As the weather unexpectedly changed from autumn to winter on a September vacation, the road leading up to the remote Tusheti region of Georgia got snowed in. My partner and I scrambled to change our plans, eventually landing up at the Lagodekhi National Reserve. A stone’s throw away from the border with Azerbaijan and the Dagestan province of Russia, we found ourselves at one of the last frontiers in the Caucasus Mountains. I was recovering from flu, and even on a sunny day, wrapped up in layers and a warm beanie.
“Cold?” Otto, our potbellied, jolly Georgian host, clad in an oversized sweater, asked me, as the sun dipped behind the mountains. I solemnly nodded. He turned to search for something in the shelves of his outdoor kitchen shed. I tried to tell him I had already swallowed a medicine, but he wouldn’t listen. When he finally found what he was looking for, it turned out to be a bottle of homemade chacha—a strong plum liquor ubiquitous in Georgian households. “Chacha very good,” he said, referring to my flu, even as I resisted it at first. As we downed shot after shot of the warm fiery drink, I felt closer to recovery. We took turns toasting to India, Georgia, family, religion (although mine is atheism) and good health. As he began to whip up a potato and onion stir-fry and mushroom soup on the outdoor stove, I couldn’t help but wonder if requesting this sweet Georgian man for vegan food, in this remote village, was too demanding.
Almost as if he read my mind, Otto explained, in broken English and sign language, that stemming from ancient beliefs possibly rooted in Orthodox Christianity, plant-based ‘fasting food’ was once common in Georgia—people were expected to refrain from consuming animal products for nearly hundred days a year. Indeed, homes and restaurants across Georgia once stocked up on plant-based meat and milk substitutes for fasting days. Even today, the Georgian cuisine has several vegan dishes, of which my favorites are lobio (kidney beans simmered with herbs and served in a clay pot, typically enjoyed with Georgian corn bread mchadi), and badrijani nigwitz (eggplants coated with walnut paste).
Four years ago, I transitioned from a vegetarian diet into a vegan lifestyle. In addition to meat and seafood, I cut out milk and milk products like cheese, butter, ghee, paneer, eggs and honey from my diet, and animal-derived products like silk, leather and wool from my lifestyle. Exposure to animal cruelty drove my decision and continues to motivate me to remain committed towards plant-based living, even as I travel nomadically around the world.
People I meet on the road often ask me two questions when they hear of my choices. First, if veganism isn’t just another modern trend? And second, given how integral food is to cultures around the world, if it isn’t difficult to connect with locals as a vegan traveller?
In Otto’s outdoor kitchen, surrounded by potent chacha, home-grown potatoes, and the warmth of an unexpected friendship, I found a definitive answer to the first question: Plant-based eating is rooted in traditional wisdom. This traditional wisdom is something I also unearthed in some of the world’s oldest civilisations in Ethiopia and Ecuador. It is not a trend that began in the West, propagated by smashed avocado toast-eating, acai berry smoothie-drinking hipsters.
For the second question, allow me to share just a small selection of friendships driven by the common love of vegan food, from my travels over the past four years.
In the land of kebab, I wondered if I’d be living off fresh fruits and dates. But thanks to Instagram, I connected with Iran Vegan Travel, a network created by an enterprising and passionate Iranian vegan Sina Poureshagh, which connects vegan and vegetarian travellers with local vegan hosts across the country. At one such guesthouse in Isfahan, I met 23-year-old Ali, who has made it his life’s mission (his ikigai, as he puts it) to create awareness about animal cruelty and the environmental impact of animal-based diets. Besides hosting travellers, he spends his time translating scientific studies and documentaries into Farsi, in an attempt to make them accessible to Iran’s non-English speaking population. Our shared commitment made us instant friends. Over hearty meals of sprouted wheat kebabs, dizi (mashed kidney and lima beans, flavourful broth and warm barbari bread), ghormeh sabzi (mustard leaves stew) and other Iranian delights, we read Persian poetry, discussed books that’ve inspired us and discovered common cultural and linguistic threads that have connected Iran and India for centuries. Instead of minimising local connections, my food choices were leading me to meaningful friendships.
It was late evening when I arrived in the little village of Digana in Sri Lanka. My stay, the home of a Sri Lankan-Dutch couple, overlooked the stunning Victoria Lake and the Knuckles Mountains. My hostess Lotte confessed that she’d never met a vegan before, and wasn’t sure how she’d offer plant-based meals for a whole week.
I soaked up the beauty of my glass-walled abode, and went swimming, hiking, and picking wild coffee beans. Despite Lotte’s apprehensions, I indulged in organic, home-cooked Sri Lankan meals (jackfruit chips, beetroot curry, hoppers, pol-roti) and Western food (pasta and wood apple mousse). We spent hours chatting about her travels before the Internet changed travelling forever, my transition to veganism, life in the Sri Lankan countryside. On my last day, my hosts offered me a ride to Colombo. On their weekly shopping run, vegan ice cream ingredients now topped the list!
Back in my hometown Dehradun, I felt alienated by my food choices, mocked by my own family for falling prey to a ‘Western’ trend. Until common friends introduced me to holistic plant-based health coach Bhavna Kapoor, founder of Health Nut, an initiative offering personalised coaching and retreats. Like me, Bhavna grew up in Dehradun, and even happened to live in my old neighbourhood. With a lack of vegan-friendly joints in the city, we relied on her personal kitchen for rooibos chai (herbal bush tea with oat milk and jaggery, similar in taste to regular chai); finger millet and sorghum-based pizza topped with cashew cheese, mushroom, bell pepper and other seasonal veggies sourced from the local farmers’ market; and indulgent no-bake brownies made with dates, nuts and raw cacao. Together, we also polished off some typical Indian food: kadhi and dahi vada (made using peanut curd), tofu masala and gaajar ka halwa (made with carrots, dry coconut, cashew, and sweetened with jaggery) as we rediscovered the mountains and waterfalls of our childhood, as well as those tucked further away in the Himalayan abode of Uttarakhand that we proudly call home.
I once unintentionally landed up in Armenia during the forty days of Lent. The majority of locals fast during the period, and give up animal products. In cafés, bakeries, restaurants and hotels across the country, I could choose from a special, all-vegan fasting menu. At a café in Yerevan, I met Lilith, who waited tables by day and propelled the city’s animal rights movement by night. The chocolate cake and soy latte we relished quickly dissolved our differences of birth, language, and skin colour. As we talked about our personal journeys, the forgotten Armenian genocide and more, it felt like we were soul sisters, passing through each other’s universe.
As I travel in search of authentic experiences, I marvel at the culinary secrets unearthed along the way—and feel gratitude for all the unexpected friendships they have led me to.
Shivya Nath quit her corporate job for a nomadic life over three years ago. She has hitchhiked through northern Romania, lived in a nunnery in Ladakh and boarded down a volcano in Nicaragua. She tweets as @shivya.