I was deep in the hills of Uganda being introduced to my host family when I had my first real desire to eat meat. The look and the smell of the chunks of goat in a brownish, watery gravy in front of me were not in the least appetizing, but I was still tempted to throw my vegetarianism out the window if it would have helped me avoid offending my hosts. I would have been perfectly happy eating the staple food of steamed matoke (plantain), but instead, to commemorate the occasion of a guest in her home, the matriarch had prepared a special meal of goat soup. I stared at the goat chunks for what felt like hours wondering if I could just scarf it down and deal with the consequences later. In the end, I begged for forgiveness and turned down their generous offering.
I have been a vegetarian all my life, and I have traveled to almost 50 countries. While it’s never easy, it is totally possible to be an avid traveler and still stick to your dietary choices. Here’s how:
1. Get over the embarrassment.
If you pride yourself on being an easygoing traveler who is up for anything, that all ends at the dinner table. You will find yourself prolonging the ordering process by ensuring the waitstaff understands your definition of vegetarianism and trying not to get irritated when you are left with no option other than a garden salad. Do your best to be prepared ahead of time by researching online menus when available and by explaining your dietary needs to the group you are traveling with.
2. Do your research.
I rarely ever show up to a country/city without having researched a few vegetarian restaurants. There are some destinations that are easy for vegetarians — Bali and India, for example — and restaurants in most big cities like Hong Kong, London, and New York cater to those with dietary restrictions. Some destinations are more difficult, but websites like Happy Cow make vegetarian travelers’ lives much easier.
I ate many a bowl of vegan ramen in Tokyo and Kyoto by spending some time researching in advance and starring them on Google Maps. If all fails, my hack is to look up an Indian or Mediterranean restaurant in the area; those cuisines generally always have a vegetarian dish on the menu. No, it’s not the most authentic meal if you are in Estonia, but vegetarian travelers gotta eat, too.
3. Learn the right words to communicate in the local language.
Most times, just learning to say “vegetarian” in the local vernacular won’t do it. In many cultures, vegetarianism is still a new concept with varied definitions. When I lived in Moscow, I learned very quickly that it wasn’t enough to say, “I am a vegetarian,” I had to learn to say “I don’t eat meat,” along with the word for “vegetarian.” I would advise travelers to learn the words for “no,” “meat,” “chicken,” and “fish” in the local language. You will likely still end up with fish sauce in your dish if you are somewhere in southeast Asia and then it’s your call if you want to send it back to the kitchen or not.
4. Keep an open mind.
Know that in some cultures, meat is part of their history and their evolution, so it’s important to respect that while still sticking to your guns. For example, the use of ants and insects in food and garnish in Mexican cuisine might make you squeamish, but it was a product of resourcefulness in the midst of poverty that led to incorporating things that were easily available into food. So, before you launch into your diatribe on the carbon footprint of meat and the perils of factory farming, know that the local cuisine has adapted over centuries to cater to its people and its environment, not to you.
5. Know your failsafe.
For me, it is hot sauce. If all else fails, I can douse a bland meal with something spicy and get by. After a lot of bread, cheese, walnuts, and pomegranates (all amazing as they are) in Tbilisi, Georgia, I was craving some deeper and spicier flavors. If you’re like me, carry a small bottle of hot sauce for emergencies.