I recently just got back from another trip abroad, making my country total rack up to 21. In short, I’ve got itchy feet and love to travel. Being completely lost in a country where I don’t understand more than 3 words of the language makes me absolutely giddy with delight. But I’m also a vegetarian, so I’m constantly getting asked how I can stick to a veg diet while traveling abroad.
Honestly, it is really easy to stay vegetarian or vegan while traveling abroad. You can just go to any store and pick up some bread (tortillas, rice…) and some fresh fruits and veggies. Or bring a Swiss Army knife with a can opener attachment and pop open a can of beans to eat. Unless you are hanging out with Arctic indigenous people or you’re out in some other tundra, I’m sure you can always find some vegetables and fruit to subsist on.
But I also think this is a pretty lame solution to how to stay vegan while traveling abroad. First off, by limiting yourself to a diet of starch, fruit and raw vegetables, you are missing out on a country’s entire cuisine – and cuisine is one of the most important parts of a culture. Secondly, you aren’t going to be representing veganism very well if the meat-eating populace sees how boring your diet is. With this in mind, here are some practical tips on how to stay vegan while traveling abroad.
1. Track Down Veg Restaurants
Most people are not traveling to remote villages. Last I checked, the popular tourist destinations were places like Paris, Berlin, Athens, Rome, Bangkok, Cairo… ALL of these cities have vegetarian/vegan restaurants and health food stores. Don’t know how to find them? Check out:
- Happycow.net: By far the best resource for finding veg food around the world. Just type in a city name and you’ll get a list of restaurants, markets, and other eateries that are veg friendly.
- Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum: This forum is really active and you can find all sorts of useful information on it from people who have actually been to the countries or live there. Just navigate to the country/city you are visiting and then do a search for “vegan” or “vegetarian”. The info might be a bit outdated, but it is a good starting point.
- Couchsurfing Groups: I LOVE Couchsurfing! Virtually every city has its own group on CS and you can go there to ask locals questions about where to find vegan eating options. Also ask what national dishes happen to be vegan friendly.
2. Every country has a national vegetarian dish
Until recently, meat was considered a food for the wealthy (and still is in many countries). So, even the most meat-addicted countries are probably going to have national vegetarian dish. It is usually peasant food and only eaten during times of poverty, but who cares? Just another way for you to get acquainted with the culture! In Europe, you’ll find polenta and buckwheat dishes as well as all sorts of baked beans. In Latin and South America, you will find rice and beans. If you are going to the Middle East, East Asia, Southeast Asia, or India, then you will really have no shortage of vegetarian choices. Be on the lookout for hidden animal ingredients though, like fish broth or lard.
3. Stay somewhere with a kitchen
If you stay somewhere with a kitchen, then you will actually be able to cook all the strange foods you find at the market instead of relegating yourself to raw vegetables and fruits. If staying at a hostel, look for the ones which actually have stocked kitchens. I’ve stayed at some which have oil, vinegar, salt, and spices on hand for guests. I usually don’t stay at hostels though because I’m a Couchsurfing addict. You will get to stay with real locals. And what better way of advocating for veganism than cooking your host a veggie dinner??? (Hint: if you cook me dinner, you will get a good review). You can even search through Couchsurfing profiles for terms like “vegan” or “vegetarian”. That is how a lot of my CS guests find me.
Another option is to check out AirBnB.com. It is a site where locals list their apartments for rent for tourists. You get the privacy of a hotel with the benefit of having a fully-stocked kitchen.
4. Read Up on Religious Holidays
In Christian countries at least, there are usually religious holidays during which people keep to a vegetarian diet, like Lent. For example, in Serbia, there are a few times during the year in which people “post” – which means that all animal products except fish are forbidden. It is usually pretty obvious to spot the fish (though they do often annoyingly put tuna on their otherwise-vegan pizza). But, since you probably won’t find fish in sweets, you can go to any pastry shop and ask for something “posna” and get a banging vegan cake or cookie.
5. Don’t Ask for Vegetarian Food
In some meat-eating cultures, you are going to get blank stares is you ask for something vegetarian (and don’t expect them to know what “vegan” means!). You could end up like the scene in “Everything is Illuminated” when they Ukrainians just put a boiled potato on the veg protagonist’s plate. Or, you might get responses like “there’s only a little meat in it”. And I’ve had it happen multiple times that the cook offers to “take the meat out” of the soup, not understanding why you’d have a problem eating something cooked with meat.
Avoid these problems by avoiding the word vegetarian. The cop-out method is to say you have an allergy. I prefer to go with the religious route though. Like, once I was hitchhiking through the Southern Balkans and ended up in a tiny village. Now, this is the land of meat and cheese, so definitely no vegetarian (nevertheless vegan) options anywhere. I found a burger place which had tons of veggies and pickles that you could get on your burger. I know from experience that it is pointless to ask if I can have a burger without the burger. But, when I asked for a “posna” sandwich, the lady eagerly went to work stuffing the yummy bread with all sorts of veggies.
6. Be on the lookout for hidden animal products
At least in Europe and Central/South America, it is still pretty common to cook with lard. So, you’ve got to be really careful about this one. I’ve definitely eaten potatoes and fillo dough pastries only to later find out that they were cooked in pig fat. So, learn the local word for “fat”. Then, when ordering, point to the item and ask “fat?”
I haven’t traveled in Eastern Asia or India, but I’ve been told that there is often ghee hiding in Indian dishes and fish broth in the East Asian cuisine. So, you’ll have to learn to ask about these ingredients.
7. Stay Healthy!
Don’t ruin your trip by ruining your health. If you are eating nothing but plain bread and vegan junk food all day, you will soon start lacking the energy needed for travel (not to mention having bowel movement problems!). If you are traveling for a longer period of time, be sure to bring some supplements along (like your B12 supplement). You can keep your health in check by choosing snacks wisely. You can find fruits, seeds and nuts in supermarkets in pretty much every country and these will provide you with lots of antioxidants, minerals, and healthy fats.
8. Stay on the Beaten Path (or at least go to veg-friendly countries)
I say this very reluctantly, because I believe the best travel experiences occur when you get off the beaten path. That is where the real exchange of cultures and ideas happens and that is what will really open up people’s eyes (and minds) so that we can finally get some peace and harmony in this world (and all that jazz).
But, if you really think the language barrier will be a big problem or that you will freak out if you find out the vegetables you ordered were cooked in chicken broth, then maybe your first trip abroad shouldn’t be to Khromtau, Kazakhstan. At the very least, you might want to pick veg-friendly countries if you are worried about accidentally consuming animal products while off the beaten track. I was in Israel and Palestine recently and it was absolutely amazing to be able to go to almost any fast food place or market and find interesting veggie things to eat.
9. Figure Out Your Values as You Go
Okay, here is the part where I’m going to piss a lot of people off. I am one of those people who believes that veganism is a lifestyle, not a diet. So, I also believe that in some situations it is possible to be vegan and still eat animal products. No, I am not saying that it is okay to put your morals on hiatus just because you are on vacation. I just don’t think everything is always so black and white.
Eight years ago, I was in a cool, hidden bar in Slovakia and ordered a beer. At least I thought I was ordering a beer. I ended up with a plate of some weird fermented cheese in front of me. Now, what would be the more ethical thing to do in this situation:
Don’t eat the cheese and let it get thrown away
Eat the cheese
Of course, it would be better to avoid these types of situations completely – but, when traveling in places where you don’t know the language, you are probably going to come across these types of situations occasionally. What I ended up doing was offering to share it with the people sitting next to me at the bar. Yes, I tried the cheese. It was a moral conundrum at the time but I would have felt a lot worse had I offended the people of Slovakia by outright refusing the food.
I like how Karol at Ridiculously Extraordinarily explains the moral conundrum of vegan traveling. He explains how Buddhist monks are not allowed to kill living things and therefore are vegan. However, they are also required to ask for alms. If they receive animal products during their daily alms-asking, they are not allowed to refuse it. He goes on to say, “It all boils down to respect. A monk cannot disrespect the layperson by refusing their food. And so, he must eat the food, whatever it happens to be.”
This reminds me of what happened to a good friend who was traveling in middle-of-nowhere Morocco and found himself hosted by local villagers. The poor villager immediately grabbed one of the chickens wandering around his yard, cut his neck, and started preparing it. Eating meat was a big deal for those villagers, and there was no way that my friend was going to offend them by refusing a piece of that chicken! I personally don’t think I would have eaten the chicken, but that’s my choice.
I don’t expect you to agree with my decision to eat cheese, or my friend’s decision to eat chicken. What I want to say is that every situation is different and each person has to figure it out for themselves. I know plenty of vegan travelers who eat eggs and dairy when they travel to countries like, say, Russia. I can understand criticizing them if it were just laziness and gluttony. But I also once heard a solid, thought-out argument from a vegan who thought she was doing more good by eating vegetarian instead of vegan while traveling since it helped open the locals’ eyes to the moral aspects of eating animals. Vegetarianism they could understand, but veganism would have been so strange to them that they wouldn’t have given it any thought.
It is impossible to be 100% perfectly vegan (even when you aren’t traveling). Heck, your iPhone isn’t even really vegan and there is that whole debate about the damage caused by agriculture and vegan products. We all have to make moral concessions in life. So, if you, after moral deliberation, decide to eat some cheese while traveling, don’t let anyone judge you but you.