Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics

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The 5 Best Tropical Locales for Vegetarian Food

A concern many world travelers have as they embark into the tropics is, “will I be able to eat?” Dietary restrictions — vegetarian, Paleo, food allergies — can be a concern when you step into the unknown. As someone who has wandered through dozens of countries without eating meat, I’m here to tell you that vegetarian food is bountiful in the tropical belt of the country.

By undertaking some research, brushing up on local languages, and understanding a bit about the culinary diversities and histories of these tropical countries, you’re that much closer to fulfilling your quest for a stomach full of richly spiced, brilliantly flavorful vegetarian dishes that have been mastered into perfection. You can search for veg-friendly restaurants on sites like Happy Cow to find options wherever you’re heading.  

Check out my top 5 picks of where to get your veg on when on tropical land.

5 Best Tropical Spots for Vegetarian Food

  1. India

Perhaps the king of vegetarian-friendly countries, India’s mouth-watering curries might be the first thing that pops into your head when you think of vegetarian food. Around 30% of the country’s 1.3 billion population adhere to a vegetarian diet, mostly due to the religious principles of Hinduism. One thing is for sure: you will have no problem finding unreal veg fare in Tropical India. Vegetarian food is so common, in fact, that many restaurants have menus with ‘non-veg’ sections.

Some of India’s best food is found on the street, and street vendors can be seen whipping up snacks on almost every corner. But don’t go thinking it’s all about curry, because that’s SO far from true. Make sure you sample tantalizing chaats, brilliant biryinas, melt-in-your-mouth masala dosas, and all the amazing things you can wrap your fingers around. The art of using a diverse blend of spices to craft magical masala mixtures is beyond comparison in India, and is definitely something you don’t want to miss out on.

 

  1. Mexico

Mexico, despite being home to many meat-centric culinary traditions, is still one of the best countries in the world for amazing vegetarian cuisine. You’re probably thinking about tacos, which there’s no denying are basically a gift from the food Gods, but don’t limit yourself to only tacos, as the Mexican kitchen is full of many tempting vegetarian dishes that will keep your taste buds craving more. Just think: tortilla soup, tortas, flautas, sopes, guacamole, salsas, tamales, chile rellenos, chilaquiles, and the ubiquitous burritos, enchiladas, and quesadillas. And margaritas – those count, too, right?

Imagine relaxing in Southern Mexico under the blissful sun and being served a handmade corn tortilla (a staple of many a meal), perfected over generations, topped with fresh avocado, zingy salsa, refried beans, and whichever spicy sauces you might be drooling over. Simple, succulent, meant to be savored. Don’t miss out on eating Mexican street food for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner, a pastime a significant percentage of Mexico’s population religiously participles in. Mexico City, though sprawling and chaotic, is a good place to start your Mexican food journey. Note: if you eat eggs and cheese, you’ll be livin’ the Mexican dream.

 

  1. Jamaica

The Caribbean region, and much of the surrounding mainland, isn’t necessarily known for its veg-friendly cuisine. However, we’ve lucked-out with Jamaica. Jamaican food has been influenced by traders, colonization, religion, and other cultures in many ways, which has created a melting pot of flavors to savor. The vegetarian and vegan dishes in Jamaica have largely been created by Rastafarians.

The type of cooking, which is also a lifestyle movement, is called ‘Ital’ (coming from the word ‘vital’). The Ital movement focuses on creating mostly vegan dishes from naturally-grown foods, without the use of extra salt, additives, or processed foods. Jamaican breakfasts tend to be vegetarian-friendly and generally include staples such as plantains, boiled bananas, dumplings, breadfruit, callaloo, all of which you can find at ‘mom and pa’ shops. Look out for other dishes like rice and peas, which may sound pretty simple, but packs a blissful punch due to the delicate spice blend and fresh coconut milk.

  1. Ethiopia

Your best bet for vegetarian food in tropical Eastern Africa is in Ethiopia. Though you won’t have a problem finding a good spread of veg dishes during any day of the week, there are two days in particular where it will be almost the only thing you can get. Every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during lent, are days of ‘fasting’, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where followers fast from eating animal products.

The one dish that is going to accompany each and every meal in Ethiopia is ‘injera’, an amazing tasting, spongy, sour-flavored type of flatbread made from teff flour. Nearly all your dishes will be served on top of this national dish. Generally, you’ll get a colorful variety of different ‘stews’ and curry-like dishes, made from lentils, vegetables and a good mix of spices. Shiro is one of the most popular dishes, which is pureed chickpeas in the ubiquitous berbere spice. So tasty.

  1. Vietnam

It’s no secret that South East Asia is home to a sprawling spread of vegetarian-friendly cuisines, and Vietnam might just top the regional list. Vietnam’s more urban areas have a good selection of vegan restaurants that cater to the country’s Buddhist population. One of the best ways to sample veg-friendly Vietnamese fare is at vegan buffets, where you’ll find an array of lip-licking dishes, including fresh spring rolls, morning glory, vegetable soups, and a variety of tofu cooked in different ways.

In Vietnamese, the word ‘chay’ means vegetarian, so anytime you see the word you’re in luck. Make sure you make time to munch down on what might be the best baguette sandwich in the world, the bahn mi – filled with egg or tofu, cheese, chili, cucumber, cilantro, and pickled carrots, it will hit the spot any time of day, anywhere. And, of course, don’t forget about the quintessential Vietnamese dish: pho. Though most phos are meat-heavy, you can commonly find veg-friendly versions of this fan-favorite soup.

 

Hungry yet? Flight booked? This list will get you started on some of the vegetarian wonders of the Tropical world, but by no means do you have to stop there. From continent to continent, there’s wonderful vegetarian food to be discovered and devoured. For now, though, you’ll hopefully be keeping busy digging into Mexican tacos, Jamaican stews, Indian curries, Ethiopian injera and Vietnamese pho. YUM!