Top tips to be a vegetarian backpacker
Food is an integral part of travel. And for backpackers, trying out as local food as you can is a part of their life. However good or bad it looks, if it is a local cuisine, you’ve got to try it – be it traditional tacos in Mexico, steaming-hot street food in Southeast Asia, or a bowl of fresh spaghetti or pizza in Italy.
But well, what if you don’t eat meat or fish or anything that kinda moves?! Though vegan food and vegetarianism are becoming popular across the world, many places are still hardcore meat-eaters – even the concept of vegetarianism is met with look of disbelief. It isn’t easy for vegetarians to stay healthy and well-fed on the road, particularly if you’re on a shoestring budget, as all backpackers are usually. Often, veggie-friendly restaurants have skyrocketing prices, because well, vegetarians don’t have a choice.
In India, where I grew up, I was never considered vegetarian enough – since I did’d mind eggs in my cakes! Over three decades of being vegetarian, I have learned the hard way that there is no universal definition of what a vegetarian is. And when you are travelling, finding local cuisine which is vegetarian can be daunting. In fact, ordering vegetarian food is not just a matter of asking for it. It first starts with, “Do you have anything vegetarian?” which has to instantly be followed with an arsenal of inquiries, from “Can you make that without fish sauce?” to “Are the beans cooked in lard or oil?” Despite all this jugglery, I have learned how to avoid creating an awkward situation, sample some local cuisine and, most importantly, not go hungry.
Here is how I do this – for any other vegetarian and vegan travellers out there!
Learn to cook
If your temporary home, hostel or Couchsurfing host has a kitchen, then the simplest and least expensive option is to just cook! No matter where you go, you will always find ingredients in markets to cook a wide range of vegetarian dishes. Travellers all over the world know how to cook basic food, however bad it may be; but something to survive and save money at the very least. As a vegetarian traveller, knowing to cook is a must.
Know that the translation of “vegetarian” is not so useful
“Je suis vegetarian” or “Soy vegetarian” etc. has been useless phrases for me both for avoiding meat. Vegetarian can mean anything – just vegetables, or plain food that happens to have no meat and no vegetables either (i.e. zero nutritional or taste value), or people insisting that poultry and fish are as a part of vegetarianism. There is not sure way to get your point across, but using the word vegetarian may result in your meal being just lettuce leaves (assuming vegetarians as grass eaters), or someone trying to ‘help you’ by packing thin slices of meat into your food. The only way, use as many related words in a barrage, explain till you are absolutely sure, and smell you food (without making it obvious)!
Essential apps for globetrotting vegetarians
– One of the best known apps for vegetarians is ‘Happy Cow’. This app is very useful because it recommends the best vegetarian and vegan places around you, and also regular restaurants where you can find vegetarian options. (https://www.happycow.net/)
– ‘Foursquare’ has an exhaustive list of options with reviews and pictures from real customers. It also now gives the feedback of other vegans and vegetarians only after a place is flagged as such. This ensures you can eat something (maybe options too) at a restaurant, if at least one vegetarian has enjoyed it. (https://foursquare.com/download)
– There are several apps that allow you to view a restaurant’s menu, however they are country specific. You will have to find the local app for that (eg. Zomato for Lisbon) (https://www.zomato.com/)
– Google Translate is amazing to decode menus. It is incredible how misleading dishes names and ingredients can be. Check the recipe or the ingredients of the dish before digging in – could be a liver or a brain that you are tucking in there!