Food, glorious food… it can be the best part of your travels or it can be the worst, particularly if you have specific dietary needs or simply just want to eat healthily. I have been vegetarian on and off for over 20 years, and spent 8 of those years working as an overseas voluntary project and expedition leader in South America, an overland driver/tour leader in India and Africa, a student in Brazil and a hotel manager in a French ski resort. I won’t get into the morals of vegetarianism here, but thought I’d share a few of my experiences as a vegetarian traveller and give a few tips for how to deal with being a globe-trotting veggie.
1. Learn how to say exactly what you can't/won't eat in the local language
“But that’s not meat, it’s chicken!” I was told by my colleague in a shanty town in Lima, Peru, as a plate of deep fried chicken and chips was handed to me at a Pollada or Chicken Party.
Vegetarianism is becoming more widely recognized but there are still some parts of the world where, even if the waiter understands the word ‘vegetarian’, they don’t know exactly what it means…even my Grandma up in Yorkshire, Northern England, doesn’t fully understand (after 20 years!) and looks at me suspiciously when I say “no” to the gravy on a Sunday Roast.
To be safe and to avoid confusion, learn or have written down your specific desires in the local lingo, e.g. “I can’t eat beef/chicken/pork/fish/etc.” and if you’re struggling then find out the word for the actual animals – in Argentina there are numerous words for different cuts of beef, therefore it can be easier just to say “I don’t eat cow”.
2. Get creative - and carry snacks
Sometimes there are just no veggie options on the menu so you may need to be a bit creative. Don’t be afraid to ask for a certain dish without meat - meals are often prepared from scratch, particularly in smaller restaurants, the proprietor will value your custom and usually be more than happy to adapt a meal for you. If this isn’t possible then don’t forget to look at the side dishes, you may need to order 2-3 sides of vegetables, potatoes, beans or breads instead of a main meal – think tapas!
Food markets are great places to explore, see local life and local produce and often feature on group tours; take the opportunity to stock up on fruit and nuts so if you really can’t find anything in a restaurant at least you won’t starve. Ask your tour leaders too, as an overland leader in East and Southern Africa I soon learned the best places to stock up on nuts, healthy cereal bars and soya milk – tour leaders have a wealth of local knowledge.
3. Be prepared to eat lots of eggs - except in India
Home-stay host: “Breakfast is ready. Here are the eggs. There’s a special dish for the vegetarians”
Me: “That’s OK, I eat eggs”
Host: “Oh, reeeallly?!” (accompanied by a look of bewilderment).
In my experience eggs seem to feature greatly on the veggie menu in many tourist restaurants…particularly omelettes. Except, however, in India - vegetarian food is fabulous in India (as long as you like curry!) due to the 1 billion+ Hindus, many of whom avoid eating meat. Good news for veggies as most restaurants have whole pages of vegetarian options, often more than the meat dishes, and there are plenty of ‘Pure Veg’ restaurants too. Hindu veggies however, are lacto-vegetarians: cheese and milk is good, meat and eggs are bad. So head to India to gorge on amazing vegetarian feasts without an egg in sight; with the added bonus that you are far less likely to suffer Delhi Belly on a vegetarian diet!
4. Be prepared for hidden surprises - but don't be afraid of salad!
Me: “I don’t eat meat, what flavour soup is this?”
Waiter: “It’s OK, it’s vegetable soup”
Me: “So what are these white bits?”
Waiter: “Ummmm, I’ll check with the chef” as the waiter whisks away my bowl and scurries back to the kitchen.
We were in a jungle lodge on a guided tour in the Bolivian Amazon (when I say ‘lodge I mean ‘shack’, lodge makes it sound luxurious) and lunch was being served. The chef was aware that I didn’t eat meat but didn’t seem to think that the boiled remains of a bird's carcass would be a problem when he handed me veg soup made with chicken stock. This can happen fairly frequently so it’s up to you to decide if you want to inspect the ingredients of every single dish or occasionally turn a blind eye… sometimes ignorance is bliss!
Avoiding salad has been advised to travellers for many years in order to avoid travellers' trots. I say - ignore this, if you want a salad, go for it! It might have been washed in tap water or might not have been washed at all. It might give you a dose of the runs but it probably won't. And if you do get an upset tummy you will never really know if it was the salad you had for dinner, the street snack you ate in the afternoon, or the 3 cocktails you enjoyed while watching the beautiful sunset. I've devoured thousands of amazing salads, and I'm still here to tell the tale...
5. Make your own rules
As a university student, I moved to Rio de Janeiro for a year to study Portuguese. I made the decision to give up being veggie for the year - food is such a massive part of culture and I didn’t want to miss out on that. I had a fabulous year, didn’t regret e
ating meat as I knew it was short-term, and enjoyed wonderful family meals with my Brazilian flat-mates’ parents and some great Churrascos (barbecues) with Brazilian friends, but returned to being full-time vegetarian after I left Brazil.
When I started more extensive travels I didn’t want to give up being veggie long-term, but still wanted the option to try traditional dishes and experience that part of the culture. I decided I would ‘try everything once’ so if there was a 'typical dish’ of a certain country that involved meat and I wanted to try it, then I did. There are plenty of meat-eaters that eat veggie food, that doesn’t make them instantly vegetarian, so tasting the odd bit of meat won’t instantly make you a meat-eater. On my last contract in Africa I was practically vegan and not even interested in sampling anything with meat; that was fine too. Decide what’s really important to you on each trip; more than likely you will only be in each destination once in your lifetime so if you really want to try some local cuisine then go for it. If being strictly meat-free is more important to you then stick to your guns, smile and say “no, thank you” - it’s your life, make your own rules.
There are no easy answers to how to travel as a vegetarian, every country and every mealtime will be different, and it can be very frustrating at times. The most important things to remember though, are to be open-minded, patient, don't lose your sense of humour... and be respectful when someone gives you a plate of live grubs to eat...