I’d dabbled with the idea of going vegetarian for years but had always struggled with turning down pub burgers and sizzling BBQ sausages. But the day I stepped on the plane to start my RTW trip, I wrote off meat and took a step in a new direction, both literally and gastronomically. You might ask why I decided to do both of these things at the same time. Well, I figured that my life was about to change so much anyway, that not eating meat might fade into the background. Also, I knew I had two months ahead of me in India – many of whose citizens are vegetarians too.
Was being a vegetarian whilst travelling difficult? The answer is, without hesitation, no. All it took was the mastering of a few key phrases, an understanding that many countries don’t consider poultry to be meat (only the juicy red stuff counts, apparently), and dealing with a few funny looks in South America (some of them actually thought I was mentally unstable). It also helped that I’m really a pescetarian, so I do eat fish and seafood.
Here’s my run-down of the situation for veggies in the places I visited on my RTW trip:
India – Veggie Heaven
Take any veggie hater to India and they will be converted. The spices, the colours, the flavours that sparkle off the tip of your tongue – nothing could make food taste better than the Indian way of cooking. And thanks to widespread Hinduism, whole restaurants here are vegetarian-only and yet they still manage to have menus three pages long. Some places will assume or ask whether you eat eggs and may find it strange you consider yourself vegetarian but do eat them.
I was happy (and I must admit, a little smug) to go along with the Hindu values of non-violence towards animals and the belief that vegetarianism leads to purity of the mind and body. I certainly felt pretty cleansed after my bout of Delhi Belly.
Some of the greatest food I’ve ever eaten was during my two months in India and even my meat loving boyfriend admitted that my dishes were always better than his. When he did get a craving for chicken or mutton it was always a disappointment of scrawny, bony flesh floating in broth. From delicious dhal to baingan bharta (roasted aubergine curry) and akoori (Parsi scrambled eggs), there is enough here to keep you on the wagon for years without getting bored. The only challenge is trying to eat it with one hand.
South East Asia
This was the trickiest of the bunch, particularly in Vietnam. Here, the ubiquitous pho (noodle broth) has always come into contact with a chicken. I lost track of the number of conversations in which despite explaining that a) I was a vegetarian and didn’t eat meat, and that b) that my definition of meat included chicken and anything else that wasn’t a cow,I received a soup with suspicious morsels of chicken-like meat floating around in it. Apparently, if its been made from the carcass of an animal but contains no chewable chunks of meat, that’s good enough for us veggies. I’m not the strictest, so sometimes I turned a blind eye, sometimes I ordered egg fried rice – it depended how hungry I was.
After the egg fiascos of India, South East Asians love an egg. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many but a boiled one was routinely offered to me as the vegetarian alternative to whatever everyone else was eating. Eating fish and seafood helped a lot here with keeping a variety in my diet amongst the noodles and rice – plus there were lots of situations in which we really had no choice about what to eat. For example, stopping at home stays along the Cambodian stretch of the Mekong, we were staying with poor families with whom we struggled to communicate and had to eat what we were given. Luckily, it was fish.
In Malaysia, I was treated to ‘mock meat’ by a friend. This is sold often in dedicated restaurants and after five months of meat avoidance, I’d almost forgotten what it tasted like. However, this stuff was so realistic-looking, so authentic-tasting that I was highly suspicious of the whole set-up. But after some convincing research, it turned out that these places were scattered all over regions with a large Buddhist population. If only I could find one at home in the UK!
Back to our Western roots, we drove around the islands for a couple of months, sleeping in the back of our car. So a lot of the time we cooked for ourselves which made things simple. I’d say we met far fewer vegetarians here than at home, though. There were very few prepared veggie options in the supermarkets. I couldn’t always find veggie burgers or tofu for an evening BBQ.
The biggest temptation to date came at Queenstown’s famous burger shack – Fergburger. My God, those beef burgers looked amazing. Still, my Bun Laden falafel patties were still lip-smackingly tasty.
My decision to continue eating fish came under scrutiny whilst salmon fishing in Nelson. Having never fished before, I went in nervously, well aware that one of my justification for not eating meat was that ‘if you couldn’t kill it yourself, you shouldn’t eat it’. I had to kill that damn salmon. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried as I held its squirming body down and stabbed the knife between its eyes, and to this day every time I take a mouthful of fish, I think about that salmon.
In Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, people thought I was particularly nuts. Thanks to the boyfriend, we ended up at multiple churrascarias and rodozios (Brazilian steak houses) and in Montevideo, a whole undercover market full of meat BBQs. Let me tell you, if you’re the kind of vegetarian that actually liked meat, eating a baked potato and barbecued pepper next to someone tucking into a juicy prime steak that costs virtually the same isn’t an enjoyable dining experience.
I ate a lot of omelettes. I lost weight despite carrying snacks everywhere with me. I fell in love with a lovely vegetarian cafe in La Paz called Tierra Sana. I didn’t live very authentically during my time there, but with a clear no como carne it was never too much of a problem.
Back home, I now help run a pub and serving up home made burgers, sausage and mash and steak pies makes being a vegetarian harder than ever. Still, I’ll keep it up. And thank goodness we have a great Indian takeaway nearby!
Helpful tips for veggies worldwide:
- Remember to request vegetarian meals when you book your flights
- Use online resources such as Happy Cow to search for local veggie eateries
- Carry snacks for emergencies
- Do a cookery course upon arrival – hopefully your host will have lots of good ideas of local dishes for you to try
- Learn how to say not only the food you can’t eat but also the food you can eat in the local language