Concerned about finding vegetarian meals when you’re overseas? Here are some handy tips to help you stay meat-free. By Erika Lim
As a busy traveller, you’ll need sufficient calories to keep you going. Finding appropriate vegetarian or vegan food while travelling can be a challenge though, particularly in countries where meat or dairy are much enjoyed by the locals. Food outlets serving meat-free meals could be scarce. And, depending on where you are, encountering perplexed looks and incredulous replies when requesting for vegetarian food may not be uncommon.
Do your homework
“Getting enough ‘real’ food to eat instead of processed or fast food is a concern for vegetarians and vegans,” says Judith Kingsbury, founder of Savvy Vegetarian, a vegetarian resource website. Do your research ahead of time to locate veg-friendly restaurants and grocery stores at your destination, then plan your travel route accordingly.
• Internet websites and forums are great places to start. Check out HappyCow, a popular online guide to vegetarian stores and restaurants in different cities around the world.
• Learn about the country’s national dishes and memorise the names of vegetarian ones. If there aren’t any, focus on a few commonly found local dishes and consider how they can be modified to suit your needs. Many local eateries will be happy to customise their dishes, if you give clear instructions.
• International chains like Quiznos or Subway can be a comforting sight when you’re in a foreign land. These outlets usually provide vegetarian options. If not, they should be able to customise one for you.
Pack some snacks
Keep a stash of healthful snacks to tide over those times when you just can’t seem to find appropriate food. If you have accommodations that allow cooking, you’ll have much more choice and control over what you eat. Judith shares her ideas on what to take:
• Snacks such as granola bars (choose those with minimal sugar and more dried fruit and nuts), homemade trail mixes, ready cut fresh veggies, nut butter, crackers or bread are perfect when hunger strikes.
• For simple cooking, pack instant rice or noodles, canned beans, freeze dried veggies, dried hummus or refried bean mix. If you’re not able to cook, you could bring along a thermos for boiling water (which you can get at hotels or restaurants) and use it to cook noodles.
• If you’re going to be on the road and worry about food along the way, consider bringing a mini cooler and refreezing your ice packs at hotels or restaurants during rest stops. Stock up your cooler when you come across a good grocery store or vegetarian restaurant.
Be clear about your dietary requirement when ordering food at a non-vegetarian restaurant or dining with non-vegetarians. Leah Bostwick, an experienced vegetarian traveller who blogs about food and travel at thevegetariantraveller.com, notes that one of the most common reactions people have to the word vegetarian is a complete lack of understanding – “You’re a what?” So just asking your host or a waiter for vegetarian or vegan food may not be clear enough.
• Be precise about what you want or don’t want in your food. “Just vegetables” could be interpreted as “mainly vegetables”, instead of “only vegetables”. In some cultures, “no meat” means “no red meat” and could include fish and chicken. Be specific and say something like “vegetables only please. No chicken, beef, seafood and eggs.”
• Practise saying “I am vegetarian/vegan” and other key phrases in the local language. If you can find somebody to write them down for you in a notebook, that would be even better. Use these written notes when you encounter language difficulties.
• If you’re going to visit a non-vegetarian family, politely inform your host in advance. “In situations where meat has already been prepared when I arrive, I’ve found that it’s much more embarrassing for them than for me, they apologise and think that they’ve offended me,” says Leah.
Beware of hidden ingredients
Requesting meat-free products will be tricky in countries where animal products are used as seasoning. Take note of these hidden ingredients as you’re reading up about the local cuisine and when you order food, always specify that you do not want them to be used in your dishes. Sofna Yusi from VegVoyages, a travel company that specialises in Asian tours for vegetarians and vegans, highlights a few ingredients to watch out for when you’re in South-east Asia:
• Meat broth made from chicken, fish or pork is used extensively in South-east Asian cooking and may be added to apparently meat-free dishes like sauteed vegetables and bean curd. Chicken or beef powder are used to season many food products including stuffed bean curd or fried tempeh (fermented soya bean patty).
• Fish sauce is prevalent in most parts of South-east Asia and local salads, which may appear vegetarian, will usually include some. Note that in Indonesia, sambal (a chilli-based condiment) forms the basis of many local dishes and contains shrimp paste. In Chinese cuisine, oyster sauce is a common seasoning while animal fats are often used to fry vegetables.
Choose specialised tour operators
Travel companies catering to the needs of vegans and vegetarians are on the rise. If you’re a strict vegetarian, travelling with a specialist operator may provide a convenient, hassle-free alternative. If you’re not a vegetarian, this could be an exciting opportunity to experiment with a new diet and experience the local cuisine from a different perspective.
• Let the travel company make all the arrangements and be assured of delicious meals that meet your dietary requirements. Enjoy vegetarian or vegan versions of popular local dishes. For example, Balinese lawar – a dish of vegetables, coconut and minced meat generously seasoned with herbs and spices – can be made with red beans instead of meat.
• Generally, vegetarian travel companies also emphasise responsible travel. Take VegVoyages for instance. The consultants make it a point to work with local guides, cooks and drivers, patronise local establishments and conduct their adventures in an eco-friendly way. They do not use animals on their tours for humane reasons.
A version of this story first appeared on the Silver Kris website.