There are very few places where Sid and I do not stick out like sore thumbs when ordering food. Being from India, we were always aware how blessed we were with the wide variety of options available for vegetarians back home. Yet, it came to us as a shock that in many other parts of the world finding local vegetarian food was like searching for a needle in a haystack. We are now accustomed to being greeted with a sympathetic nod and smile the moment we reveal we are vegetarians. To make things even more exciting, I do not eat mushrooms and Sid will avoid eggs unless we are dying of starvation. So, yeah. There you go. Not a big deal. Did I mention we live in Singapore and travel a lot in SE Asia? I see tons of sympathetic nods coming our way!
Here are some things we have learnt during our travels that might serve you in good stead if you are sailing in similar boats:
1. Just because an item on the menu says ‘vegetarian’, it doesn’t mean it is. Unless there is a symbol beside it that explicitly states it is. Even then, it doesn’t hurt to double check. We have been served fish oil in noodles, shrimp paste in curries many times. Those dishes went back as did we, with less than full stomachs. In many parts of East and SE Asia, seafood and its derivatives are considered vegetarian. So, take your time to understand the menu and trust your gut when something does’t smell right to you.(vegetarians know what I am talking about :P)
2. Picture menus help: A lot of times, the names of certain local dishes might be alien to you. What goes into the dishes, even further so. Lots of restaurants carry picture menus to help you understand what a dish looks like. Ask for one to make a better choice.
3. Compromise a little: When I first started travelling, I wanted to taste local cuisine and eat where locals ate . Unfortunately, my naivety was given a well deserved jolt. While you will find restaurants serving vegetarian food, they will be few and far between and might not always carry local dishes. When you are travelling, you sometimes do not have the luxury of commuting to specific restaurants just to eat local food when there are other things to do. So, learn to make peace with having to fall back on Mexican, Indian, Italian cuisines ever so often. We have learnt to strike a balance. On days when lady luck is smiling on us, we discover two or three good restaurants that serve vegetarian food (none of that mock meat nonsense for us) and stick to them for at least one meal a day. The other meal we go back to our comfort zone. I would take a full stomach over a half happy one any day.
4. Fruits are your best friend, Breakfast is your most important meal: I like a good breakfast but now I have learnt the value of a good breakfast buffet. There have been times when we haven’t found vegetarian food while out and about and relied on our breakfast to get us through till dinner. We also buy and keep fruits, yoghurt, chocolates, snack bars handy in our bag just in case we don’t find food. I know this sounds like we are preparing for some sort of Armageddon but it doesn’t hurt to be well prepared. Plus, I get quite cranky when I am hungry. If you are like me then stuff your bag, just in case.
5. Learn how to say ‘no meat, no fish’ in the local language: Not everyone speaks and understand English. So, communicating your food preferences in the local language is a powerful weapon in any traveller’s arsenal. You can just note down the key words on your phone or a piece of paper and show it to the person taking your order so that there are no gaps in what you are saying and what is being understood at the other end.
6. Research and plan: Now, there are some people who don’t care much about food when travelling. We on the other hand love food, even more so when we are on vacation. Given our restrictive food options, we plan our itinerary for each day in such a way that we are near a specific restaurant that serves vegetarian food around lunch/dinner time. In most places, there are pockets of restaurants around the attractions – so we mark the restaurants on our map before we set off for the day. While this might seem ludicrous to the ‘free-spirited, let us just discover things’ kind of travellers, as vegetarians we sometimes cannot afford to do it – especially if you like your food as much as we do!
These are by no means out-of-the-planet tips but, we have realized that following them has made our travels more enjoyable, fun and fuss-free. I hope this helps out other vegetarian travellers out there who might occasionally feel short changed when it comes to food. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of extra planning and effort but the end results more than make up for it. We have tasted some of the best vegetarian food on our travels thanks to reviews, recommendations and some smart thinking ! You will find specific details about where we dined in our individual posts on the blog. All this food talk is making me hungry :), so I will end the post here.