How to Travel as a Vegetarian Foodie
Over a month ago, I decided to transition to vegetarianism.
Yes, I am now that person who brings salads to work, who eats carrots and kale and carefully pours over labels before buying food. Yes, it's slightly silly. But it's my silly.
This has been a decision long in the making. Part of it has to do with the humane treatment of animals, but a bigger part of it has to do with my overactive brain—which is great for writing blogs and novels but not so great for anything doing with blood, meat, death, or gore. I tried to ignore it for a while... But the whole eating flesh thing just caught up with me and I finally decided, EFF it, I'mma go vegetarian!
Now let me be upfront: my decision is personal, based on wanting to be healthier and do the least amount of harm in my life, as I perceive it. I want to get more vegetables and brightly colored foods in my body. I want to feel healthier. But that's just me. There's no shaming carnivores here. I have grown to dislike the taste of meat now, but before June, I loved it. And Mr. Nerd still loves it, and still eats it, and will continue to blog about it.
So all this to say, we're here to encourage you to eat what you want and be happy with the decisions you make. We (hopefully) can all be friends still, right? Right?!
I don't plan to make Two Nerds Travel about vegetarianism, but I thought it'd be relevant to address an issue that came up for me after making such a big life decision. Mainly...
How the f*** are you supposed to travel as a vegetarian foodie?!
I love food, guys. Mr. Nerd loves food. And the world, of course, loves food. And meat. Being huge foodies surrounded by cultures that are also huge foodies, the biggest concern that came to mind after deciding to swap to vegetarianism was, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO EAT? Will I miss out on food because I'm nomming limp spinach instead of German sausage or Icelandic lamb? Am I doomed to a travel life of rice and beans?
I mean, have you watched Anthony Bourdain's show, Parts Unknown? Have you seen how the man talks about meat in different cultures? He practically foodgasms all over the place every time he sinks his teeth into an animal dish.
(If you haven't, go watch it right now because Bourdain is an incredible, if not a bit surly, travel writer with a LOT to say and a very sharp tongue that we deeply respect. He inspired us (in part) to travel to Iceland. And he's the reason Mr. Nerd's a foodie in the first place.)
The answer to my concern, of course, is no. I'm not doomed—and neither are you. In fact, I think more food opportunities have opened up to me now that I've excluded the obvious meat dishes from my menu search.
Here are just a few suggestions for how to handle foodie cravings abroad. You may not be eating jerk chicken in Jamaica, but I promise you'll be just as full, and as satisfied.
Research cultural foods ahead of time
If you're able to plan a trip in advance, add food and cuisine into your list of research items. Look up traditional dishes and see if any of them are vegetarian. Dig into the country's primary exports; any vegetables, fruits, or nuts? How about unique spices?
We're headed back to Iceland in October. On our last trip, we ate mostly meat and fish—but this time I'll have to be way more picky. A bit of Googlefu shows me that Iceland offers a lot of bread (bread and butter, bread and jam, bread and cheese...) and vegetable/mushroom dishes, perfect for me. Another brief search session shows that Icelandic restaurants may have few vegetarian options, but they're willing to improvise where they can—say, ordering a pizza without the meat toppings. The article even lists a few restaurant suggestions.
Doing research in advance may take some of the fun out of wandering around the corner and deciding to hit a restaurant spontaneously, but it'll help you paint a detailed picture of the culture, and the foods, you're about to experience. Arming yourself with knowledge is never a waste!
Look for dishes with grains and legumes
This does depends on where you're going, but many countries prepare dishes with grains (rice, barley, oats, corn, buckwheat) or legumes (beans, nuts, lentils) that, more often or not, don't have meat added to them. Look for oatmeals or hot cereals for breakfast. Go for rice and vegetable dishes, like Thai panang vegetable curry or fried rice with tofu. I recently had a dish with wheat noodles and sautéed zucchini drizzled in soy sauce, and it was surprisingly delicious.
If you're planning a trip around food, Greece, Italy, Spain (three countries that practice the Mediterranean diet with grains, nuts, and legumes), Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, and Mexico are all great places to find foods with these ingredients, making it a little easier to get those yummy vegetarian options in your belly.
Beware soup—it's deceiving
One of my biggest mistakes as a newborn vegetarian was to assume that vegetable soup, or soup that didn't explicitly state that it had meat, was safe to eat. Not so, my friends. Always ask what the cooks use for their soup stock and flavorings, or you might end up scarfing down animal broth and fat unaware.
The same, sadly, also goes for pastries and other delightful treats. Pie crust, dough, and breads can all be made with lard (animal fat), so check on those too before you dig in to that delicious fruit tart or chocolate croissant.
Request meat dishes, sans the meat
This obviously depends on how intricate the dish is and how much work you'd be asking the chef to do, but if you want to eat pasta in Italy, it may not be too terrible to ask for a classic spaghetti dish without the meatballs. Or just request they give your meatballs to your carnivorous spouse, friend, parent, travel partner, or random patron across the room...
The same suggestion could be given for pizza toppings, sandwiches, salads, vegetable sides (no bacon bits on the asparagus, thanks), and classic American breakfasts (I've been known to want the toast, hashbrowns, and eggs, but not the sausage, so they'll give me a side salad instead). But do be courteous. Asking for a laundry list of food changes is enough to make anyone go a bit crazy; in which case, you might be better off searching for a dish that doesn't include meat at all.
A small note on this, too. Some countries may not understand what you're asking for—why wouldn't you want to eat meat?—so asking for dishes with vegetables only instead of saying "vegetarian" may help in a pinch if there's some confusion. Also be aware that even if you order a "veggie" dish, it still may contain animal products. I'd suggest reading the ingredients closely (or just asking) if you're not sure.
Do some window shopping
Most places we've been, we're given the option to check a restaurant's menu before committing to a table. Use this to your advantage and do some window shopping for lunch and dinner. If you don't see any foods that appeal to you, or if the restaurant touts mostly meat options, that's totally fine. You haven't pledged marriage to that cafe yet. Just keep walking, and browsing, until you find something that captures your attention. Like German dumplings. Or French strawberry crepes. Yum!
Still wondering how to survive as a traveling vegetarian foodie? Here are a couple more sources I found from other wanderlusters, just like you and me, that are looking for good animal-free food.
(*Warning, this one bashes Bourdain a little, but he kinda, sorta deserves it. And yes, he did say all those things about vegetarians. He can be quite blunt.)