"Isn't it hard being a vegetarian here?!?!?!!!" I've been living in Colombia for a year now as a (relatively strict) non-meat-eater, and I can't count the number of times I've been asked this, both by local acquaintances and friends back at home. My fellow vegetarians out there know the look - the shock that you manage to make it through the day or have any muscles whatsoever without the help of meat. While I'm sure that I'm missing out on a few tasty morsels by banning four-legged beast from my menu, the truth is that it's not much more difficult than it is at home.
Vegetarians, vegans and other people with dietary restrictions often get nervous about traveling because of the what-ifs. What if there's no food for me to eat? What if I can't be healthy while traveling? What if I miss out on all the local delicacies? While veggie-ism certainly does bar you from a few spots, it's not the kiss of travel death. Sure, you won't be visiting a Brazilian steakhouse anytime soon, but nobody's keeping you out of the bakeries.
In my time living in South America and traveling elsewhere, I've learned a few tips for veggie journeyers: buy juice wherever you can find it, befriend the closest falafel stand and remember pizza is not always your friend (curse you, horrible Hawaiian pizza!). Some of these tricks are better figured out on your own, but to ease any remaining travel concerns, here are a few more tips for my kale-munching, globe-trotting brethren out there:
- Cook for yourself. Sure, trying new food is half the excitement of traveling, but sometimes you'll be stranded somewhere that seems to be filled with nothing but burgers and various kinds of fried meat on a stick. Make time to sample the local flavors, but often you'll be able to eat better (and healthier) by making your own meals. Your stomach and your wallet will thank you!
- Savor street food. Yes, a lot of it involves the aforementioned fried meat on a stick, but there's plenty of veggie-friendly street food across the globe, from grilled corn-on-the-cob in Colombia, savory veggie dosas in India, cheesy pupusas in El Salvador or the trusty fallback, Lebanese falafel (now appearing in many other cities across the world!).
- Eat all the fruit you (safely) can. Fruit will always be vegetarian; no need to pester your local vendor with detailed questions about ingredients. Find a stand of golden mangos or ripe avocados and you're set for snack time. Remember, though, fruit can sometimes bring unwanted bacterial visitors, so make sure it's washed or peeled, and then chomp away to your heart's content!
- Be a city slicker. Getting away from it all is great, but take advantage of major cities while you're there. Big cities are most likely to have vegetarian restaurants or at least a much wider range of options. Seek out tasty veggie plates while you have a chance, before you end up in a small town with two steakhouses and one burger joint. Here's a helpful list of the world's most veggie-friendly cities (hint: it's definitely not Ulaan Baatar.
- Follow your stomach. If your itinerary is flexible, why not plan your travel with an eye toward food? There are tons of countries with awesome veggie-friendly cuisine, so check out your options in places like Thailand, Italy or the Middle East.
- Avoid fast food joints. First of all, they're gross. Second, you can get that food at home anyways. Third, did you really travel halfway across the world to eat a McDonald's salad? I didn't think so.
- Get connected. There are tons of great resources online for and from fellow veggie travelers. Before and during your trip, make use of sites and databases like Happy Cow, TripAdvisor, Chowhound, guidebook forums, Eat Your World or local food blogs for the cities/countries you'll be visiting. The best people to ask about traveling vegetarian are those who have already done it!
- Pack like a squirrel. Though you're probably already stressed enough about space/weight constraints, it might not be a bad idea to pack a few granola bars, bags of trail mix, nuts or other favorite protein-laden snacks. Yes, it takes up space, but many countries don't have these products or sell them at way inflated prices. When you need that energy boost after 18 hours on a bus, you'll be glad you have them.
- Snack, don't binge. I'm not necessarily advocating giving up the 3-square-meals system entirely, but modifying it a bit will make your traveling a little less hungry. While many meals tend to center around meat, it's easy as pie to find meat-free snacks and small plates. Snacking throughout the day ensures you get enough nutrients and calories and get to sample some local food without eating around a giant steak.
- Be smart! You may not be taking your smartphone along with you (hey, nobody likes getting robbed), but if you do choose to bring it, it can be a great tool. Many cities have wifi hotspots where you can check apps like Veggie Passport, VegOut, Eat the World, and more. Here are a few more useful apps (both food-related and not) to use on your travels.
- Hit the books. Use all that time sitting on various forms of transportation to brush up on your food vocabulary and learn how to describe your eating restrictions in the local language. A tip: don't just say "I'm a vegetarian" - in some places it's a totally foreign concept, while other cultures interpret "vegetarian" to mean "no red meat." To avoid confusion, be specific. Tell your server "no beef/chicken/fish/pork/eggs/dairy/whatever," and hope they don't think you're crazy. If you're just starting out, here are tips for picking up a new language.
- Do your homework. Before you arrive, look up a few good vegetarian food options for that country or region so you know what to request when eating out. It'll save you a lot of time and trouble if you know to request lentil soup before a menu even hits the table.
- Go on the hunt. Look up some vegetarian spots before you arrive, and then make it your mission to find them. This will save you lots of time wandering around looking for a restaurant with decent options, and it can be like a fun foodie scavenger hunt!
- Make foodie friends. Sites like Couchsurfing have groups for vegetarians in various cities, or you can find vegetarian societies like Revolucion de la Cuchara (site in Spanish) in your local spot. Ask these locals where to find the good stuff, or make a lunch date for them to introduce you to their city and teach you how to eat like a local. You can kill two (soy) birds with one stone: find delicious food and make some new friends!
- Cool it down. Stay at places (hostels, hotels, apartments) with refrigerators to keep your food, instead of always relying on restaurants. This way you can take home leftovers if you manage to have any, and you have somewhere to store all that food you'll be cooking (don't forget #1)!
- Explore local markets, not just supermarkets. Markets are the best way to see all of the exotic, delicious food your current locale has to offer - much of it fruits, veggies, grains and spices! It'll give you a good sense of available options, let you do some dinner shopping and provide some enviable photo ops.
- Be a tourist. Accept that you may have to visit the more touristy sections of town. Tourists are picky, and cities with tourist/business districts know that. You're most likely to find foreign fare or vegetarian-friendly restaurants in places with a higher number of foreigners or vegetarians. Stands to reason, right? These are sometimes going to be the busier or more expensive sections of town, but sometimes a room filled with t-shirts and fanny packs is the price to pay for a meatless dinner.
- Don't fear the repeat. If you find a great place with tons of veggie offerings, you'll be better off hitting it up for dinner two nights in a row than wandering all over town trying to find somewhere else that serves a garbanzo bean main course.
- Carry spices, seasonings or delicious, magical hot sauce. This really goes for any traveler, not just the meat-free among us (seriously, what can't be improved by adding hot sauce?). Try as you may, sometimes you're just going to end up with a bland lettuce-and-tomato sandwich, or the dreaded plate of potatoes, plantains and rice. Cumin and hot sauce won't magically make tofu appear, but they can make what you're eating a lot more palatable, at least enough to hold you over until you locate the nearest juice stand.
- Blame it on allergies or religion. All of us have our own reasons for eating vegetarian/vegan, whether it's wanting to save the baby animals, concern for the environment or just a seriously grossed-out aversion to eating things with faces. Whatever your reason, chances are it's not going to translate well (linguistically or culturally) wherever you're going. Instead of accidentally insulting people's lifestyles or getting caught in an argument you don't have the language skills to win, it's better for everyone concerned to give them an explanation they'll understand.
- Learn to love sides. Mains in most places are meat-based, so a typical (read: cheap) lunch or dinner will probably involve some critter. But don't give up on the food! Most lunches or dinners also come with other food, like sides of vegetables, soups, grains or beans. It's not a complete meal, but you can get a decent amount of food from sticking with side dishes. Maybe you can even guilt-trip your meat-eating travel buddies into letting you eat theirs.
- Seek out soups. Yes, lots of them have meat or beef broth, but there will almost always be some vegetable-based soups wherever you are. Cream soups (tomato, mushroom, etc) show up more often than you think, and you can find delicious local concoctions like minestrone in Italy, noodles in Japan and even quinoa in Peru. Hearty and filling soups will keep you going for hours, so make sure not to skip over the first part of the menu.
- Load up on breakfast. They say it's the most important meal of the day - don't let its vegetarian bounty go to waste. Yes, plenty of countries include sausage or ham in their breakfast feasts, but the basics of the meal (bread, fruit, yogurt, porridges, eggs, cereal, rice and beans if you're in Central America) don't come from any creatures. Spicy Indian masala dosas, hearty Egyptian ful or sweet Belgian waffles will all fill you up without even a hint of that tempting bacon smell. Check out this mouth-watering list of global breakfasts for even more tempting ideas!
- Read ingredients. Vegetarian food will not always be labeled as such - a bag of dried pinto beans, for example, will not have "Vegetarian!" stamped on the outside, although you and I both know they are. These products aren't trying to cater to our market, so you're going to have the do the work to figure it out. This can be challenging if you don't read the language, but try to learn some recognizable words. Think of it like culinary Russian roulette, but less scary.
- Break the mold. If you're stuck in a meat-filled wasteland, don't tie yourself to the idea of "typical" food. It's great if it works, but sometimes it's just not your best option. If you can, look for types of restaurants that will have veggie-friendly food. Indian, Lebanese and Italian are usually safe bets. Obviously, this strategy will work better in major cities, but once you head out into the countryside, you're on your own anyway.
Eating vegetarian is going to be easier in some regions than others. Odds are, unless you stick to the hipster neighborhoods of big cities (and if that's the case, why not just go to Brooklyn?), you're going to be the only vegetarian within a mile radius. You can't expect special treatment, or even understanding of your diet restrictions, but flexibility is part of the travel experience.
Before you go, though, it is especially helpful to consider just how strict you are about your eating, and if you're willing to make allowances in special circumstances - if a local friend or family cooks you dinner, for example. This is a personal decision, of course, and depends on your motivations for being vegetarian, but it really does help to know how you might react to a well-meaning friend serving you a heaping plate of barbecued chicken.
It may seem like a big undertaking, but with increased travel and globalization, you're probably not the first vegetarian to visit that city. The others before you survived, and so will you. If you're willing to make the extra effort to find good dishes or spots, you'll have just as rewarding and delicious an experience as the meat-eaters out there - and probably less food poisoning. Bon appetit!