek out the brave men and women who are travelling around the world as vegetarians/vegans, and blogging about it. Going through their adventures (and advice) will help you prepare yourself for what to expect and what to do. 

Put social media to good use and ask your contacts on Twitter or Facebook for recommendations before you travel. Locals are usually more than happy to suggest their personal favourites and their city’s hidden secrets.

There are several support groups for travellers (who, you will agree, need all the support they can get) and discussion forums on websites like Lonely Planet, Fodors and Frommers. 

There are also country/region specific websites. For instance, Walter Stanish has a great website on being vegetarian in China and he says in an interview, “Generally you find a single vegetarian restaurant attached to larger Buddhist temples throughout China." 

Similarly for paella-loving Spain, try the Spain expert, which gives not just a list of health stores and fresh food markets but also names of vegetarian and vegan tapas. The Nomadic Vegan written by Wendy Werneth is another great blog with vegetarian options from destinations ranging from Congo to Peru, via Indonesia and Portugal. 

Explain your vegetarianism clearly

Often, it might not be enough just to say, “I am vegetarian" (even in the local language). You need to clearly spell out that you do not want meat or seafood in any form, since in places where any of them is staple food, it could culturally be considered vegetarian. 

For instance, all over East and South-East Asia, fish sauce or bits of pork are added even to “vegetarian" dishes, in the belief that they impart that essential dash of flavour. Several parts of South America treat beef this way. In Europe, it is essential to watch out for ham.

Find a suitable tour company 

Or, as with Alice, begin at the beginning and plan your trip with the help of companies who specialize in planning travel for vegetarians. Veg Voyages is one such company that conducts tours to South-East Asia. You may empathize with what they say on their website: “Why do people have such a hard time understanding that vegetarians and vegans like to eat too?" 

For other countries that can prove tough for vegetarians, there are services like Green Earth Travel that say, “You aren’t required to be vegan to enjoy these tailored tours, but you may change your lifestyle once you go." 

Given the increasing popularity of vegetarian and vegan travel, there are plenty more such options cropping up, especially in the West: Veg Jaunts and Journeys includes trips to vegan festivals and animal sanctuaries around the world (and also helps travellers plan their own tours), while Vegan Travel Club throws in the occasional cooking lesson in places like Italy, where learning to make the perfect pasta is part of the ultimate travel experience.

Stay where you can cook 

If you are planning to stay anywhere for more than three days, it is best to find accommodation that will provide space to cook. It could be a hostel (if you want to travel cheap) or a Couchsurfing apartment. 

In these cases, you could find your host or co-travellers suggesting places they know or have found. Another great option is to rent an apartment (or a part of it) such that you are based in one city and travelling around (think AirBnB). 

Malini Gowrishankar, founder of F5Escapes, a travel planning company for women travellers, is a fan of AirBnB stays for various reasons. “When I was backpacking in Europe a few years ago, I raided supermarkets and farmers markets and stocked up on groceries, so that I could rustle up a few quick meals in the kitchen."

“I also loved the conversations with other travellers in the shared kitchens and the dining table—they turned out to be amazing and an important part of the immersive experience of travel," she adds.

Find the fresh food markets 

This will work if you need ingredients for cooking at your hostel or apartment or if you just need to pick up things to toss together for a salad or sandwich. I found one almost everywhere in Europe. 

In Vienna, I shopped at the Naschmarkt and carried food to my apartment nearby after long days of walking and in Avignon in Provence, I put together a picnic lunch of cold pasta and vegetables with cheese right at the market and ate it by the Pont du Avignon bridge in the mellow spring sunshine. 

As Gowrishankar says, “Fruit and vegetables are abundantly available everywhere, so look out for fresh produce and make them your best friends."

Be ready to experiment

Finally, as a vegetarian traveller, be prepared to make some compromises—you may have to eat the same dish or visit the same restaurant more than once. Or you may have to experiment with ingredients you may not choose at home, like varieties of mushroom, tofu and cheese. 

One of Prague’s famous dishes is fried cheese, while in countries like France and Italy, varieties of mushroom are worth a king’s ransom and the intrigue over truffle hunts during season take on the quality of spy thrillers. 

A last bit of advice: Food is an intrinsic part of the travel experience, and only when you have eaten where and what the locals do, have you really left home. So, go local when possible. Carry those granola bars and other comfort food with you but save them only for desperate situations. 

Finally…

The International Vegetarian Union has, among other things, translations for “I am vegetarian" in several languages and also some suggestions for meat-free dishes in different countries. 

Vegetarian heaven and hell

While this Lonely Planet article is a good indicator of vegetarian food choices in the world, these are my personal recommendations:

Some Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Poland, Germany, most South American countries and parts of Central and East Asia are the toughest for vegetarians. In such places, it is best to go armed with the phrase for “no meat and seafood" and stick to garden salads and local vegetable stews (and remember, the world loves potatoes just as much as you do). 

As for vegetarian heaven, look no further than Jordan, Israel and Turkey (hummus, babaganoush and other mezze, falafels and marinated, cooked vegetables). Egypt has all those and ful medames (mashed fava beans flavoured with garlic, olive oil and seasoning) and koshary (rice, lentils, macaroni and chickpeas with a tomato sauce, topped with fried onion and garlic). 

In Europe, it is undisputedly Italy with its salads, pastas, soft focaccia breads, antipasti like olives and artichokes and thin crust pizza. Greece offers many delights such as dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs), spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese in a phylo cover) and horiatiki (Greek salad). 

Mexican food also has several options—enchiladas, tacos, chalupas, quesadillas and the ever popular nachos (but be warned, while these dishes are popular in India, meatless versions are tough to find in Mexico or South America). In most parts of the UK and the US, vegetarian food is never a problem.

Charukesi Ramadurai’s life mantra goes ‘travel, write, drink filter kapi; rinse, repeat’.

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