Up until recently, I’ve not been very good at bringing the topic of food in my blog.
I’m actually not a big foodie. (Audience gasp) Sorry, the truth is out. Blame it on the vegetarian part of me.
Unless I’m in a cosmopolitan city, finding vegetarian options on the road are often a challenge. As a traveler with dietary concerns, I can be quite successful at finding foods or I can have bad spells which range between starvation, eating junk food or something veggie safe, but seemingly un-adventurous.
21 Tips for Vegetarian Travelers:
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.
1. Research in advance
Do your homework in advance and research and familiarize yourself with vegetarian dishes to try before you travel.
A new favorite vegetarian iPhone app is Vegman (download it from their site Vegman.org). It works like the website version and unfortunately, you have to be online to use it, but it allows you to search for vegetarian restaurants in your area. It shows a map, hours, photos of foods and important stats like phone number and website, even Facebook page.
2. Choose countries with vegetarian options
When I look at countries I’m interested in traveling to, I already have a sixth sense about what is going to be hard for me to find food in. Frankly, that alone can turn me off to certain countries or at least delay my enthusiasm for booking a flight there. So I try to find countries which have vegetarian dishes in their palate, religious dietary observances
Veg-friendly countries: India, Israel, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Ethiopia, UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland and more.
3. Bring packable meals and snacks
I like packing a handful of power bars as last-minute meals or power snacks. Knowing I have them, buys me time as I familiarize myself with the foods of the country and it’s also my emergency backup in the case I can’t find anything to eat.
Other light-weight snackable items are: instant soups, instant oatmeal, senbei (Japanese wafer crackers), dried lever, dried fruits and nuts, protein powder. Did I miss anything?
4. Shop at grocery stores and marketplaces
Go grocery shopping and cook some stuff up in your hostel kitchen or buy some items to munch on. Between the produce section and a variety of food aisles, you’ll easily find something you can eat… rice crackers, granola, yogurt or fruit cups, salad, fig bars, string cheese, etc….
Some cities also have dollar stores. They usually have food products and snack items too.
Alternately, local fresh markets sell local fruits that I know I’ll want to try or want to grab for a snack on a long bus ride.
5. Snack rather than dine
Grazing and snacking on street food or fruits and nuts helps curb the appetite, while also keeping you fed and refreshed. It’s also easier on your stomach to digest small quantities and if you’re concerned about your figure, grazing helps keep your metabolism going.
6. Learn food phrases and pack a survival phrase book
It’s not enough to learn a country’s word for “vegetarian”. For some countries, the word doesn’t exist or they may interpret vegetarians as not eating red meat eat, while assuming fish, eggs, seafood or chicken are okay.
Tip: Either, learn survival food phrases or carry a handy phrase card, like “Without eggs”, “No chicken, fish or shellfish” and “no dairy” so you can communicate your needs with others.
7. Survival snacks from convenience marts
Convenience marts and shops offer at the most survival snacks such as crackers, dried fruits, figs and nuts and other edible snacks to much on. On the bad side, it’s also a haven for potato chips and cookies, which can be the first thing to grab when you’re hungry.
8. Pack extra vitamins
Staying healthy on the road isn’t always easy for vegetarians. Often we have less control over our diets than we would at home. Packing extra vitamins will give you a daily infusion of nutrients. I like vitamin mixes like Emergen-C Super (1000MG) Powders or if I’m going to a country with bad water, I’ll throw a bunch of multivitamins in a ziploc. Occasionally, I’ll even bring a shake cup and mix my own protein powder.
9. Know your go-to foods and snacks
It’s helpful to have an idea of convenient foods to fall back on, in case you can’t find vegetarian friendly local food. I usually know what I want and what will fill me and that I can easily pack and shuffle around.
My personal faves are yogurt, oranges, crackers, nuts. Whereever I go, I know I can almost always count on finding them at a grocery store, airport or local convenience store.
10. Ask locals
Asking a local for their recommendation can be helpful. Try the front desk receptionist at your guesthouse/hostel or if you’re staying at a hotel, ask the concierge. If there’s a language barrier, pop out your phrasebook.
11. Pack your utensils and appliances
Bring or buy the utensils you think you may need for your backup cook-it-yourself diet. For instance, I always fold-up yogurt spoon as a key utensil, because I know I’ll likely be grocery shopping and yogurt is one of my go-to foods.
Sporks are an ideal two-for-one utensil and I have the BPA-Free Tritan Sporkwhich is a fork, spoon and serrated edge (aka knife) in one. The spork is plastic so you can store it in your carryon. The knife is okay but won’t cut as easily as a real one; still, if that’s all you have, it works!
Smoothie cups allow you to mix your own protein shakes and tea. And if I’m traveling for work and expect to be on the road for a length of time, I might even bring a mini blender!
Swiss army knives work great for cutting fruits bought from a local market or fruit vendor. And even better is the X-Camper Tool – Fork Spoon and Knife All in One which allows you a whole cutlery set. Just remember to pack it in your luggage and not carryon.
12. Social Media and Meetup groups
You’re not the only vegetarian out there. These days, there’s a lot of groups on social media for foodies and those with restrictive diets. Check in with expat groups or travel groups with an interest in the country you’re traveling to. This is what my Facebook search for vegetarian groups popped up.
13. Ziplocs bags
Between hunting and foraging, I always pack a variety of Ziploc bags with me in the case I have a decent leftovers from a meal. While restaurants know about “doggie bags”, “takeout” or “to go”, smaller joints and street stalls don’t. Often the food comes in handy hours later when I’m on a train or am just plain hungry.
14. Temple food
In some countries, where the religion is anti-cruelty, the temple will either have a cafeteria or feeding time which is open to attendees.
13. Know your flex spot
I’m a vegetarian or at least, 97% of me is. The other 3% of me is reserved for pescatarian occasions, where I just need to eat and I find something I can “bend” with. Some say that’s cheating; others might say it’s not vegetarian. Ask me if I care… they don’t define my stomach nor feed its needs.
Personally, I’ve been that traveler ,who walks around the city for 45 minutes to an hour or longer, looking for food I can eat (and forgetting to eat because I’m still looking for it) and it’s just not a fun way to travel.
Many of us come to restrictive diets out of strong beliefs: religion, health, animal rights, etc.. Whatever your pact with vegetarianism is, respect it. But also respect your body and its hunger.
14 . Beware of soup bases, sauces and broths
Asia/Southeast Asia uses a lot of fish, oyster and seafood broth, sauces and pastes. In Western and European countries you might find meat based broths or soups (of chicken or beef). The truth is, sometimes, the meat flavors aren’t easy to decipher upon tongue and even your well-intentioned local host, might not know what the full ingredients are either. Translations can be a bit rough. There’s a couple of times I’ve featured some foods which are suspect, but at the time of dining –food into mouth– I didn’t know. Boat noodles in Thailand can be made with pigs blood. I’m glad I learned that after I got home. Kimchi has oyster and shrimp paste or sauce (I made it so I saw what went into it).
15. “Vegetarian” is not a globally recognized word .
Saying “I’m a vegetarian.” May not work as a solitary solution. Some countries or regions don’t know what vegetarianism is. Usually, the term is recognized in countries or cities, where there’s a cosmopolitan society or spiritual group that lives by dietary restrictions (i.e. Hindu or Buddhism) . This brings me to the next tip…
16. Vegetarianism may not mean the same thing as it does in your country.
Know that by saying “No meat”, when ordering your food, may not be sufficient. You may need to specify all the ingredients which you cannot have in your meal. Yes, this generally means knowing the language for say, fish, chicken, meat, eggs, seafood, etc… It’s tiring and time consuming but depending upon how strict you are, you’ll want to do it. In countries like say, Korea, “no meat” can be misinterpreted as “no red meat” (beef, pork, lamb, etc..); meanwhile, chicken, fish and seafood aren’t considered “meat”. This is something I had to learn when I lived in Korea. I had to spout a list of meats followed by… “oppsayo” ( Korean word for without).
17. Have a local write down the phrase, “I am vegetarian. Do you have something without….. ” and then carry it around with you.
I like this one the best if I remember it.
18. Download Google translate.
Google Translate app is a great mobile app to carry around. You’ll need a data plan or wifi connection in order to use it on the road but it’s a good backup translator as you can speak your phrase into it and it will speak out the translation for the other person to hear. Although it’s not always 100% accurate in translations. I still prefer #17, as whipping out a phrase is quicker than opening an app, waiting for it to load and then fidgetting with the speech controls.
19. Take a food tour
Food tours are a great way to break into and through the foreignness of a country’s food and I love them! These days I use them a lot to give me added information and to open my gastronomical palate more. Rather than stare at a mystery food and wonder what its ingredients are, you’ll have a guide shed insight into the choice flavors or street snacks a city has to offer. You might also get a historical tour of the city and some sightseeing as you go from food vendor to food vendor.
20. Take a cooking class
Learning about the country’s staple ingredients and style or philosophy of cooking opens a new dimension of understanding a country’s food. Of course, you need to ask if vegetarian substitutes are available in the class.
21. Picture menus are a godsend