Fifteen years ago, I was sitting at the kitchen table in my homestay in Barcelona, Spain. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish (or Catalan) and my homestay “mom” (more like a chain-smoking, elderly, unmarried grandmother…) slapped a big bowl of soup in front of me. It was quite red in color and had a lot of different-sized chunks. I looked at her quizzically. She left the room, came back with her Spanish-English dictionary and pointed to a word: conejo. Rabbit. Then, smiling at me, she tapped her heart. Rabbit… heart. Rabbit heart? Rabbit heart!
That was the moment I became a vegetarian.
You could never find a more unlikely vegetarian than me. I literally ate my first salad a few days before this incident, at the tender age of twenty. I had only cut a tomato once, giving up after slicing my finger and bleeding all over my dorm room kitchen. Oh, and I didn’t like fruit.
Within a few hours I realized that as a vegetarian, I was either going to have to start eating fruits and vegetables or starve to death. So, I set off on several weeks of culinary adventures around Barcelona, where I tried Indian food (in a long-closed restaurant in Raval, one of my favorite Barcelona neighborhoods) and ate eggplant (on a slice of focaccia from Buenas Migas, a local takeaway chain) for the first time. I also forced myself to eat salads as often as possible, until I became used to the taste and texture of raw vegetables.
When I returned home to Canada a few years later, my friends and family couldn’t believe that I was a vegetarian. And later, when I began to take more and more trips around the world, they couldn’t believe that I could survive as a vegetarian in some of the strangest and most remote destinations on the planet.
Fifteen years later, I am happy to say that I am living proof that you never have to eat meat. Vegetarian travel is possible – everywhere!
Vegetarian Travel Planning
As a vegetarian traveler, a lot of my travel planning starts with, “What am I going to eat?”
Sometimes, I choose a destination almost entirely based on its cuisine. For example, when I was riding the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, I tried Georgian food the first time. I was blown away by khachapuri (flatbread that is often stuffed with cheese, but can also be filled with greens, or topped with an egg, shown above), nigvziani badrijani (eggplant rolls filled with garlicky walnut paste), lobio (thick bean stew) and mchadi (Georgia’s version of cornbread). I immediately went home and started planning a trip to Georgia!
On other trips, food takes a backseat to different interests, like scuba diving, watching baby monkeys, shopping, feeding bananas to baby monkeys, learning a new language and playing with baby monkeys. In those cases, my vegetarian travel planning looks a little different.
Often, I start by scrolling through Instagram for photos of amazing vegetarian and vegan food that was taken in the places I plan to visit. I either save the posts directly on Instagram, or make note of the place they were taken and add them to a custom Google map. If I notice that a particular Instagrammer is sharing tons of amazing photos of local meatless meas, I might slide into their DMs and ask for some personalized restaurant recommendations.
Next, I head over to TripAdvisor for local restaurant reviews. Then, I use the “Dietary Restrictions” filter to find the restaurants that have already been labeled “Vegetarian Friendly” or “Vegan Friendly”. Once I find a place that looks interesting, I specifically search the reviews for the phrase “vegetarian” or “vegan” to see what other travelers have said about the meatless choices. Sometimes, this reveals restaurants with amazing vegetarian selections, and other times it shows that there may be only one or two vegetarian items on the menu. Again, if I find a great restaurant option I will either add it to my Google Map or look it up on Instagram and, if the restaurant has an account, follow it.
The last stop on my culinary travel planning adventure is usually a guidebook (or two, or three…). I always start by signing guidebooks out of the local public library, and then I purchase the ones that I think will be invaluable during my trip. Some guidebooks, like the Lonely Planet series, often have a little blurb about vegetarian and vegan food in the destination being covered. Combined with the restaurant listings and my other research, this gives me a full picture of what to expect while I’m away.
On Not Accidentally Eating Meat
Whether you’re in Russia, Mexico or Myanmar, the easiest way to navigate an unfamiliar food landscape is to the learn the local word (or phrase) for meatless, vegetarian or vegan, and then to repeat it ad nauseum.
In Russia, “Без мяса” (“byez myasa”) means “without meat”. “Sin carne” is the same expression in Spanish. In Myanmar, they take a different angle – “thatalo” means “lifeless”. If you’re confident, you can get even more specific (for example, I like to clarify that I want my food without meat, without chicken and without fish) but generally one simple expression is sufficient.
You can usually find the phrase you’re looking for with a quick Google search, but it’s often good to confirm your pronunciation (or even have it written in the local language, if possible) by checking with the receptionists at your hotel or hostel.
Once you arrive at a restaurant, take a look at the menu. If you can read the local language, yay! Look for dishes that appear to be meatless. Alternately, look for dishes labeled with something that looks vegetarian, like a green leaf or the letter “V”.
But never assume that a dish will be vegetarian based on its name. If you see something that interests you, point to it on the menu and ask, “Vegetarian?” Your server will confirm if it’s vegetarian, and if it’s not, they will usually point to something else that is meatless.
If there’s nothing vegetarian on the menu, you can ask the server to prepare an off-menu dish for you. This could end up being pretty good (like the vegetarian plate that a beer garden whipped up for me in Cologne, Germany – shown above) or only passable (like the heaping plate of nothing but huge grilled mushrooms that I was served at a restaurant in Skopje…). I have yet to find any restaurant that couldn’t serve me something.
Of course, when the food arrives at your table it’s a good idea to confirm with the server or busser that it is vegetarian before you dig in. As they place the food in front of you, point to your dish and again, ask, “Without meat?” They will usually smile, laugh and confirm that it is meatless. In fact, in fifteen years of being a vegetarian I have only accidentally eaten meat once, and that was at a local restaurant in my hometown where they accidentally put pork spring rolls on my plate instead of the vegetarian ones. Yes, I did take one bite of pork. No, I didn’t die… though when the server was unapologetic, I did find a new go-to restaurant when the craving for Vietnamese food hit.
Liking that saucy potato? Read all about eating vegetarian food in Germany.
Should You Bring Vegetarian Food From Home?
There you go. That’s your answer.
Last year I went away for two months in the summer. I packed three Clif Bars in my carry-on bag, and I still had two of them (now very squished, of course!) when I got home. It’s nice to have a little something to eat in case your flight gets really delayed or they accidentally serve your vegetarian meal to someone else on the plane (seriously, who eats a meal that is clearly labeled with someone else’s name and seat number?) but you don’t need to pack more than one or two energy bars or a little bag of trail mix for the first leg of your journey. After that, you can pick up snacks for the road at local supermarkets and convenience stores.
What you definitely don’t need to bring is any sort of food intended to be a full meal, or a main component of any dish. If you follow my vegetarian travel planning and restaurant ordering tips noted above, you will always be able to find vegetarian food. Numerous vegetarians have summited Mount Everest. Expeditions to Antarctica can accommodate vegan travelers. I ate 100% vegetarian food while living in yurts with nomadic families in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Follow my lead and consider your vegetarian travel experience the chance to expand your palate and learn about new ways of eating.
Staying Healthy During Vegetarian Travel
In case you’re new here, something you might not know about me is that I am about to take an eight-month sabbatical from work to go traveling. I’ve taken some long trips before (including living and working abroad, and traveling for two months almost every summer) but this will be the first time I’ve been without a “home base” for so long. I don’t plan to do any extended apartment rentals (maybe one or two weeks here or there?) so I will essentially be eating vegetarian restaurant food for eight months.
This is crazy to me! One of the things I miss most when I’m traveling is my own kitchen, with its huge collection of herbs, spices and utensils (hostel kitchens just don’t cut it!). And of course, there are definitely some health considerations that go along with eating in restaurants for such a long period of time, but over the past fifteen years I’ve found a few ways to make daily restaurant meals a lot healthier.
- Try two meals a day. Restaurant meals are often much more calorific than the food you’d cook at home, so you probably won’t need to eat as many separate meals. Whenever possible, I’ll go out for a nice breakfast and an early dinner. If I’m hungry mid-day, I might pick up a snack like a small pastry or a handful of nuts from the market. Okay, or gelato. Even though I would love to eat everything, I find that eating three full restaurant meals in one day leaves me feeling bloated and sluggish.
- Eat the rainbow. In Thailand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of eating nothing but pad thai and mango sticky rice, but that’s a whole lot of brown and white food. If you intentionally seek out brightly colored foods, like the sauteed greens I enjoyed at one of Bangkok’s food courts (they were served with rice and tofu – shown above), vibrant açaí bowls for breakfast, or even Instagram-worthy avocado toast, you’ll be more likely to meet your daily nutritional needs.
- Mind your protein. I often hear people say that calorie-for-calorie, broccoli has more protein than steak. And while this may be true, I don’t want to test this theory by eating four hundred calories (or, thirteen cups…) worth of broccoli in one sitting. As a vegetarian, I do eat eggs and other dairy products, and I try to have an egg-based breakfast at least two or three times each week when I’m abroad. I also look for plant-based protein sources like tofu (I am so excited about traveling to Indonesia this summer and eating all the tempeh!) and nut butter. I would say that meeting your protein needs is one of the most difficult parts of vegetarian travel, but it is something that you have to be mindful of if you’re going away for an extended period of time.
What are your tips and tricks for staying healthy during vegetarian travel? Let me know in the comments!
A Few More Vegetarian Travel Tips
Try Family-Style Dining
If you’re like me and you want to try every dish on the menu, it’s worth seeking out restaurants that offer family-style service. Meet up with some of your new travel friends and order a whole bunch of different dishes to share. This allows you to sample little bites of many dishes, without blowing your budget (or your abdomen!). In my experience, the main downside of family-style dining is that people think they’ll want to eat the meaty dishes, but then they’ll see the vegetarian and vegan dishes and realize that meatless meals are the way to go, so don’t be afraid to order a couple extra vegetable dishes for the table!
Find a Great Vegetarian Buffet
When I first arrive in a brand new destination, I often seek out a vegetarian (or vegetarian-friendly) buffet as my first meal. Much like family-style dining, a buffet allows me to sample lots of different foods to find the ones that I like the most… but unlike family-style dining, I don’t need other people with me to make the most of the dining experience! I’ve always found that Eastern Europe is great for vegetarian-friendly buffets, as many places have continued the tradition of Soviet-style self-service cafeterias (called stolovayas) but upgraded them with fresher and tastier dishes. I have an entire post about vegetarian food in Kiev, Ukraine, where I ate the dishes shown above at the popular Puzata Hata buffet, but I’m also partial to the Latvian chain called Lido (with locations in Latvia, Estonia and Germany, and a semi-knock-off location in Minsk).
Step Outside Your Culinary Comfort Zone
If you want to eat your favorite foods from back home… stay home.
Sorry, not sorry.
Travel is all about broadening your horizons, and part of that is being open to new experiences. I’m not saying that you have to eat foods that you already know you hate, but I am saying that you should absolutely try new foods that you’re unfamiliar with, or try new preparations of dishes and ingredients that you thought you might not have liked. For years, I thought I didn’t like olives. Then I traveled to the Balkans, and discovered these luscious olives with the pits still inside (something I’d never encountered back home in Canada… again, surely due to my picky eating) and my mind was blown. The change in geography, preparation and presentation turned a food that I had no interest in into one of my favorites. The same goes for papaya – I never really understood its appeal until I traveled to Thailand and ate it fresh, local and in-season.
Fifteen years of international travel has shaped my life in more ways than I can count, but I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that its greatest positive impact has been on my attitude towards food and eating.
Do you have any vegetarian travel tips? Let me know in the comments!