Translation: No Meat
All it takes is a lunch of lettuce and mustard sandwiches to realize that traveling as a vegetarian requires a little pre-trip planning, as well as patience and adaptation, to both your trip companions and the new culture.
There are some ethnic cuisines that are veggie-friendly, no matter where you eat them (in their homeland or imported): Italian, Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican, for example. So vegetarians can feel fairly secure when ordering off those menus. (There are also countries and regions that are more sensitive to non-meat-eaters, such as Costa Rica, the San Francisco Bay area and England. And then there are the who-knew surprises, like Kenya and tiny Panajachel in Guatemala.) Asian food is often my fallback cuisine when visiting other Western countries. You can find a Chinese restaurant even in one-stoplight towns (i.e., Santa Rosa, N.M., where beans and lard are king). The menu usually includes some tofu, veggie and rice dishes, and a water- or miso-based soup.
Tips for Vegetarian Travelers|
No need to starve yourself or eat dinner from the hotel vending machine when traveling. Here are some tips gleaned from frequent vegetarian travelers to help keep you sated on the road.
• When making your plane reservation, order (and later reconfirm) a vegetarian meal. Options include lacto-vegetarian, vegan and Asian vegetarian. Some carriers offer religious and medical categories that work just as well for non-meat eaters. Caveat: Due to budgetary cuts, many airlines have phased out these (and all) meals.
• Pack portable foods such as cereals, sports bars, trail mix, bread, fruits, nuts and raw vegetables. Bring small plastic bags and takeout containers for easier transport (grab cutlery and napkins from fast-food restaurants). If your hotel has a fridge, throw some perishables into the mix. Consider traveling with a cooler, or improvise with an ice bucket and a plastic bag.
• If you're part of a package tour, let the group leader know pre-departure that you are vegetarian. If you're traveling independently, search for veggie-friendly restaurants before you arrive (see Resources, Page P7) or call ahead to the restaurant to inform the kitchen of your needs. At smaller places, you might be able to go into the kitchen and play show-and-tell with the chef.
• For desperation dinners, whip up a batch of soup in your hotel room. Try a soup cup (add boiling water from the coffeepot) or a flip-top can of soup (cook it on the coffeepot warmer).
• Learn to say "no meat" in the language of your destination. Also learn the words for chicken, cow, pig and fish, so you can spot them on a menu. Make or buy flash cards with pictures of animals and sealife so you can point at what you don't eat. The "Vegan Passport" includes translations in 38 languages, plus pictures (see Resources, Page P7).
• Book a condo or hotel room with a kitchenette. White Pig B&B owner Dina Brigish seeks out apartments near health food stores (which she finds online), so she doesn't have to lug her groceries far.
• For cruises, call before you leave and tell someone of authority, such as the dining room manager or the special services desk, about your diet. (Ditto for smaller hotels and inns.) It's best to speak to a crew member before the ship departs, in case they have to make a quick run to the health food store. Once on board, double-check with the purser or dining room manager to be sure your request has been heard.
• Seek out cuisines that have veg-friendly options. These include Asian (in Western countries), Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian and Italian. Vegetarian- friendly countries include the United Kingdom (lots of Indian eateries), Kenya (ditto), India (big Hindu community), Belize (large Indian and Asian populations), Puerto Rico (many Japanese restaurants) and Costa Rica (lard is not a staple). Tougher spots are Asia, where it's common to cook rice and soups with chicken, fish and beef stock; Eastern Europe, slow in the health-food trend; and Germany, with wurst of every kind.
-- Andrea Sachs
But beware: In Asia, they seem to be cooking from a whole other recipe file. Most soups, like the popular pho, are made with fish, beef or chicken stock. In Cambodia, I informed the waiter about my diet, even doing a puppet show of animals I do not eat. He nodded in understanding. But when my "vegetarian" soup arrived, there was a large square of ham floating in the middle.
"If you don't know the language, you don't know what's in there," concedes travel agent Zeigfinger, who seeks out veggie restaurants for her clients. "In Asia, they throw everything into their rices and soups."
For those times, bring along a foreign language dictionary or learn the appropriate phrases so you can describe your dietary needs. You can also carry flash cards with pictures of animals and marine life to point out forbidden eats. My friend Anne goes even further: She will go into the kitchen and shake her head at items she will or will not ingest.
Yet, be careful: Even seemingly innocent food like tofu -- especially tofu -- can be suspect. In Beijing, Anne bit into a plump brown square swimming temptingly around her Mongolian hot pot. It looked like tofu, but tasted like . . . blech. Turned out it was coagulated blood. A similar misidentification happened to my vegetarian sister in Boston, who bit into a nice white cube of . . . chicken.
For vegans, it can be exponentially more difficult. When gallivanting around Las Vegas with a vegan pal, I dined at upscale Aureole in the Mandalay Bay Resort, where the wines are stacked like a mini-skyscraper. While I scanned the wine list, my friend mulled over his mental roster of vintages free of casein, gelatin and isinglass (made from sturgeon fish bladder), which are frequently used in clarifying alcoholic beverages.
"When traveling, I find that more people understand what it means to be vegetarian and are more accommodating," says Heidi K. Hansen, a 29-year-old Washingtonian who's been a vegan for more than three years and a vegetarian for 15. "But as a backup, I always bring a box of Luna [nutrition] bars, so I don't starve."
To make vegetarian travel less onerous, and to avoid close inspection of each morsel entering your mouth, it's wise to research the area's dining scene -- much like carnivores do if they are looking for, say, the best steakhouse in Buenos Aires or the top sushi spot in Tokyo. A number of Web sites list vegetarian-friendly restaurants around the world (see Resources, this page); jot down the names and addresses, but also call once you've arrived, as the Internet's shelf-life is short and restaurants can go out of business quickly. There are also myriad guidebooks tailored to vegetarians. All-inclusive resorts can be a little easier, since many of the meals are buffets -- so you can pick your way through the salads, grains and fruits. Zeigfinger says Club Meds are especially amenable to vegetarians.
Cruises, though, can be tough. On a Royal Caribbean cruise I took to the Caribbean a few years ago, dinner was almost absurdist. When I informed the server of my no-meat policy, she asked what I ate. Red meat? No. Fish? No. Turkey? No. So, would you like the chicken? she inquired. I ended up eating bland steamed vegetables for most of the meals, and was ready to nibble the centerpiece just for a little variety.