Difficulties Traveling as a Vegetarian

Last year I was visiting Beijing. For my last dinner before an early train trip to Mongolia in the morning I went out to small restaurant around the corner from my hotel. Chinese food is amazing, in no small part because of the creative titles given to their dishes. There was pimple soup, wonderous pork belly and explosion of tofu & spices to name a few. As a vegetarian, I opted for the later.

“I’ll just have the ‘explosion of tofu & spices’, there’s no meat in that dish is there?”

“No meat. Only tofu. You do not eat meat?”

“No, I don’t. I’m a vegetarian.”

“But you are a man!”

Turns out there was meat in the dish, but perhaps it isn’t counted as meat in China –  it was only some mince in the sauce. Maybe he thought my sick and ghastly appearance was not due to my flue, but lack of iron – so he thought he was doing me a favour. Either way it was a conversation I often have when in Asia, South America or Europe. Especially Europe.

Sometimes it can be hard travelling as a vego. In a lot of countries meat features predominately in most meals, which often leaves you with a very uninspired plate of lentils or salad. There can also be a culturing difference where meat eating is seen as masculine, and when you request a veggie dish you’re met with a quizzical glance or at worse stubborn ingination and a plate of chicken for your troubles. But it’s all part of travelling.

Most tourist hotspots cater to vegetarians now, Thailand is a great place to travel as a herbivore – there’s nothing bland about a veggie green curry. Bigger cities in South America are pretty good too, lots of beautiful salads, and if you’re an aquatarian (or a fishocrite might be more apt) you’ll always find something to eat on the coast. But if you are inland or visiting a less touristed town here’s a few tips.

  • Don’t be that guy that refuses to eat anything that might have once shared fridge shelf space with some steak. Your fussiness isn’t going to win anyone over. If your meal comes con carne sure, don’t eat the meat but just pick it out. If I order a meal that comes with a bit of chicken or beef I put it in a napkin and save it for a stray dog – you’re guaranteed a new friend for the day.
  • Hot sauce. I love me some hot sauce (as you would expect from someone who writes for sanchezjalapeno.com) – I always carry a bottle with me. Sometimes rice and beans for the 5th meal straight can be a little uninspired. Add a little hot sauce and you’re set.
  • Be careful with the salads and fruit, especially in SE Asia or South America. My girlfriend ended up hospitalised with Salmonella poisoning in a small town in Peru, all from eating a salad that wasn’t washed with purified water. Most tourist restaurants in SE Asia note on the menu that they wash all their veggies with bottled water but still it pays to take notice of the cleanliness of the establishment before chowing down. Rule of thumb with fruit is if you can peel it, you can eat it.
V for Vegetarian
Photo by Renato Pequito

I tend to subscribe to the ‘When in Rome’ Policy. While I don’t eat meat as a rule, I will try anything once. I had a taste of some marvellous pancetta on a farm in Tuscany where the meat was  raised, culled and cured all onsite. It was much tastier than anything pre-packed at the supermarket and I got an understanding of how much love and work goes into farming animals in a small village. I suppose veggie purists would not be happy with me, but I feel we travel to experience the world and a big part of that is participating in experiences that we normally wouldn’t do.

If you’re a vegetarian, how do you get by when you travel? If you have any veggie disaster stories, share them in the comments below

Follow Shane on Twitter, read more of his articles for Have Pack, Will Travel or catch up on his travels at SanchezJalapeno.com

44 Replies to “Difficulties Traveling as a Vegetarian”

  1. I used to be a vegetarian and I know this is a touchy subject for some people. It used to be a big deal for me when I ordered something that had meat. Every vegetarian has their own reasons for doing so but some may not be able to get over it easily if they don’t get what they want.

    When in Rome… :)

  2. Worst ever: Several years back, I went to visit my Uncle in Nanchang, China. Nanchang is a “small Chinese city” that has only started seeing white people in the last 2 years, and I show up with pasty white skin, stop light red hair, and a vegetarian diet. My Uncle’s Chinese business associated wanted to show off by taking me nice restaurants. Every night I would have to explain to a new set of glazing over eyes that I didn’t eat meat, not fish, not pork, not beef. I would always order, carefully having my food needs translated to the waiter. Normally I got cold veggies or slimy tofu, but the night we went out with my Uncle’s boss – where if I turned down the food I would disgrace him and get my uncle in trouble – my “eggplant” came to the table covered in a brown flaky meaty substance.

    I was horrified, and my aunt who saw the look in my eyes began staring me down. I began picking around the meat, eating only the eggplant, but then my uncle’s boss was staring at me. “Close eyes, insert food and don’t think about it” I began saying to myself. It was the most rancid and horrible meat I had ever eaten. I sat there politely slowly putting bite after bite of brown meat in my mouth until all parties stopped looking at me. Later I found out the brown meat was pigeon, pork, and snake a mixture that isn’t thought of as meat but as seasoning. I prayed to the porcelain got that night and begged my uncle to stop telling his associates that he had a visitor.

  3. I’ve gotten numerous quizzical looks when I say I don’t eat meat in other countries. In Hungary and Croatia, I would ask if the dish I wanted had meat in it. The usual answer was no, but almost everything I got came with a nice serving of bacon on top. Now I just say, when traveling, that I avoid meat as much as possible, but I try to not make a big deal out of it. Like you said, if I find some nice pork bones or bacon chunks in my food, I just pick them out. SE Asia was MUCH more accommodating than Eastern Europe. South America is next on my list, so it looks like I’ll be living on beans and rice for a while!

  4. I have the same issue, made more challenging by the fact that I don’t like some foods that are a staple of a vegetarian diet, like tofu and mushrooms. For me, following a vegetarian diet is a health choice, not an ethical one, as I really have no issue with animals being raised for food, but only as long as they are treated humanely. To that end, on the rare occasions I do eat meat (generally only when there are no better or socially-acceptable options available), I do make an effort to be sure it’s not mass-produced.

    But Jeff you’re so right that it’s a very touchy subject – if I get even the slightest indication that my eating habits will cause any kind of problem, I just pick around whatever is offered, smile and pronounce it delicious despite my lack of appetite, and quietly down a granola bar somewhere out of site. I never travel without a good stash of healthy snacks to keep me from starving!

    1. My room mate thinks I’m crazy that I pack TWO boxes of Trader Joe’s granola bars with me for every trip. Mostly they help curb the hunger after a bad airline meal :)

  5. I just returned from a trip to Chiang Mai and Pai with Jeff. While there was plenty of veggie food I was starting to get a bit tired of veggie fried rice so I did occasionally eat some seafood (hypocritical of me, I know) but generally SE Asia is so good with the choice of veggie options. Central Asia on the other hand….

  6. You have a great philosophy about it. You’re right — sometimes you have to bend a little bit when somewhere totally foreign! My mom is vegetarian and I don’t eat much meat, so I’ve seen how it can be difficult when traveling. Some people in foreign countries definitely don’t get it, and sometimes you just have to pick around things! Do you ever read the blog Nancy the Gnomette? She’s vegan, and sometimes blogs about what it’s like eating vegan while traveling. Pretty interesting!

    1. sometimes you just have to bend the rules, or go hungry.
      I was on the Trans Siberian last year, and as you can imagine on the Russian Rail cart – we had a choice of salmon or borsch. Both were delicious. I’m glad I got to try them because I wouldn’t have done so when I was at home where I’m more strick in my approach to vegetarianism. I’ll check out Nancy the Gnomette!

  7. I’m vegan and am around 1 and a half months into an open-ended world trip. So far I’ve found it possible, but there are times it can be difficult. I always carry some snack bars and a jar of peanut butter in my backpack to keep the tummy grumbles at bay and I mostly make my own meals when possible.

    The hardest part for me is knowing I’m missing out on some cultural experiences, and often language barriers can cause problems. So far I’ve been lucky that I can explain that it makes me ill (which it does, I’ve had it happen accidentally already once this trip) and so far most people look at it as one of my odd quirks.

    I’m very careful not to offend. I know I’m the odd one out and my personal reasons for this choice are not for everyone. I carefully avoid the question “why” other than to explain that it makes me ill. Explaining that it’s an alergy usually gets an “Ah, ok” response and often a bit of understanding.

    I’m not one of the ones to complain if meat is stored in the same section of the fridge as my food, and I’ve never tried to get someone to go veg, a person’s choice is theirs to make. I think looking at it with a sense of humor makes all the difference in the world. (yes, at times it may be difficult, perhaps for both sides, but it’s what I’ve found that works best.)

    I hope it’s ok to link this, I wrote about my experience as a vegan in Mexico last week.

  8. wow, i really admire the fact that you aren’t fussy as a vegetarian. i totally agree -when in Rome! Malaysia (my country) is also a great place for creative vegetarian dishes. Take for example Chinese – they have all sorts of faux meats employing beancurd/soy. Totally healthy/vegetarian and totally delicious!

    1. I love the faux meats in China! i have a can of ‘vegetarian’ duck in my cupboard at home, waiting for the right time to put it in a laksa (a staple dish in my house)

      And I had some AMAZING veggie food in Malaysia. Penang especially!

  9. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but know tons of friends and family who are strict vegetarians, some who do not even eat eggs. In India, a lot of Hindus (a majority) are vegetarians and hence, getting vegetarian food is far easier and safer than looking for non-vegetarian food (except a few corners of India like Goa, Kerala or the north east where a majority consume meat)

    Problems also arise because the definition of “vegetarian” might differ in various parts of the world. For example, on a flight to China, on asking for vegetarian items on the menu, my sister was told they had chicken and fish. Fish is considered vegetarian in many other parts of the world as well but is strictly not in the Indian definition.

    And there are Jains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism) who have a smaller subset of eatables than the Hindus. They don’t eat root vegetables, which rules out common ingredients like Potatoes, Onions and Garlic. It is in fact quite easy to find restaurants serving pure “Jain food” in parts of India.

    As for traveling, my folks who are vegetarians always carry around a bit of packed food, in the worst case that they cannot find vegetarian food. They also try to cook on their own whenever possible.

    It’s not always just about being fussy, sometimes religious beliefs and the fact that they are not used to the sights and smells of meat can come into the picture. Their case is a bit different from a person who has consciously chosen to become a vegetarian.

  10. Argentina and Uruguay have nothing on the menu but varieties of bland ham and cheese concoctions. Since I don’t eat meat, parilla – the national pastime besides futbol – is out. Even ordering a salad can be interesting…one never knows what will appear. I remember ordering a waldorf salad and it came as canned corn with some apple and mayonnaise. However, that’s not to say I don’t love the country. I’ll be moving to Uruguay within the year. Great little country, ham and cheese notwithstanding.

    1. I don’t think I saw ANYTHING on the menu in Argentina that didn’t have meat. It was tough enough for me sometimes as I typically don’t eat beef or pork.

  11. i recently stopped eating meat (well, except for seafood) and it’s definitely been a bit more challenging when i dine overseas. even at home in singapore, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a vegetarian.

    but i don’t think it’s a big loss, because i’m a lot more careful about what i put in my mouth. which is good, both morally and health-wise.

    however, like what Catia said, i am sometimes a little wistful that i might be missing out on a great cultural experience, but i’ll just counter it by taking part in a non-meal-related cultural activity :)

  12. to add on,

    i also try to research ahead on where are the vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants at the place where i’m visiting and i’ll try my best to dine there. if not, i will find out the local phrase for “do you have anything vegetarian on the menu?” or “is there meat in that?” and use it at the places i dine at.

    worked pretty well so far!

    1. There’s a really good iPhone app called Veggie Passport – it has translations for 33 languages for a whole range of meat free phrases. It’s cheap, and very handy

  13. I rarely eat meat but often when traveling and visiting a home there is no other choice. I’ll avoid meat when possible, try anything once, and eat it where there is no other choice. Using those basic rules it’s been pretty easy to stay vegetarian on most days.

  14. I was recently taking a short vacation in San Diego and we tried a small Mexican cafe. I asked if their beans were vegetarian and the employee stated “yes.” I asked if there was lard in them and he also said “yes.” There is certainly a different concept of what is considered veggie by many. I’ve also experienced this with ordering Pad Thai as it often has fish sauce, which is not mentioned and some consider veggie.

    I don’t think I could make an exception to my diet when traveling. It’s frankly not even appetizing to me if I know there’s meat. I would also rather not be picking it out of my food, which also seems gross. I have budged some with at least the proximity of my veg food to non as my mate is not a vegetarian.

    A veggie might need to be resourceful and creative when traveling. I think part of the point for some veggies, including myself, is to make a statement. That includes putting it out there when traveling so more and more establishments realize we exist and need to be catered to.

  15. Wow, great discussion going on here :)
    I’ve been on the road for 7 years, mostly in South America and Europe, and I’ve never had to sacrifice eating well as a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. I wrote a huge bunch of tips on my blog for other travelling vegetarians.
    @Alinda In Argentina I found that saying that I was on a diet rather than a vegetarian, actually worked way better. Otherwise a wee chat with the waiter was necessary, but I never went a day without eating wholesome food.
    I’m one of those “veggie purists”, but I find being very casual and joking about the whole thing saves me from any awkward situations. I like to mock meat eaters for their pathetic canine teeth and use of utensils, saying that I’m clearly the wilder manlier option ;)

  16. I’ve found that I really have to be more open to knowing that there may be meat base in the sauce or things like that…in Cuba, although I ordered beans and rice, the beans were often with a ham base…and I just went with it becuase it was all government issued food and I felt really bad making an issue since it’s all they have. For the most part though, I really haven’t had any horror stories like some people!

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