“What am I going to eat!?” If you’re a vegetarian, like me, you’ve surely asked yourself that question before boarding the plane to a new and exciting tropical destination. The truth is that many countries in the tropics have a long history with vegetarian food, making traveling as vegetarian a breeze. Others have only recently joined the movement. It’s not always each navigating a county’s foodscape, but by following these tips, you can dig into mouthwatering vegetarian and vegan food wherever you go.
Tips for Finding Vegetarian Food While Traveling
Do research and use apps.
You’re more likely to find the food you want if you know what’s available. Time after time again I’ve witnessed travelers missing out on wonderful dishes because they didn’t know anything about the country’s culinary history. One time in Cambodia, I was talking with a fellow traveler who downsized a whole nation’s food history to “noodles and rice,” largely because he didn’t know what else could be on the table. Read books and read blogs, and you’ll always have a better idea of what you’re stepping into.
Doing research will also lead you towards some pretty awesome travel and food apps, such as Happy Cow, which is an app/website that lists and rates vegan and vegetarian restaurants worldwide. Users can add formerly unknown vegetarian food joints on the app and leave reviews about what’s on the menu and the quality of food. I found some of the best vegetarian and vegan food in places I would have never thought to explore, and during times when things were starting to look dire. It’s a great way of finding hidden gems and popular local haunts serving top-notch food. Other good resources to explore are Lonely Planet and Vegan Travel.
Don’t limit yourself to only the vegetarian food you know and are comfortable with. Explore previously unknown dishes and ways of cooking and consuming food. This is even more important in a country where the familiar options are limited. Part of the fun of traveling is finding new and exciting foods and falling in love with flavors you never knew existed. It will make things a lot easier, and probably much more fun if you’re open to new foods and new experiences. Being adventurous will open you up to a whole world of food you may otherwise not have known about. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I hadn’t ordered Indian Pav Bhaji and pani puri, or Laos spicy papaya salad, or any of the hundreds of other dishes I’ve ordered on a whim and have come to love.
Know what foods to avoid.
Even if you think you know the ingredients in the dish, sometimes it’s best to ask, as there is no universal understanding of what it means to be vegetarian food. Just because it says vegetarian, doesn’t mean it actually is. I’ve run into this problem in multiple countries. In Sri Lanka, for example, it’s widely thought that vegetarians still eat things from the sea. The curries would still be referred to as being vegetarian while being cooked with fish pastes and powders. Fish sauce is popular in many countries as a widely used condiment. It’s often a good idea to request no fish sauce in dishes you know it’s used in. Vegetarian soups are another culprit. While there may be no meat, the broths are often meat-based. Things are even more tricky for vegans. It helps to know what ingredients are typically used in the dish you want to eat, as well as understanding what the concept of veganism and vegetarianism means in the place you’re visiting.
Choose Destinations Known for Vegetarian Food.
Your vegetarian foodie dreams are awaiting you in Asia, where countries like India have been serving brilliant vegetarian fare for centuries. Though much of Indian food contains dairy, there are still lots of vegan options too. Many menus in India have a section of ‘non-veg’ dishes, as veg fare dominates the menus. Consider taking a trip to South East Asia and exploring the amazing Vietnamese vegetarian culinary scene, or to basically any country in East Asia and you’ll be in food Heaven.
The religion prominent in a country can affect the availability of meat-free food. Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, practice diets that don’t involve any harm to animals. Food served inside temples in places like India will almost always be vegetarian and healthy. In Vietnam, for example, vegetarian restaurants are extremely popular and found throughout the country due to the large population of Buddhists. Many of those restaurants specifically cater to the Buddhists’ vegetarian diets. So, there’s a good chance you’ll easily find veg eats in countries where Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are prevalent.
Learn the local language.
Trust me. This one really helps. If you’re able to verbally express what do and don’t want rather than hopelessly pointing and using gestures, it will make things a lot quicker and less stressful. It can be the smallest phrase, such as “I don’t eat meat,” or “I’m a vegetarian.” In Vietnam, the word “chay” means vegetarian. You can simply say “chay” to your server and voila. Vegetarianism and veganism is sometimes largely misunderstood in some countries, especially when it’s a new concept in meat-centric cultures, such as in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Malaysia. Knowing a bit more of the language will help explain that you may not want any animal products in the food, rather than it just being meatless.
Be friendly with the locals.
Ask and you shall receive. Ask your hotel where you can find good veg food. Befriend a stranger on the street and get the lowdown. It’s even better when you’re staying with locals, through platforms such Couchsurfing and Airbnb. This way it’s possible to have your friend order safe and unique foods and to enjoy a completely different way of dining. Similarly, talk to your chef or server if you can’t find something to eat on the menu. This is much easier in less fancy, more humble restaurants. Often, by telling the server your dietary restrictions, the chef will whip up a suitable dish or modify an existing dish to your liking.
Get creative and DIY.
Knowing that you’re traveling to a county where vegetarianism isn’t really a thing can make a big difference. This is where hitting up the local markets and grocery stores will really come in handy. A big bonus to this approach is that local markets are fun, immersive experience in many cultures. You’ll find foods here you may have never come across in a restaurant.
It can also pay off to pack some snacks and bring your own goods, such as trail mix, granola, and dried fruit when going on long hikes or train journeys. You’ll be healthier and can ward off hunger until you reach somewhere that has veg-friendly options.
While most of us probably don’t want to compromise our diets or moral beliefs, doing so might make things a lot easier. If you find yourself in a situation where none of the above tips work for you, it could be time to consider bending the rules of your diet. Many vegan and vegetarian travelers often travel by this rule. Some people find it easier to accept food that has been offered, rather than refusing foods and potentially offending someone. Some people turn a blind eye to dishes they know aren’t vegetarian or vegan, such as curries cooked in ghee, and vegetable soups cooked in meat broth. Being not picky about vegetarian food definitely makes things easier for both the consumer and cook.
Follow these tips and traveling as a vegetarian will become a lot easier and more enjoyable. I typically have no worries of visiting new countries and being afraid there won’t be vegetarian food to eat. The vegan and vegetarian lifestyle is growing rapidly in much of the world, which is making things a lot easier for the traveling vegan. Lonely Planet recently said that vegetarian and vegan travel will be the trend for 2018.