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Travelling: The Vegetarian’s Nemesis

Posted: June 9, 2012

Can the Indian vegetarian traveller explore the world without worrying about her next meal? Yes she can, says Meena!

By Meena Venkataraman

“In the last fifteen years, I have seen vegetarianism go from fringe to fashion to fact of life because it’s a healthy and worthy way to live.” – Kathy Kingsley in The Big Book of Vegetarian.

We’ve finally found McDonalds in the middle of a crowded mall in Makati, Philippines. Feet sore and my tummy grumbling I welcome the familiarity of the red – yellow surroundings; a misleading likeness as I would discover soon. I ask for a cheese burger and join my colleagues. I am almost half way through the meal, when a discerning colleague spots something is amiss. What are you eating, he asks, knowing I am vegetarian. “A cheese burger”, I say innocently. He quickly grabs it from me and takes a bite, and then smiles. I am confused. He explains that a burger is made of beef unless explicitly specified otherwise and gently asks if I had any religious sentiments attached. I say I had none. But there I learnt my first lesson. Be wary of the burger!

There were others that day. Like the waitress who brought my rice cooked in meat broth and could not understand why that was a problem. Being vegetarian is hard in places where the concept is viewed as an oddity. But even there, I found a way out. Breakfast being free in the hotel we were staying in, I stacked some fruit away for later.

Travelling is the vegetarian’s nemesis. When hunger strikes, there is often no escape.

Travelling is the vegetarian’s nemesis. When hunger strikes, there is often no escape. It can creep up on you gently when you least expect it and challenge you to think of solutions – not the best thing when your glucose levels dip.

My experiences as a travelling vegetarian have been more good than bad. But I would be lying if I said that it was a walk in the park. Here are a few things I watch out for.

Seek to understand and be understood

There are places that are often misunderstood, coated in stereotypes on the surface, but they can completely surprise you with their range of vegetarian fare. For instance before I left on a business visit to China, my family was worried. How was I to survive 5 weeks there? Just weeks before, a TV program gleefully illustrated the meat eating habits of the Chinese in graphic detail, adding to my anxiety.

But China was a bag of surprises. Not only did I find vegetarian food, but I was blown away by the range of what there was on offer. It turns out that as part of a regular meal, the Chinese eat both meat and vegetables. I even got a chance to sample imitation meat made entirely of soya and was speechless to find a completely vegetarian restaurant, The Jujube Tree in the heart of Shanghai. So why then does China carry the cross of being vegetarian unfriendly? The answer is the ‘LANGUAGE’. As long as you communicate your requirement in Chinese, you get what you want. A colleague wrote the words “I am vegetarian, I do not eat meat.” in Chinese on a slip of paper, and I carried this around the whole time I was there. It worked like a charm!

The word vegetarian varies in meaning, narrower in some cultures and broader in others. A situation I have had to confront often is when a vegetarian option is specified, but it turns out to be fish!

Check your options

The word vegetarian varies in meaning, narrower in some cultures and broader in others. A situation I have had to confront often is when a vegetarian option is specified, but it turns out to be fish! I have heard similar accounts from other travellers, one of them recently on the Eurostar to Paris. I double check to make sure I get what I am really asking for. The lexicon is more intelligent, and does have unambiguous words like Pisco- tarian (those who supplement a vegetarian diet with fish), but the usage hasn’t caught up just as yet. Research options if you have the time. In the age of Google, there is little you can’t find online.

Don’t be picky

Everytime I hear a vegetarian rant about not getting what they want it surprises me; this sometimes in veggie-friendly places like India. Given the diversity across the length and breadth of the country it is unfair to expect the same food you get back home. So if you are looking for parathas down South or idly-sambhar in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, you are likely to be disappointed. Instead, embrace what each region has to offer and embark on a culinary adventure.

Prepare for emergencies

I always carry an energy bar or two in my handbag just in case I run out of options. Sometimes they do save the day!

You can travel vegetarian and have a good time of it. It all lies in knowing what to do where! The world certainly has opened up its doors to the vegetarian traveller.

*Photo credit: seafaringwoman (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

About The Author: Meena is from Bangalore where she lived before moving to London couple of years ago. An engineer by profession, she is also an artist and a freelance travel writer, both of which bring together creativity and her love for the outdoors. An avid travelled and a wild life enthusiast, Meena has travelled through much of India and the world. She blogs at Travel Tazzels.

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  1. Hi, nice piece. Being a food and travel freak, I have come to appreciate that vegetarian food is easier to come by almost everywhere in the world now. But it is still difficult to cope with people not understanding how to serve themselves without dripping meat gravy into the dal bowl…or not touching the sausage on their plate with the baked beans serving spoon. And this is the case even in India where everybody understands the vegetarian culture. Last year, on our Alaskan Cruise, there was a big spread of vegetarian food – Indian even – at each meal…but once, right next to the dal at dinner, we had a stuffed PIG. Needless to say, I didn’t eat well that night. A little common sense goes a long way.

  2. thanks, i needed this.!

  3. Anita – Thats true. Sensitivity is a different ball game all together. I have found that people dont intend to be offensive, but rather the whole idea that a certain kind of food is not acceptable to someone is a new idea all together. In such situations I often use humour to communicate how I feel. It helps. Do try it and let me know if it works 😉

  4. Rinzu- Thanks 🙂

  5. A very interesting read. Vegetarian food includes eggs in Europe. Vegan food would be a safer word for many Indian vegetarians. It is surprising how accommodating Germany is towards vegetarians. There’s always a vegetarian meal in the University mess (or Mensa as they call it). At the least you’d have a Margarita pizza in a restaurant. France was a bit tricky. French food is centered around meat. Difficult to have authentic vegetarian french cuisine. I could be wrong though bu my french friend wouldn’t have a clue of it. You can settle for a dessert and a drink though 🙂

  6. Amith – yeah eggs are boder line vegetarian 😉
    There is a word for that as well. Its called Ovo -Vegetarian.
    Language evolves faster than the world itself. Don’t you think 🙂

  7. @Amith Yes, you are right. I have studied in German universities and found that the canteen (mensa) people were very understanding towards customer’s food choices.

  8. Very well summarized ! I have studied in singapore and have traveled south-east asia and japan. Well, besides being a vegetarian, i don’t even take onion, garlic and mushroom. So yeah, its even worse 🙂
    a few things that have helped me – websites like http://www.holycow.com for a list of vegetarian restaurants.. it did help as i carried the list along. Most importantly, as u have mentioned as well.. being accomodating with the list of choices (not being picky) is the biggest help.On my visit to japan – a piece of paper having “no meat, no lard, no sea food, no mushroom, onion and garlic” written on it did help – and i ended up having pizza most of the time .. haha.. but then i enjoyed getting to eat something instead of suffering. Not to forget, i did try vegetarian sushi and onigiri also 🙂

  9. So sorie, the website is happycow.com..:)

  10. Dr. Mrs Sushma Joiya Pandit -

    It is a well known fact that vegetarians live longer, they are more intelligent, they are fast to grasp the things, they are good planners and avoid fast food.

    Being a vegetarian you can meditate and concentrate better than others.
    This helps in character building.
    The article is really very well drafted and must be read by many.
    Dr Mrs Sushma Joiya Pandit

  11. On a recent trip to Turkey, we discovered how difficult it is to order vegetarian food, because a cousin who was “pure” vegetarian accompanied us.
    We hit upon a novel way to order and had a great eating experience. I blogged about it on http://unboxedwriters.com/2013/10/a-vegetarian-in-turkey/
    I like what you have written about your own experience. Sadly MacDonald’s in Turkey had no vegetarian option, but the bean burger at burger King was great savior at the Izmir airport.

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