I can say “I’m vegetarian” in more languages than I count on my fingers. More often than not, I’m met with blank stares when I make my opening statement about my dietary choices, making me wonder if it’s my not-so-excellent language skills or my vegetarianism that’s causing the confusion. Travelling as a vegetarian can be frustrating at times, and very rewarding at others. But one thing that it’s definitely not is boring. Use these hacks the next time wanderlust strikes.
First things first: You need to know what the locals define as vegetarian when travelling to a new country. In the Far East for example, all kinds of seafood are considered purely vegetarian. In Europe on the other hand, you’re likely to be asked if chicken is okay. And in most places, no one bats an eyelid at meat stock. So, the clearer you are about what the locals define as vegetarian, the easier it’ll be for you to navigate your way around. Most cuisines do have a vegetarian element in their meal, so peruse the menu closely. Sometimes the quickest way to a kosher meal is to know the local phrases for “No meat”, “No eggs”, and “No fish”.
Luckily enough, breakfast is the day’s most important meal and you’re bound to find veggie options wherever in the world you might be. If you’re a lacto-ovo-vegetarian like I am, then eggs are delicious and easily available. Continental-style breakfasts are now ubiquitous, so make sure to tuck in every morning. Cereal, fruit yoghurt or even a smoothie make for a healthy, filling meal when you’re on the go.
You can research your food options even before you leave home. Join chat forums on websites like Happy Cow, Tripadvisor and Couchsurfing. Talk to locals, but also ask fellow vegetarian travellers for recommendations.
If you’re travelling to a large city, visiting its hipster neighbourhood will literally serve you well. Known for their love of all things natural, organic and artisanal, these neighbourhood eateries often find ways to adapt the local cuisine for vegetarians. You’re highly likely to find plenty of charming and innovative cafes and restaurants, and if you’re lucky, even some amazing food trucks. If you’re in Paris, leave the heart of the city and visit the 19th or 20th Arrondissement, in New York visit Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district. For visitors to Budapest, there’s the Jewish Quarter in District VII and in Berlin, visit the Kreuzberg neighbourhood on the west side of the former Berlin Wall. Closer home is Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan area, Shimokitazawa to the west of Tokyo, and Tiong Bahru in Singapore.
When travelling through Europe, I quickly realised that eating the side that came with my non-vegetarian husband’s main course was a far better option than struggling to put together my own order. My new plan of action didn’t really make me a favourite with annoyed servers who hated wasting seating space on such a measly order, but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying a tasty, wholesome vegetarian meal.
Step One: Smile and be polite. People are often more accommodating if you’re nice to them – and this doesn’t just apply to ordering vegetarian food! Step Two: Get over your fear of charades and don’t be shy to point, mime or even draw on your paper napkin to get your point across. Step Three: Rely on your olfactory senses. If something smells fishy, it probably is. In case you don’t really trust your acting skills, download the Veggoagogo app on your smartphone to get your message across. Pick from one of its 50 language options to choose from their wide range of pre-loaded statements on ordering and finding vegetarian food.
Supermarkets are a vegetarian’s best friend. It’s wise to stock up on fresh fruit, bread, cheese and granola bars just in case you get back to your room hungry at 3a.m. Markets offer a great way to engage with the local culture. Another boon for the veggie traveller are the farmers’ markets you’ll find in most big cities. Fresh, organic and healthy – what more could you ask for? To get you started, download the Farmstand app. It lets you browse through over 8,700 farmers’ markets across the world. The next time you’re travelling, also consider packing some food from home. For the record, I’m a Gujarati and it’s a given that we lot travel with our theplas (flatbread). But when you’re tired of eating lame versions of vegetarian food, nothing in the world tastes better than a four-day-old, cold thepla.
Take a local cooking class but be sure to inform your instructor beforehand of your dietary restrictions. You’ll get to hang out with a native, learn how best to use home-grown ingredients, and return with a bunch of recipes that will keep your travels alive. If you aren’t staying at a hotel, this is a great win.
Not all cuisines are created equal when it comes to the vegetarian options they toss up. As a basic rule of thumb, Mexican, Lebanese, Italian and Oriental are your best bet. Keep an eye on your Oriental stir-fry though, there’s a high probability that it’s cooked in fish sauce or has minced beef thrown in. If you’re visiting a country with a strong Buddhist community, learn the local term for Buddhist food – it’s vegetarian and sometimes onion- and garlic-free too (In Thailand, the term is “Jai/Jay”). Download Happy Cow’s smartphone app for a comprehensive listing (with reviews) of vegetarian dining options around the world.
Be flexible in your approach to your meals when you’re on the road. And yes, raspberries and Prosecco are a perfectly acceptable alternative to a meal. You may not necessarily find yourself eating three square meals, but snacking at regular intervals instead. You can make a meal of appetisers. If you aren’t travelling for too many days at a stretch, don’t worry about getting all your basic food groups in every meal. On my first time in Bangkok at the age of four, I couldn’t bear to eat anything because the smell of seafood seemed to pervade even steamed rice. So I got to live the life of my dreams for those four days, sustaining on a diet of chocolate and fruit! Just in case uncontrollable hunger pangs stroke, make sure to have nuts, an apple or banana, and a chocolate or granola bar at hand.
Updated in October 2017.
Mihika Pai is a freelance writer who has worked for NGT India, ELLE India & L'Officiel India. She loves checking out airport departure boards when she's travelling. They make her dream about the places she one day hopes to visit. She tweets as @mihikapai.