We’re a family of vegetarians and self-proclaimed foodies. But apparently, we don’t have a right to be both of those things. According to some of our “gastronomically experienced” non-vegetarian foodie friends, those two are incompatible. And we are often chastised with statements that somehow imply our food choice is incongruous with good travel.
When we were travelling to Spain a few years ago I recall one carnivorous friend saying: “Oh, you are travelling to Madrid. You guys are such foodies, you are going to love the boquerones (anchovies) and the paella.” This was followed by a pregnant pause, a sympathetic look, and then the lament: “Oh but you guys are veg; what will you eat?” After all, in the eyes of many of the world’s omnivorous folks, we are mere “grass eaters” who will not find anything worthwhile to graze on when travelling abroad.
The situation is even more complicated because we are a vegetarian family with a ten-year-old who is milk and nut allergic. Some of the comments we get, when folks realize the whole picture, seem to suggest that we are going to starve when we travel.
But my family comes from a long line of vegetarians and travellers and we’ve never found the two mutually exclusive. Each generation adapts to the needs and conditions they find themselves in. Today’s world, for instance, is drastically different from the one my grandparents encountered in 1956, when they toured Europe with a stove and supplies so they could eat familiar food on their 100-day road trip. Nor is it the world of the 1960s, when my father and uncle were students in the US. On a road trip, they devised a plan to get a taste of Indian food in whichever town they halted for the day. They would stop at a phone booth on the outskirts of a town and look through the phone directory for Indian last names (especially Shah, Patel, or Mehta). Cold-calling the numbers, they’d introduce themselves as (hungry) Indian students and hope someone would invite them over for a home-cooked meal. We are definitely not in the 1980s, when flocks of Indians travelled to Europe and America on packaged tours, accompanied by a “maharaj” who would cook Indian meals in camper vans at every stop. Now, there are Indian restaurants all over the world for those who want them, and there’s always the possibility of filling one’s bags with kilos of theplas and chundo as most good Gujaratis are wont to do.
There’s another option, one that my family and I prefer. We make a conscious effort to eat local fare on our travels. While this has resulted in a few wilted salads and bland pastas, I doubt the frequency of those meals is any more than the terrible steaks and dry chicken my non-vegetarian friends have encountered.
Before we explored Madrid’s food scene, we didn’t know of the vegetarian restaurant El Estragón Vegetariano, with its fantastic blend of superb ingredients and flavours. From our meal at Mesón del Champiñon, I still remember the awesome mushrooms served without chorizo, and the salmorejo cordobés, an incredible tomato-based dip that goes well with almost anything.
We learnt and loved the line “Soy vegeteriano, sin carne, sin marisco, sin jamón”—“I’m vegetarian, no meat, no seafood, no ham.” It’s a great conversation starter in a restaurant! Not once were we looked upon with disdain. In fact, this statement often resulted in a buzz of conversation. The server would get animated, the chef would come out, and guests at adjacent tables would pitch in to discuss options for us. Ultimately, what emerged from the kitchens was always original, different, and mostly, it would be a freshly made meal that tasted awesome.
Similarly, in Tokyo, we went to a French-Cambodian restaurant which we were told would serve vegetarian food. Intense discussions with a Japanese colleague had taught us that the Japanese word for vegetarian was bhejeterian or yasai. What ensued was an animated discussion that included the diners seated next to us and the owners’ daughter, who spoke a smattering of English. That night’s spectacular meal left us totally satiated.
France proved to be a tougher nut to crack. Most of the French restaurants provided us with boring options until we found a fabulous little Italian dive which served the most divine truffle pasta. In the small southern French village of La Garde-Freinet, we visited the local farmers’ market and picked up some of the freshest bread, local cheeses, and exquisite vegetables with which we rustled up superb meals at our villa.
So, to my sympathetic meat-eating friends I keep saying, we’re quite happy exploring the world as vegetarians. It allows us to have unique conversations with locals, brings us great stories, and adventurous meals. And hey, if you’re in Spain, try the pimientos de Padrón (fried pimiento peppers), or a shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal anywhere in Japan—it’s not grass, and you won’t regret it.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Grazing with Gusto”.