BY: TIM O’NEAL
Being a vegetarian is sometimes difficult. Cities in North America are catching up to demand for healthy options, but in many parts of the world it can be a real challenge to find meals without meat.
While eating at a restaurant in Nicaragua, I had told the waitress in multiple ways that I didn’t eat meat.
“Is there meat in the soup?”
“No, there’s no meat,” she said.
“No chicken, either. Is there chicken?”
“Yes, of course there’s chicken in the soup. That’s ok?”
“No, never mind.”
I ordered rice and vegetables instead.
“Wait,” I said as she started to leave the table. “No meat juice, either, please.” I had had wonderful looking vegetarian meals in the past ruined by having meat broth poured over the top. That wasn’t considered meat.
We had my order established. A few minutes later she brought my plate – a generous pile of rice, fried vegetables, and a big piece of blood sausage. Whether she was having fun at my expense or just simply could not bring herself to serve a plate without some kind of animal product on it, I didn’t know. I set the sausage off to the side and ate the rest with a smile.
Traveling as a vegetarian isn’t easy. Here are some helpful things I’ve learned along the way:
Maintain Control Where You Can
The easiest way to avoid inadvertently consuming meat is to cook for yourself. Staying in a hostel with a kitchen allows you to know exactly what is going into your meals. Shopping for ingredients can also be a great way to experience a place. Go to the market to hunt for food and interact with locals. Try a fruit or vegetable you’ve never had before.
Kitchens aren’t always available. While traveling in Romania I had trouble finding kitchens so I ate vegetable soup, bread, and fried cheese for every meal. In Ecuador, it was rice, fried eggs, beets and potatoes – twice a day nearly every day. You can still prepare cold meals with a little bit of preparation and supplement with simple meals at restaurants.
Be Clear and Thorough
The hardest part is communicating your dietary needs to whomever is preparing and serving your food. The idea of voluntarily denying yourself a source of protein is such a bizarre concept to many people around the world. It just doesn’t make sense.
I’ve found that in some places chicken isn’t considered meat in this context. Instead of leaving it up to your server to interpret the definition of vegetarianism, be specific about what you will and won’t eat.
It’s important to understand that vegetable soups are made with chicken broth. Beans are usually stewed with some kind of animal product. There’s often very little on the menu that hasn’t been in contact with meat at some point in the process. It’s up to you to ask questions about ingredients. Find the staples and stick with those.
Be Polite and Patient
It’s unfair to get upset if a restaurant doesn’t have options for you, or if a server misunderstands your needs. Your particular dietary restrictions might be a completely new concept to the person you’re speaking to.
I try to constantly remind myself that I made the choice to travel to this place. I wasn’t invited, so it is not the responsibility of a restaurant to bend to my needs. I’ve found that most people are willing to put in the effort to help find options if I remain polite and patient.
Be as Flexible As You Can
Many people are very emotional and sensitive about their food choices. Being vegetarian can be a core part of a person’s identity. The reasons for this choice can be moral, environmental, political, health related, and spiritual. That said, it doesn’t need to be a crisis if you accidentally consume meat under circumstances you can’t control. That’s not the case for everyone, but a little flexibility can be very helpful.
There is immense cultural value in experiencing the food of a region. I have certainly missed out on connections with people from other cultures over my refusal to eat their regional dish. Once, in Colombia, I accepted and ate an ant, a local culinary treat. A man at a bus station offered it to me, alive, and I ate it. He was so excited, jubilant, that I had done it. It was a worthwhile experience, even though I didn’t enjoy the taste or texture and had to deal with the guilt of killing an innocent being.
Prioritize Your Health
Depriving yourself of basic nutritional needs because you can’t find meat-free options is not a good idea, especially while traveling far from home. There’s no shame if you need to consume meat broth in order to get your daily vegetables. It’s important to prioritize health over voluntary dietary choices.
What I’ve learned over ten years of international travel as a vegetarian is that it’s worth the effort. There can be a trade off between having total control over your food consumption and having a meaningful cultural experience. It’s for each individual to decide where their boundaries are, but it’s entirely possible to have a rich traveling experience while maintaining your principles. It just sometimes takes a little extra work.