I have been travelling outside India often for about 5 years now and have lived in foie-gras-loving France, fish-famous Japan, and pork-crazy Thailand among others. My way to get to understand the culture of places I visit involves walking around the city, spending time with locals and experiencing the local cuisine.
I believe food is one of the most intimate ways to introduce yourself to where you are. Imagine yourself enjoying steaming-hot street food in Thailand, diving into a plate of fresh spaghetti in Italy or relishing tacos in Mexico. Exciting, right? Well, if you, like me, don’t consume milk, eggs, fish, seafood or any kind of meat, then things can be tricky. While the vegan and vegetarian movement are spreading across the world, in most places breakfast still centres on eggs and lunch/dinner centres on fish or meat, and even the idea of vegetarianism can be met with a blank confused look.
It doesn’t seem easy for vegetarians to stay healthy let alone enjoy local cuisine while travelling, particularly if you are on a backpacker’s budget. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. To be honest, I’ve rarely (in 5 years and a dozen of countries) had to sacrifice having a nice filling meal bursting with flavours. It’s easier than you think!
I understand that any one person’s approach to eating while traveling is unique to them, and might not work for everyone. But If you’re a devoted vegetarian or vegan and an avid traveler, here are some tips from my experience that may help to stay healthy and experience local food while traveling the world.
First and foremost – Don’t be apologetic about being vegan or vegetarian. When I moved to Paris in 2011, it was very intimidating for me to go out for a meal for first few weeks. I was the only vegetarian in my MBA class of 45 students. Also, I was not very fluent in French and the word ‘vegetarian’ didn’t have the same meaning as it did in India. Being ‘vegetarian’ in Paris meant that you only avoided red meat but are okay to consume eggs, seafood, fish, and chicken. I was very often given cold blank Parisian looks as if asking me “Why the f*** are you even here?” I was so overwhelmed, apologetic and shy about being a vegetarian that I started having my meals at my apartment and would only join my friends for coffee or drinks later in the day. Until came a point where I realised that I needed to do something about it. I researched a lot online, made a list of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the city, read restaurant menus in advance to figure out how I could alter dishes to suit my preferences. When going out for lunch/dinner with friends, I started taking the lead for organising places so I could book us all at a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. Eventually, both – my friends and I – were comfortable with me being vegetarian.
Know your bending point (if there is any). I was raised as a 100% vegetarian. In my late twenties, I made a personal choice to be 90% Vegan. The other 10% of me is reserved for occasions, where I just need to eat and I find something I can “bend” with. So, during such times, I bend with food products made from dairy such as buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, bread/baked delicacies (which may have butter, cream or milk in the cooking batter). It’s something I try to be flexible with when travelling in places I know I don’t have the luxuries of being a vegan. Many of us follow specific dietary regimen out of personal beliefs (such as religion, health, animal care); whatever your pact with veganism/vegetarianism is, respect it and prepare accordingly for your travels.
Research, Research, Research before you travel (and if possible even before you make your bookings) so you have a smooth transition when you arrive at your destination. The best thing you can do when you travel is to be prepared. When I travel I usually look up good vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the city I’m going to. I also keep ready a list of eateries that serve cuisines that are plant-based friendly such as Indian, Italian, Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern. I am a (black) coffee person so I also search for good local cafes in the city where I can indulge in people-watching while enjoying a good brew. (Yes, I know there are many Starbucks at most places but I don’t like Starbucks coffee at all. There, I said it.) Then I create a Google Map with good options marked on the city map, so I’ll have places to choose from on the go. I also try to book my stay nearby these places if it’s convenient and fits my overall travel plan. I usually compile the list from a combination of open search results on google (blogs, articles, magazines, reviews etc.), tripadvisor.com (apply the filter ‘vegetarian-friendly’ under dietary restriction) and happycow.net.
Don’t depend on the translation of the phrase “I am vegetarian”. The word vegetarian is not standard and has a different meaning in different countries. It can mean anything from ‘only lettuce’ to ‘no meat’ to ‘no red meat’. Eggs, fish, and seafood are considered vegetarian in some countries. I’d recommend learning the translation of phrases such as ‘no eggs, no fish, no seafood, no meat, no pork, no beef, no lamb’, ‘add lots of vegetables’ to emphasise in a way it is clear. Learn the translation of some basic vegetable names that are available locally and also food items such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, soya, paneer etc.
Fresh Fruits, Vegetables, Nuts and Seeds. I really look forward to this one! It’s one of my favourite things to do when travelling. Every place has local grocery stores, natural food stores, supermarkets or farmer markets. Visit them often during your stay to keep fresh fruits, veggies and other healthy snacks on hand. You can also store them in the mini-fridge available in your hotel room. On a recent trip to Thailand, I heartily grazed on the amazing spread of exotic and colourful fruits such as mangosteen, half-ripe mango, baby pineapple, guava, custard apple, longan, coconut water & meat, and watermelon sold by hawkers on the streets in very clean and hygienic food carts.
Be creative and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most restaurants do have some vegetarian options, but if you don’t see something on the menu, make a kind request. Check to see if the chef has a vegetarian recommendation. Find an item on the menu that looks particularly interesting to you and ask for a meat-free version with lots of vegetable(s). You can also choose to order several starters and a dessert if there is no interesting vegetarian main meal. Almost every restaurant will be flexible with their menus but always confirm that they can change something for you before you sit down. There are times when I desire to dine at some not-so-vegetarian-friendly restaurants just for the experience. I call these restaurants ahead of time and ask if some vegetarian food can be prepared. I am yet to get a ‘no’ as an answer.
Carry backpack supplies. This one is important. Whether you’re traveling by airplane, boat, ferry, car, bike or any other mode of transportation, always pack a meal or two and some snacks. Granola bars, protein powder or other essentials that may be hard to find once you arrive at your destination. Don’t rely too much on the food served on airplanes (especially on the domestic flights), as most of the time they are not plant-based or healthy options. In Thailand, on certain domestic flights, I asked for a “Hindu” meal and was served chicken one time and eggs at another time.
Keep something familiar. I don’t know about you but there always comes a point in some of my travels where I get a little bit homesick (it’s pretty short-lived). And I have found that one of the immediate ways to overcome homesickness is to find somewhere, someone or something familiar during that time. It is comforting and helps you relax. To taste something that reminds me of home, I mostly head to an Indian restaurant in the city I am visiting for a quick snack or a meal. I also sometimes keep handy a small case of tea masala to add to my tea (when good coffee is not available). My parents (who are also vegetarians and don’t eat garlic) when travel outside India carry a handbag with a selection of small travel packets of Indian snacks.
Cook your own meal. I personally don’t do this often. But it’s a great fun option if you are staying at a place for a longer-than-usual duration or have very specific dietary requirements. A kitchen or even a hot plate with pots and pans will enable you to prepare homemade meals so search for hotel rooms with a kitchenette, hostels with kitchen facilities, studios or kitchenette suites. When my family visited me in Paris, we had a great time shopping for ingredients and experimenting with recipes in the kitchen every other day during the trip. You can also look up for some cooking classes in the city.
I believe that learning to adapt and embracing the culture is part of the experience of travel and through the food, we are literally able to taste another culture. We are introduced to new ways of appreciating food, and new customs of how to eat. It is essential to gaining a deeper appreciation of a place and its people for a truly immersive experience.
So, eat well and keep travelling!
If you’d like to share your tips, findings, advice or got questions, leave a comment!