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.
27 Survival 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
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”. In some countries, the word “vegetarian” doesn’t exist or they may interpret vegetarians as “not eating red meat”, assuming fish, eggs, cheese, seafood or chicken are okay.
Tip: Learn survival food phrases and 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. Where ever 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 Spork which 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 a four in one tool of Fork Spoon, bottle opener and Knife All in One which allows you a whole cutlery set. Just remember to pack it in your checked luggage and not carryon, as TSA will confiscate it.
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, 95% of me is. The other 5% 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 and Southeast Asia flavors their foods with lots 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 rough.
There were a couple of times I’ve featured some foods which are suspect, but at the time of dining –food into mouth– I did not know. For example:
Boat noodles in Thailand are deliciously made with pigs blood. I’m glad I learned that after I got home.
Kimchi has oyster sauce and shrimp paste (I made it so I saw what went into it).
15. Beware of cheeses, except for ricotta and paneer cheese
I loved my cheese. What I did not know until a vegetarian with a stricter diet informed me about it, was that a majority of cheeses are made with baby calf rennet. In order for milk to be curded, it requires an active enzyme agent found in the stomach lining of unweaned baby calf. It is not only baby calf that is occasionally used, but baby goat and lamb… if goat’s milk needs to be curded, then it requires baby goat. Unfortunately, if you are in Italy eating pasta, then you will find a lot of pasta is flavored with cheeses like parmegiano-reggiano.
Goodbye Parmesan cheese and all imported cheeses, especially ones that must pass an EU standard in order to be sold. If you want to be strict, then the cheese you’re looking for should list vegetable rennet or microbial rennet.. but don’t expect the cook of a restaurant or food hawker to specify which was on the label. It’s likely the most common cheese was used– expect it to be not vegetarian.
Note: Pictured below- pasta with tomato sauce looks safe to eat. But this Italian sauce has Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese mixed in to flavor it.
Vegetarian cheeses that are okay: Ricotta cheese and Indian paneer.
16. Beware of cooking oils
Unless you’re Kosher, it is easy to overlook that cooking oils are often reused in restaurant kitchens and on the streets. Thus, it is possible that your food may have been cooked in oils that have cooked meats.
17. “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…
18. Vegetarianism may not mean the same thing as it does to you
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 and had to specify my dietary list. I had to spout a list of meats followed by… “oppsayo” ( Korean word for without).
Which brings me to…
19. Even amongst vegetarians, dietary rules differ.
While your vegetarian diet may feel clear cut to you, there are many different shades of vegetarians in the world and not all of them subscribe to the same dietary standard or belief system when it comes to food.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians consider eggs and dairy okay. But not red or white meat or seafood.
Lacto vegetarians ~ say dairy okay. But no eggs, red or white meat or seafood.
Ovo vegetarians ~ eggs okay (it is not the meat of an animal).
Pesco~ fish okay.
Semi-vegetarians ~ they release from their dietary rules when they feel they need to.
Vegan- plant-based only.
Despite abstaining from killing life, Buddhist sects vary in beliefs on eating meat. Theravada Buddhists are allowed to eat meat that has been given as alms, as long as it is not specifically killed for them. Meanwhile, some other sects are strict in even abstaining from certain vegetables which may interfere with their meditative demeanor. I believe there is even a sect, which only allows root plants in the diet (something like that) as the religious belief is to abstain from all cruelty and harm.
20. Have a local write down the phrase…
Have a local friend or your hotel write a sign to take around with you to restaurants:
“I am vegetarian. Do you have something without….. ”
21. 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. There is a camera feature also where you scan the menu or sign and it will offer translations of the word. Although it’s not always 100% accurate in translations.
22. 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 the ingredients are, with food tours, you 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. However, do not expect food tours to understand anything more than a casual vegetarian diet.
For stricter diets, you will have to do a bit of research on your own. For instance, many food tours i’ve taken substitute meats with cheeses. As I mentioned above, most cheeses are not vegetarian.
23. 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.
24. Try the street food
A large reason I started exploring street food was because 90% of the time I could see what ingredients were going into my foods. Of course, there are complex foods and cooking techniques as I mentioned which may be tricky to decipher in cooking oils, cheeses, soups and sauces. But otherwise, I can see how a food hawker is making some of their foods and determine whether it is acceptable to my diet.
25. Picture menus are a godsend
26. Decide how vegetarian you will be
Know that you might not be able to catch everything non-vegetarian in your food. It is important to realistically decide how much of a strict vegetarian you’re willing to be on your trip, especially when going into non-veg cultures and countries.
Unless you walk around inquiring about ingredient labels and find people who can communicate that to you, it is likely you will be eating some type of meat product without your knowing. Vegetarian diets are largely a special diet and in some cultures, it is a highly privileged diet that the majority of the world does not subscribe to.
27. Be flexible
Being flexible and forgiving yourself of your food mistakes is helpful. You are likely to make mistakes along the way. Abroad, you can’t always read ingredient labels, you won’t know all the ingredients being used, you won’t know if the cook fries his vegetarian foods with the same oil as meat dishes.
Don’t walk around avoiding all local foods and local hospitality, such that you and the friends with you cannot enjoy their trip. Some establishments may try to find substitutes but the more local you go, it may be challenging. Thus, it is not others whom should convert for our diets but as a minority, it is up to us to find substitutes and alternatives for the dietary lifestyle we want to live.
What are some of your travel survival tips and tricks for vegetarian traveling? What are your tips for vegetarian travelers?
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