When you have special dietary concerns, eating your way through the streets isn’t impossible, but it takes effort and patience when it comes to finding things you can eat.
Life for vegetarians on the road can be tough. If you are reading this guide, chances are that you are a starving vegetarian on the other side of the world and probably missing your mother’s food. I know that I have been one many times, so I thought I could offer some practical suggestions to avoid this struggle. For whatever amazing reason you have decided to stop eating meat, don’t regret it now, It is perfectly possible to travel anywhere and keep up your ethics. Having the best veggie dinner of your life sometimes is just luck, but a bit of planning will get your belly full.
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No need to limit your bucket list to veggie-friendly areas. There are options even in small villages in the Vietnamese mountains. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, learn enough of the local language to get by. This might not be easy, especially as the pronunciation of some words can be very tricky. If you don’t nail the correct one you might unconsciously be asking for a blue horse instead of a salad.
Also, in some countries being vegetarian can mean different things. Veggie restaurants in Malaysia call themselves “strict”: they don’t cook with onions or garlic, but they use cheese and eggs. The opposite of what most western countries would do. In Vietnam, the word “an chay” means food for the Buddhist monks, which is more similar to our vegan diet.
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Even for the most adaptable travelers out there, sometimes the situation can get nearly comic. At one point in Indonesia, I recalled having to eat plain white rice topped with roasted peanuts and a sandwich with just a leaf of lettuce in it. It was not great but it’s better than starving. However, when that’s the first veggie meal you managed to put your hands on after 10 hours it might not be that funny. Just keep an open mind and don’t have false expectations of what a meat-free meal in remote areas looks like.
The best option is to order something simple and try to oversee the cooking process. Often things that are obvious to you might not be in other people’s cultures. I had my veggie sandwich made with liver pate once. Also, many sauces and broths might contain meat. If the language barrier is against you, order a dry food that is made with more obvious ingredients.
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Having snacks with you in most situations can be a lifesaver. However, buying them from 7Elevens or corner shops might do more bad than good. Often, they are heavily packaged in plastic and not particularly healthy. Alternatively, many countries have incredible local markets, if you are currently abroad and lacking veggie options, find one near you. These markets generally tend to offer a wide variety of exclusive seasonal products that come straight from the local farmers.
Local markets are also the best spots for trying out new food without the risk of eating meat. Just pick the weirdest fruit and enjoy it. Just keep an eye (or nose) out for Durian, the notorious fruit has such a potent stench that it is banned in many countries including Singapore and Japan. If you are craving a less healthy option, find a food cart. In Indonesia, they are called “gorengan” or delicious deep-fried food!
Depending on where you are and how far you are from civilization, there are apps that can help you out. Happy Cow is a great way to find veggie restaurants in your current area, but it only works if you are 10km away from the nearest village.
Don’t expect a nearby street food vendor to be found on that platform, even if he sells the freshest veggie meals. If the problem is more the language barrier than the availability of translation software like Google Translate should save the day. If it really comes to it, you can photograph the menu and translate it through this system. You will need data, however, so if you haven’t got a local sim card yet, make sure to buy one.
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Traveling and not eating in local restaurants goes completely against anything Anthony Bourdain taught us. However, he was eating a lot of meat. Book yourself in a hostel with a shared kitchen and visit the local market for supplies. You might be able to cook your own veggie version of local dishes. And who knows, it might be even better. Shared kitchens are also a great way to get in touch with other travelers. There have been occasions where I’ve come out of a cooking session with a new traveling companion or suggestions for the best veggie restaurant nearby.
Keep up your veggie lifestyle, it does help protect the areas you are visiting. Moreover, the search for the elusive veggie restaurant might push you further enough to find that amazing waterfall that everybody had been looking for. Just make sure you have a banana or two with you so you don’t pass out on the way.