We all know it, traveling comes with its own unique set of challenges. Well, so does being a vegetarian. When you combine the two, it can really go either way. It all depends on how you prepare yourself.
I love eating and have quite a refined palette. I’m a firm believer that food is a great way to learn about someone’s culture. It’s also a way to share joy, pleasure and love. There was no way I wasn’t going to take full advantage of the countries we were visiting, and try all their delicious dishes. Luckily, I didn’t have to cheat on my vegetarian diet to do it!
After a year on the road, I want to share some of the things I learned along the way, and help you avoid some of the mistakes I made traveling as a vegetarian.
Why I became a vegetarian
Short answer, for all the reasons. Because of the way we treat animals, because of the environmental impacts of eating meat, because of health reasons. All of the reasons. But I won’t get into that here. I’ve already shared my journey in another article.
Traveling as a vegetarian
I’m not going to lie. Traveling as a vegetarian is not easy. People will constantly question your motives and try to convince you that the animals were put on this earth for us to eat. Some people may even laugh at you for it.
Just be respectful with the people you meet. If they ask you questions, answer them as honestly and calmly as you can, but know that you will probably not change their minds with one conversation. If they pressure you, understand that it comes from a place of love.
A lot of cultures are very meat-heavy and can’t imagine a meal without a dead animal on their plate. To refuse more politely, you can tell them meat makes you sick. After 3 years of not eating meat, I can tell you that my system can no longer digest it. So I’m not even lying when I tell them that!
So here are some tips I learned while traveling as a vegetarian. I don’t eat fish either, so it may be easier for those who do.
Don’t despair. It’s true that some days will be tough. You won’t find much to eat except rice and eggs. People won’t understand your reasons. They may even mock you. Just stay positive and know there is a huge community of vegetarians worldwide. In fact, there are over 375 million people in the world who are in our Veg crew. So don’t let a few nay-sayers ruin the good thing we have going.
Do some research
If you’re a foodie like me, you probably want to eat everything in sight. Do your research and see what the local delicacies are. Find out if they can be made without animal meat. See if any of the local dishes are actually vegetarian from the get-go. In most countries we visited, we were able to find vegetarian versions of all their local meals… or at least the best ones!
Ask a local
Once you get there, ask a local about their food customs. They will be able to give you the inside scoop on what veggie options you can find fresh, in-season and locally without breaking your neck or your bank account. They may even be able to teach you how to make those local dishes. Double score!
Know that in most places ‘Vegetarian’ doesn’t mean much
Once, in Japan, I ordered gyoza (dumplings) with a mushroom filling. I took one bite and knew the gyoza had meat in it. When I asked the waiter, he said “No meat”. Being with some locals, I asked them to inquire again, but to find out what the actual filling was. The waiter then said “Mushroom and chicken. No meat.”
Surprisingly, not every culture categorizes meat the same way. Some don’t consider fish or chicken to be meat. Others think seafood is fine for vegetarians (and sometimes, some vegetarians think seafood is fine too). So go beyond learning “I am vegetarian” in every language. Instead, learn how to say what you can and cannot eat. Or at least, bring a phrasebook with you so you can clearly translate what you are ordering.
Get a kitchen
This is something we do to save money, and to make it easier to eat vegetarian meals. Often, we’ll book a room or Airbnb that has a kitchen or a kitchenette included. This way, we can make our own meals with the fresh ingredients we find. Curries are super easy to make and can be shared easily. Because you know, sharing is caring.
Use Happy Cow
If you’re already a vegetarian or vegan, then you know about Happy Cow. And you probably love it! It’s the easiest and best way to find veg-friendly restaurants in town.
And if all else fails, just find the closest Indian restaurant. When we were in Korea and Japan, the least vegetarian-friendly countries we visited, we would stop by the Indian restaurant. They’re almost always delicious, cheap and have tons of vegetarian options. SCORE!
When in doubt, order a bunch of starters
Sometimes, the restaurant you find only has meat dishes or things made with animal meats as mains. It’s happened to us a few times, when we get caught eating very late, with only a few options available. Or we’re with friends who want very specific things to eat. If there are no main dishes that are meat-free, chances are, you will find starters or sides that do the trick. So don’t despair, and don’t forget to share!
Make a request
Usually, if there is nothing meat-free on the menu, you can still make a request and see if the kitchen can accommodate you. Chances are, they don’t want to lose the potential business and they will create a vegetarian dish just for you. You can ask them to remove the meat, or substitute it for something else. Just beware that this doesn’t always work.
In the Philippines, we ordered nachos and asked that they remove the meat. They said it was impossible to do. But when we asked if they could remove the pork from the pancit, that was no problem. Why? We’re still not sure!
Pack snacks and stock up of fresh produce
If you’re traveling short-term, you can bring some snacks, protein powders or nutrition bars with you. If you’re traveling long-term like us, we recommend stocking up on snacks when you find some that are protein-heavy or highly nutritious.
There are many places where the only vegetarian options I found to eat were rice and eggs. Those nights were less fun but I was happy to have bananas and apples with me. In most countries, the produce is super fresh and local so fill up when you can.
Know your limits
Some people change their eating habits when they travel. Vegans will become vegetarian when they travel. Vegetarians will have fish once in a while from local vendors. Know what you are ok “breaking the rules” for.
If you are comfortable with eating something once, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. For example, when we were in Cambodia, I chose to eat bugs. Not sure what the rules are about vegetarians eating bugs, but I was quite ok with the idea.
Another time, in the Philippines, we had a meal at the home of a family friend. She cooked the whole day for us. But our friend forgot to mention I was a vegetarian. So she cooked tons of shrimp, crab, chicken and rice. I’m always happy when there’s rice. I didn’t want to be difficult, so I had some shrimp. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t want to insult this person who welcomed us into her home and fed us. It was just not worth it for a few shrimps that were caught by her family a few hours earlier.
In other countries, where soup was a main staple, I didn’t constantly question if the broth was made with beef or chicken stock. I would have driven myself, the waiters and my husband crazy. I just chose to have it and not make a fuss about it.
Know where to go and be prepared
It’s always good to know if the country or city you’re traveling to is vegetarian-friendly or not. Make sure you look into their cuisine and available veg options. The countries that I found were the least vegetarian friendly were Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Those are the places where I had the same veggie meal over and over again (every day, for weeks). On the other hand, Australia, New Zealand, Greece and Armenia were great for vegetarians!
These are the little things that I’ve learned to help me survive as a vegetarian. Overall, just stay true to who you are, stick to your values, and keep an open, loving mind.
I’d love to hear what other tricks you’ve found too. Has traveling as a vegetarian or vegan been easy for you? Let me know in the comments.
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