“Zhei ge shi su de ma?”, I repeated the question pointing at a dish on the menu that, from what I could tell, was only vegetables and tofu. The waiter of the small Beijing restaurant answered in the affirmative, telling me that what I had my eyes on was indeed vegetarian. It was my second day in the capital of China and I was delighted that my Chinese was amounting to something. As the only non-omnivore in the group I was in charge of plant-based fare. After ordering, my friends and I resumed talking about our plans for the next few days. The food arrived and I hungrily extended my chopsticks, only to discover that three of the four “vegetarian” dishes were full of minced meat and seafood, or were otherwise rendered unsuitable for someone abstaining from eating animals. When asked about the minced meat the waiter’s reply was “Oh that’s so small, that doesn’t count.” So despite having 12 dishes on the table my dinner came down to snow peas and rice.
Being a vegan or vegetarian while travelling can be a hassle. Last week I was on vacation in Nice, France, a country not necessarily known for its vegan friendliness (welcome to the land of cheese, fish and goose liver paté). Today I am going to take the vacation as an opportunity to talk about how to fare well in a foreign environment as a self-chosen herbivore. Hint: It’s all about preparation.
Find vegan-friendly offers
One of the most pleasant things to do is to find places where plant-eaters are welcomed with open arms. In most cities the number of restaurants and shops catering specifically to the vegan and vegetarian clientele is growing. The great thing is that these places know their people and you can go there and enjoy yourself without scrutinizing the menu for unwelcome ingredients since that has already been done for you. There are pages for helping you find these places, the hallmark of which is Happycow (they also have an iPhone app). Others are Vegguide and Veggiesontheroad. Great resources for Germany are the Vegetarian Association Germany (with the option to search for vegetarian, vegan or both), PETA and Deutschlandis(s)tvegan with their Veggiemap.
In the case of Nice I found a small eatery through happycow.net named “le Speakeasy”. It is run by an expat lady from California and has great food as can be seen on the picture.
Learn the words
At restaurants that don’t specialize in veggie-friendly fare it is important to be able to communicate your needs and requirements. Most (good) restaurants will be happy to accommodate your wishes within their possibilities. Exchanging meat for more vegetables is often no problem. I have also had several meals in my life that consisted of a selection of starters. You can make the process easier by learning how to communicate your food requirements in your target country. The International Vegetarian Union has put together a great list of useful sentences in different languages for just that.
Find local specialties
I like to experience other cultures through the lens of food, therefore I always make an effort to find local dishes that go together with my eating habits. In China I practically lived off of vegetarian dumplings for the first two months (it was a magical time). In the case of Nice I found a local specialty named Socca, which is a baked crust made from chickpea flower, water, salt and olive oil, served with freshly ground black pepper. Delicious and vegan (recipe probably coming soon). See the picture below.
By the way, in France all Pizza is handmade by George Clooney.
This is another one of my favorite solutions. Make sure your accommodation makes it possible to prepare your own meals. Find markets, supermarkets and health food stores in the location you are travelling to (as with the restaurants, look them up ahead of time for a smoother transition). Once there, stock up on healthy foods and snacks such as fresh fruit and veg, nuts and seeds and cook your own food. I like to pare this approach with finding local specialty foods (Socca + homemade salad = awesome). You might want to pack some sealable containers to bring along meals while out exploring.
Talk to people
Last but not least, you can find people in the local area who can give you some pointers. Meetup groups are a great way to seek advice from the likeminded. Asking around at vegan-friendly places is another way of gathering information. For instance, the owner of le Speakeasy was able to point me to another vegan place in a neighboring village.
With a little overhead planning, eating healthy while travelling is no hassle at all. Food can be a great way to discover more about the location you are at and to get in touch with natives. Feel free to experiment a bit and try out some new things. It will only enhance the experience.
How do you make sure to eat well while on the road? Any additional tips or resources? Let me know in the comments below.