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Travelling: The Vegetarian’s Nemesis

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

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.

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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.)

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