How to survive as a travelling vegetarian

vegI’ve been travelling for about 7 years so far, and have lived in places like beef-crazy Buenos Aires, shrimp-hungry Brazil, fish-famous Donegal, paella filled Spain, and foie-gras-loving France. My own way to get to know the culture of these places involves learning and hacking their languages and spending my time almost entirely with locals, but as a vegetarian, eating the above dishes is not part of the reason that I travel.

Despite this, I’ve learned how to avoid creating an awkward situation and how to sample some local cuisine and, most importantly, not go hungry, without breaking my lifelong trend of never eating meat or fish. Today I’d like to share how I do this, for any other travelling vegetarians out there!

Some tips

  • 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 at home! No matter where you go, you will always find ingredients in markets to cook a wide range of vegetarian dishes. If you are short on ideas, and don’t have a vegetarian cook-book handy, then definitely check out the vegetarian cooking videos on videojug.
  • Know that the translation of “vegetarian” is not so useful. Je suis végétarien / Soy vegetariano etc. have been hugely useless phrases for me both for eating well and for even avoiding meat. Vegetarian can mean anything from a dull plain food that just happens to have no meat (and no vegetables either; i.e. zero nutritional or taste value) to simply “no red meat”, with people insisting that poultry and fish are as veggie as you can get. Using this word can result in someone only feeding you lettuce, imagining vegetarians as nothing more than scurrying rabbits, or someone packing “thin slices” of meat into your food and actually thinking that they are helping. It’s not their fault, the word itself simply does not translate well.
  • Be very clear about what you can eat. When I have mistakenly asked if there was anything “vegetarian” in a restaurant and plainly told no, I didn’t give up and asked “Is there anything with no meat, fish or chicken (yes, chicken “isn’t meat” in a lot places) on the menu?” and actually get lots of options. So many people simply don’t understand the v word. It’s fine to use it in a list to describe yourself, but in actual eating situations, avoid it and be clear about what you want.
  • Get a phrasebook and learn the food vocabulary section. A phrasebook is an excellent way to get a start learning a language. Most good ones not only have a normal dictionary at the back, but a dictionary entirely dedicated to food! Knowing some basic words such as the names of meat to be avoided etc. will save you time when reading a menu.
  • Learn Italian (and Indian etc.) food vocabulary. Globalisation means that even in the smallest town you can still find international food. Chains like McDonald’s may not be very useful to the likes of us, but there are other options! Most of the time, menu explanations are entirely in the local language (outside of touristy areas), but if you haven’t learnt that language yet or are only passing through briefly, then it can help to “cheat” and use the international language of food – Italian! When I was in Slovakia, I was actually there to learn Esperanto so knowing just “where is the nearest” in Slovak, I added “pizzeria”! Lucky for me the one I found was Italian/Slovak bilingual and I could choose a nice meal without any trouble, because the menu was half in Italian (for those who have learnt to read a few Italian words) and the waitress was Italian (for those who can speak it)! Many pizzerias can also have a wide range of pastas that can be very healthy when eaten in moderation, especially when vegetables are included. Indian and other vegetarian culture restaurants can also be in a lot of places and I will always go straight for the Aloo Gobi in that case! Many kebab places can include a very filling Falafel option.
  • Vegetarian restaurants Happy cow is an excellent online listing of vegetarian-friendly restaurants all around the world, with honest reviews from customers. It isn’t extensive (lots of “normal” restaurants may have vast vegetarian options) but it does simplify things hugely to just go to a vegetarian restaurant.
  • Copy the ideas from local veg restaurants. The best part of local vegetarian restaurants is that a lot of them will adapt the local cuisine to suit vegetarians. I wouldn’t eat regularly in these types of restaurants since they are not usually frequented so often by many locals (and because of this, they may also be quite expensive), but their menus give great inspiration for ways to cook local food or ideas to suggest to those cooking for you.
  • Order a simple meal + vegetables, or several starters. Sometimes there is no “healthy” vegetarian option available, and you may need to go for something very plain. Most restaurants do have vegetables, but will only ever include them in complex meat dishes. In this case, if I want to make sure I eat well, I ask for the simple meal (plain rice or just a plain Margarita pizza for example) and also request cooked vegetables “on the side” that I add myself. Alternatively, a combination of several starters may be a fine and filling meal in themselves!
  • If there’s nothing on the menu, make a request! Maybe something looks particularly interesting, but they’ve included chicken in it. Simply ask them to prepare it with your favourite vegetable(s) instead of chicken. Almost every restaurant in the world will be flexible with their menus. This is one of the ways I eat in restaurants with “no vegetarian options”. This is not always the case, so confirm that they can change something for you before you sit down!
  • Find local veg-friendly equivalent concepts. Surprisingly, there are options that you wouldn’t directly associate with vegetarianism that work spectacularly well with it. In Buenos Aires I discovered, to my delight, that instead of using the v word, if I simply looked for the dieta section on some menus (and even “diet” restaurants!!) they were almost exclusively vegetarian! I had to double check to be sure, but I ate very well thanks to the word dieta (I’m far from on a diet btw!!) and not from the word vegetariano. Here in Brazil, the “self service” (they use the English words in Portuguese) restaurants usually have vast arrangements of vegetarian options that are presumed to be eaten beside the meat. You pay by weight so it is an extremely cheap option that is available absolutely everywhere and gives you great freedom in variation. I’ve eaten very well in South America from these discoveries!
  • Ask other travellers what to do in that destination. Since it’s too hard to write an exhaustive list for the vegetarian options in every place, the best option is to ask other travellers (this is the one situation where I would not ask locals, who typically just list the vegetarian restaurants) for advice on where you are going. You can find great travel advice in the Lonely Planet thorntree forum and on Couchsurfing group discussions, in each case going to the particular forum for the city/country you are visiting.
  • Order delivery. If you are somewhere with no options nearby, just order food to be delivered to you! Delivery may be free and they can be flexible in where to go. Last night I had a vegetarian pizza delivered to me on the beach :)
  • Have an easy-going attitude to the whole thing. Although I am very strict about not eating meat & fish, I try not to distance myself from locals and I attempt to present a different side of vegetarianism to them. As you can see in the photo above, I may crazily gobble down my dish like a hungry animal and I like to make up silly stories about how us veggies also “hunt” our food as we “stalk” our prey in the fresh food markets before striking. I quite enjoy mocking meat eaters about their “pathetic” canine teeth, and reliance on ovens and utensils, when I’m clearly closer to the “manly” wild natural option, etc. Whenever I can tell that there is little point in trying to present a logical argument for vegetarianism to someone, I skip the whole argument and give them the conclusion they’d reach anyway and say “I’m vegetarian because I’m crazy!”

Explaining yourself

If vegetarianism is something that you are just “trying out”, then I’d actually recommend that you don’t take the diet with you as you travel and make things easier for yourself. It can be stressful and frustrating to maintain this diet in a lot of places and if you are not 100% committed (for moral or health etc. reasons) then you may be better simply trying it out after your travels.

If you are a vegetarian for moral reasons then you have to be very careful about how you express this. Do not try to convert foreigners to vegetarianism or present your case with moral superiority. This concept is simply not (currently) compatible with many cultures and you will actually offend a lot of people simply by not eating their local food or suggesting that animals are suffering for their lunch. Learning how to present your case in a logical way and being ready for the typical retorts will help people to respect your dietary decision. But when abroad, the goal should primarily be to gain respect and much less be one of convincing people.

My own reasons to be a vegetarian are less in-your-face. I was very sick as a baby and was put on an extremely restricted diet for medical reasons, and out of pure stubbornness I stayed on that diet longer than I should have and slowly adapted to a more healthy lifestyle by expanding it without incorporating any meat or fish. Since my body is completely unaccustomed to meat, the very few times I have mistakenly eaten some, I have felt ill for several hours. I could just force my body to get used to it, but I don’t want to now for the many common reasons that vegetarians chose this diet.

The advantage of my story is that it doesn’t leave much room for argument. I get sick if I eat meat. Most people will sympathise with that. I have found that the exact same discussion (it gets old after the millionth time!!) of going into reasons can be avoided if you give an answer like this. The simplest argument of all that you could use is just “I don’t like meat” and is less likely to lead to awkward discussions.

We have to respect them too

Many proud vegetarians won’t like this, but you have to adopt an apologetic approach in a lot of countries. People have to go out of their way to help you; based on their cultural history they don’t have to cater to vegetarians, but they may do it anyway out of generosity and respect for foreign culture and you should always show gratitude for this and be humble in asking for the favour of their help in catering for your needs.

Always warn a family in advance before eating at their house and make lots of suggestions. In many cultures it is an insult to bring your own food to social events, so sometimes the easiest solution is to eat before you go and to simply have the non-meat “snack” at the event, honestly saying that you aren’t hungry.

However, arguing on moral or other grounds is arguing against a lifestyle that someone has led for decades, and this will not make you many friends. I am not interested in converting the world to vegetarianism, despite that fact that things would be a lot easier for me if it did. People live their lives as they chose to. Using a much less aggressive approach and argument, will make your life a lot simpler! If people are genuinely curious about your reasons, then as long as you express it as a lifestyle that you happen to prefer, and in a non-confrontational way, people will be very curious to hear your opinions. :)

If you are a fellow vegetarian with some thoughts on some of these tips, or some advice of your own, please do leave a comment :) Don’t forget to share this post with your veggie friends on facebook and twitter! If you are a meat-eater, feel free to share your experience in talking with vegetarians and any advice for them from your perspective. ;)



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  • Edgar Roock

    Great post Benny. I rarely eat meat (but fish) for ethical reasons, so the happy cow link provided above might help me to enrich my diet here in meat loving Cape Town. Keep up the good work on this blog. Cheers, Eddi.

  • Balint

    I understand that you cannot eat meat because of your medical condition, but in general, travellers who go to another country to learn the language and discover its culture would miss out a lot of things if they didn't eat local food, which usually contains meat in lot of countries. Food is part (huge part!) of the culture and I firmly believe it gives me a good opportunity to know that culture better – by the way, I'm one of those ugly meat-lovers. :D

    • Anonymous

      I go to other countries to see the sights, travel, experience the climate, see nice buildings, listen to the music, learn about the history. I dont go for the food. If it is non vegan I just avoid it. Animal rights are more important than sampling local cuisines. On the other hand, if you can smile while contributing to the needless slaughter of innocents, all in the name of experiencing the culture, then you are a stronger person than I.

      • Benny the Irish polyglot

        Please see my reply to your other comment. I agreed with the first part of what you said here, but implying that people “smile while contributing to the needless slaughter of innocents” is arrogant and the worst possible way to promote veganism.

        • Tomos Burton

          There isn’t an on-off switch. I was born a vegetarian. As if I would go ”Well, I need to get in touch with the culture, might as well break out the frogs legs!” That’s like something the media would come up with.

    • Anonymous

      I go to other countries to see the sights, travel, experience the climate, see nice buildings, listen to the music, learn about the history. I dont go for the food. If it is non vegan I just avoid it. Animal rights are more important than sampling local cuisines. On the other hand, if you can smile while contributing to the needless slaughter of innocents, all in the name of experiencing the culture, then you are a stronger person than I.

    • Scarlett O’Hara

      There is nothing ugly about meat-lovers… :)
      [Though as a teenager , I remember I told myself that I’d NEVER date a meat-eater :)]
      And like many others have mentioned here, you DO get good local veggie food without having to rely on salads. Its just a matter of being persistent (not painful) with the waitress. Most of them are obliging to remove the meat part from their famous dishes and serve it to us. I was once served a very yummy veggie Moussaka in a road-side restaurant in Greece. I was told that since its a veggie one, its going to be a bit runny, and not as set as a minced meat one would be. And I said I don’t mind, coz I was getting to taste moussaka in Greece, a veggie one at that! :)
      its a misconception that veggie food is boring. NO. it is super interesting!

  • Mel

    I have to say I disagree about McDonalds being of 'no use'. I realise a lot of vegetarians (people in general, for that matter!) have ethical or other concerns about McDonalds, but as another lifelong vegetarian – I have never knowingly eaten meat – it is very useful to me sometimes. A cheeseburger without meat is my standard order, and is usually ordered and given without fuss.
    When I was in Beijing for a few days with a very sick boyfriend (an adventure in itself!) the hostel we were at was right next door to a McDonalds but some way from anything else. I managed to order my cheeseburger without meat there with the help of the Lonely Planet phrasebook. It took one stress out of my time there: yeah, 2 days of eating muesli bars for breakfast and McDs for lunch & dinner isn't great, but it really was the only option.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Interesting suggestion! I suppose it was a bit sweeping to say that McDonald's is “no use”. In some countries they have very good veggie burgers and I know that in Ireland the “french fries” are cooked in vegetable oil. I'll admit that because of this I have eaten there a few times.
    They can also have a wide range of salads, and some very interesting other side options like apple pie. I'll edit my post to say that it's “not too useful” rather than “no use”. Not eating there for moral reasons is fine, but my priority is feeding myself any particular day so I don't worry myself too much about “evil corporations” if they have something healthy I can eat right now.
    I'm just not a big fan of the meatless cheeseburger idea because it isn't particularly healthy due to lack of something wholesome (like soya based veggie burgers for example) and it's bad value for money since you will have to pay the full price. I always make sure I get some vegetables every day – I'd only eat a cheeseburger without meat as a quick snack if I was really stuck and I wouldn't make a habit out of it. Then again, if anything else really was too far away I suppose I'd take the lazy route myself too :P

    • Gus Mueller

      If meat is murder, cheese is slavery!

    • Rachel Mackneer

      you can also build a sandwich at mcdonalds if you wish. i’ve asked for a burger – no meat, add mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions and a side salad. that kind of thing is helpful if you are traveling with those that do eat meat and want to eat at MCDs.

  • potaroo

    Good on ya Benny, I couldn't have explained it better myself.
    And I agree, to stay healthy, stay away from Maccas, though I sometimes enjoy their McCaffe but ask for an extra shot of coffee, and make it hot (not luke warm as is their 'safe' norm.)

  • Mel

    So is every single thing you eat healthy and full of nutrition? I find that very hard to believe. Yeah, constantly eating maccas isn't a great idea, but my point is that maccas etc *is* an option, even for us vegetarians. When it's a choice of going hungry (which for me means getting *very* irritable and extremely unpleasant to be around), and having something unhealthy to eat – whether it's a chocolate bar, meatless maccas cheeseburger or anything else – I will *always* choose the unhealthy option as long as it is vegetarian and I can afford it. It's not necessarily being lazy, it's being practical.
    Also – I've noticed that in most countries where macca's has good vege options, there are good options elsewhere as well. Which means that if maccas is a last resort option, chances are a standard burger minus meat is the only choice.

  • Jason

    Thanks for this excellent post Benny. Being invited to a home cooked meal overseas i have compromised and said I eat eggs. I was given a good tip – avoid the soup. In Lima, Peru there are quite a few veggie restaurants not in the guide books but the South American Explorers club has a list. Buenos Aires is pretty good compaired to Rio or Santiago.
    Also beware of rolls , crackers and bread in Argentina as their surplus of beef makes them put the by -products in them.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    As I said, every day I always have my serving of vegetables. Being “irritable and extremely unpleasant” if you are hungry is understandable, it goes without saying. But a meatless cheeseburger would only be a quick snack for me and I would never have a bar of chocolate as my main meal of the day!!
    I prefer whole and healthy meals and even if it's “hard to believe”, I've very very rarely gone a day without having one meal that I was very satisfied with, using the ideas I've listed in this post. I have a big appetite so a piece of lettuce on melted cheese and bread will not do me; the few times I haven't eaten something filling and healthy one day I would get “irritable” and even tired. Your story may be possible in a hidden away village, but in a huge internationally influenced city like Beijing I would find it impossible to not have my at least one healthy meal. I'm very active in finding a solution and will ask many people until I find it.
    One solution to your problem is another point I added to the post today – order a delivery! I was on the beach last night with nothing but hotdogs available (or the buns the hotdogs come in, I suppose…), so I ordered a veg pizza delivery and shared it with others. Delivery was free and I ended up paying the same amount for my portion as those who ordered the hotdog! I don't know what the situation is in Beijing, but I'll find out some day! I'll find a way to have my meal and I disagree that a standard burger minus meat is the “only choice”.

  • Mel

    Looks like we'll have to agree to disagree, although I think there is common ground in there somewhere.
    The situation in Beijing was very particular. Food was a secondary concern – the major concern was my boyfriend's fever, coupled with the lack of time we had for him to recover, and I didn't want to spend my time trying to find somewhere to eat. Obviously, in the entire city maccas isn't the only veggie option, it was just the only available to us within the constraints we had at the time.
    And the 'only choice' thing – I meant when maccas is a last resort, a standard burger minus meat is likely to be the only choice *at maccas* – that they're not likely to have a veggie burger if nowhere else offers vege options.

  • R. Standton

    As someone vegetarian for the first time in Spain while traveling but dedicated to it (exactly the opposite of what you suggested), I agree completely, and have a few more things to add.

    First–I always ask if there's meat/fish/poultry in something. ALWAYS. It does not matter what the dish is (ice cream, for example) and how crazily I know the waitress will look at me, I ask. This is because I've had a number of situations in which I've been sure that “they couldn't possibly put meat in this,” and sure enough…

    That being said, when I'm abroad and getting desperate, I look for the Indians. This is of course a generalization, but there is a much higher concentration of vegetarians among Indians, and even if they are not vegetarian, most of the ones I've met know a vegetarian place to eat. That has made my life infinitely easier and I recommend doing that to you all.

  • Noa

    Great post!
    And I'll add a bit from my experience: “I just don't like it” is not a good explanation. I, for example, have full respect and consideration for allergic people, and for religeus people (be that Kosher, Vegeterian or Vegans). I have 0 respect for people who don't like spinach or greens because they didn't get out of the “I don't like it” stage as children (don't get me wrong – I have many friends who are still at it, and quote you their reasons). I assume that people who cooked meat will feel the same. More – “I just don't like it” can be answered with “but you didn't taste it! It is excellent! please try!” which might be fine for people who really don't like something, but really bad for vegetarians.
    The replacement of “soy vegeteriano/a” in Equador, Peru & Bolivia is explaining that it is becuase of your religion (& then explaining exactly what do you don't eat, i.e no pollo, no carne, no jamon, no pescado etc.).
    The people are religeus, and show much respect for other people's faith.
    Specifically about Peru – I was there 10 years ago, and they had some Christian cult called the Albertistas. These guys decided that Jesus was vegetarian, and that he kept Shabath. So almost in every town we went, there was at least 1 restaurant that was owned by one of these guys, with big signs of “Jesus was vegetarian”, and cheap, vegetarian versions of the local food. Great.

  • Noa

    Great post!
    And I'll add a bit from my experience: “I just don't like it” is not a good explanation. I, for example, have full respect and consideration for allergic people, and for religeus people (be that Kosher, Vegeterian or Vegans). I have 0 respect for people who don't like spinach or greens because they didn't get out of the “I don't like it” stage as children (don't get me wrong – I have many friends who are still at it, and quote you their reasons). I assume that people who cooked meat will feel the same. More – “I just don't like it” can be answered with “but you didn't taste it! It is excellent! please try!” which might be fine for people who really don't like something, but really bad for vegetarians.
    The replacement of “soy vegeteriano/a” in Equador, Peru & Bolivia is explaining that it is becuase of your religion (& then explaining exactly what do you don't eat, i.e no pollo, no carne, no jamon, no pescado etc.).
    The people are religeus, and show much respect for other people's faith.
    Specifically about Peru – I was there 10 years ago, and they had some Christian cult called the Albertistas. These guys decided that Jesus was vegetarian, and that he kept Shabath. So almost in every town we went, there was at least 1 restaurant that was owned by one of these guys, with big signs of “Jesus was vegetarian”, and cheap, vegetarian versions of the local food. Great.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good point! I was suggesting it as a possibility and alternative to my health reasons, because I've never actually used it. It would work in some situations, but in others people would indeed try to talk you into “liking” it :P
    Thanks for the other suggestion! I'm not religious so I can't use the religious reasons argument, but since religious can be broad and include your moral dispositions, I'm sure lots of people could say that honestly. It's especially useful to know that they would respect it based on using that word. Health and religion tough a nerve with a lot of people and will have them go out of their way much more than if you just said “I don't like it”.
    Thanks for the interesting comment :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    lol, meat in ice-cream! Unfortunately, as funny as that is, we do need to literally ask all the time. I've requested bread, just bread and discovered when I started tearing it that they had meat incorporated in it. Very good extra point. ALWAYS ASK!!
    Look for the Indians? Yet another good idea! Don't know how I'd go about finding them, but I'll definitely keep an eye out for them :D I've also found that lots of travelling Californians (especially girls) can be vegetarians (not as much as Indians would be, but a remarkably high percentage nonetheless in my experience!)

    • Rupa

      As an Indian I would take offence if someone sought me out because of my ethnicity and assumed I was a vegetarian. I am, but that’s not the point. Many people I know aren’t and I end up being the only vegetarian at the table most of the time. It happened to me once when I was in Belgium. A woman approached our table and wondered if we were vegetarian so we could all request the chef to whip up something for us without any meat. I was the only vegetarian at the table. However I would suggest you ask Indians, if you come across them, if they know any Indian restaurants around because we have a good variety of tasty vegetarian dishes.

    • Venu Freyr K

      Actually, I would be flattered if someone came up to me assuming I was a vegetarian. I would try to help them if I could because I’m always interested in getting to know other vegetarians, especially those not from India. Why? Because most Westerners are stereotyped as being meat-eating environment-damaging louts. it’s refreshing to meet someone who breaks that mould….non-militant vegetarians and vegans of course! Who don’t shove their opinion down your throat! :-D

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I really like McDonald's warm apple pastry! They have it in lots of countries. Definitely not a meal, but it's a lovely snack! :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Unfortunately, all of my trips are several months long so packing any food is not practical for me; I always try to find a local solution. It's made harder in some places since I prefer to eat out than eat in, especially considering how cheap it is outside of Western Europe and North America.
    Good luck in Greenland! I hope you find some good veggie food there :)

  • Jason

    Benny, I saw in an article on Esperantists that a high proportion of them are veggie. In your opinion is this true?
    Tortillas – after visiting mexico 3 times I found out that sometimes / mostly(?) lard is used to make them. Oh dear…
    I feel I shouild clarify on my previous entry. I have never knowningly or chosen to eat meat – like Peter Singer I'm a flexible vegan, but even then I would try to avoid cheese due to animal rennet.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I can confirm that Esperantists are the largest international group of any sort that has so many vegetarians, that I have ever come across. Every week-long event always has a vegetarian option for the meals, which a considerable percentage choosing it, and even a vegan option if there is enough of a request for it.

  • Lisa

    I just came across your blog for the first time through the Couchsurfing vegetarian group. I'm vegetarian too (I just don't like meat, fish or seafood), I love to travel, and I love learning languages. So I find your blog great! If you ever come over to Korea, let me know, I'd love to meet you (and treat you to some orange juice), and even teach you some Korean to boot (I'm trying to become fluent in Korean now)!

    Right now I live in Seoul, and adapting to be vegetarian was hard at first. A lot of people will tell you something has no meat in it without thinking of things like broth. I've been offered things like japchae with meat in it and had people who were really trying to be helpful say “it's only got a LITTLE meat in it”. The longer I live here, the more I learn who I can trust to know about these things and who I can't. One trick I've picked up, is that if I see/hear about something I'm not sure about, I ask my friends how you make it at home. “Yes, it has no meat in it! First you take some of the soy based biji and you put it in a pan with some pork…. ohh…”. If I ask specific questions, it usually works. Sometimes things are difficult, cause Koreans tend to not want to make any changes to anything on a menu (I'm not vegan, but the cheese they use for the cheap pizzas is so bad, I don't like it. Try to order a pizza here without cheese; it's pretty much impossible. They will not do it), but they will often make some changes for foreigners and they are usually very helpful. Now I've got some Korean friends who are vegetarians too, and they ALWAYS know. They are very helpful. I have one friend who, though not vegetarian, has many friends who are, and always can be relied to tell me if something is vegetarian or not. He's also recommended new vegetarian restaurants to me, or places with vegetarian food.

    I also heard of a vegetarian traveller who went to China with no Chinese. He said that he often was able to actually go into the kitchen and watch them prepare the stuff he was going to eat, and tell them to leave out things that weren't vegetarian.

    PS. I love the “I'm vegetarian because I'm crazy” idea, and will definitely use that in the future.

  • Lisa

    Actually, that's my reason. It works if you have a good story to go with it. This is *absolutely true*, btw, not made up. I always used to eat meat. My parents made it at home, every restaurant we went to had it (my grandparents are picky with restaurants and tend to only go to greek places or chicken ones), and it just wasn't an option to not eat it. But my mom always thought I was a very picky eater. I didn't like veal, lamb, turkey, any kind of fish, liver, etc. The list goes on and on. So she basically fed me chicken every day, but I didn't like that either. I did have some stuff that I liked. My grandmother's chicken curry, etc. Then one summer about 6 years ago I was away from home for the whole summer. Part of the time I was staying at a friend's place catsitting for her, then I went right from there to working as a language monitor at my university for a summer program, which meant staying in a dorm on campus, and then to a swing dance camp. At all of these places, wherever we went there were always vegetarian options. I got back home and my mom was making chicken. I just smelled it and then, on the spot, realized that I had not eaten meat the entire summer. When cooking I never used any, when eating out I always went for the vegetarian options without realizing it because it looked better. THEN I realized that the meat stuff I DID “like”, the meat was so much hidden by the taste of the very tasty sauces and I liked it because compared to other stuff, I could not taste the meat. But on my poor mother's side of things, I came home, she happily said that she was cooking me chicken and it was almost done, I paused for a strangely long period of time looking like I was thinking hard, and then told her I was actually vegetarian by accident, just realized it now, and sorry, but was there anything with just vegetables? Just the smell grossed me out.

    At first I thought I would not be strict about it, but then would notice the taste in broths and in small amounts, and though I used to like seafood, I slowly got turned off by it more and more, and then eventually noticed I had become a strict vegetarian quite by accident. It was not the easiest thing… my bubby was annoyed that suddenly I couldn't eat most of the stuff she made (this is the only person that “I don't like meat” does not work, because she takes it as an insult to her cooking), or most of the stuff my mom made (which mattered less, cause I just started cooking my own food at home). My grandmother on my mom's side thankfully didn't care, and prepared her delicious curry for me without any meat in it at all. :) Along with that, I was thinking there are so many secondary reasons to be vegetarian, that what was I doing eating meat if I didn't even like it?

    I guarantee that if you tell someone this story anywhere in the world, they will not argue with you, and they will respect you for it.

    Very sorry for the long post; it's a long story. :)

  • linguaholic

    Nice post. :) I'm vegan and have never been outside of Europe, so not to many problems there, though Poland and Asturias were tricky (in Spain, they seem to think “vegetarian” means “with vegetables”…). When travelling on my own, I don't have much trouble – as you said, there's something in every supermarket (learning to read ingredient lists in the local language is a plus) and Couchsurfers are helpful people. It's travelling in groups (e.g. on a universitiy trip) that can get annoying because you're always “the problem” … at least I feel like a nuisance when everybody has to wait for me to ask the waiter a million questions, haha. One thing that is quite useful (for vegans) is the Vegan Pasport, with explanations in many languages (also nice for the language geek in general ;)).
    You might know it already, but if you go to Rome again you HAVE to eat at the Beehive Café. Not the best place to meet locals (it's run by Americans and it's a bit hidden, being part of a hotel) but they have the most heavenly food I have ever eaten. And in Berlin you should check out Vöner: vegetarian kebab, it's great! And did I mention Hermans in Stockholm? ;) .
    By the way, I totally agree about Esperantists. At SES this summer there were some 95 people, of which about 30 vegetarian, of which 7 vegan (and others converted later because the vegans had the yummiest breakfast!).

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for sharing :)

  • lindsaygr

    Hey, it is important that if you are travelling and you want to keep things Kosher, you find an apartment with those conditions too. For instance, last year when I travelled to Argentina, I was looking only for Kosher apartments in Buenos Aires because I thought that is the best option in our case.
    Well, that would be my tip for the day.

  • Catia | Vagabond Roots

    I'm just starting my open ended round the world trip, and as a vegan found the first few days difficult. I agree that the word vegetarian and vegan seem to mean vastly different things to different people / in other cultures. I wrote a post a last night about my experiences as a vegan & newbie traveller in Mexico with a few tips I picked up the first month.

    I've started to cook for myself and have used Happy Cow a few times to 'hunt down' my meals. (I love how you explain that ;) I may try that myself at some point.)

  • Lauren, Melbourne

    In Australia, the Burger King franchise is called Hungry Jacks. I'm omnivorous, but I prefer their vegie burger 10 times over their beef and chicken burgers. It's tastier than some vegie burgers I've had at proper restaurants. I recently discovered I'm lactose intolerant so I've had a few without cheese, and they were still very satisfying. Aussie capitals generally have no shortage of veg options (especially Melbourne, where I live now), but it's good to have a late-night option that you can get everywhere.

  • GlobalButterfly

    Hey, I so didn't know that you were a veggie!!! That's a wonderful thing to have in common. :) I can't brag that I've been one my entire life like you, wow, but I've been one for a decade now. I can say that it was the BEST decision I've ever made. Anyway, really the only country that I've had a very difficult time with was Japan. A couple of times I had to have fish or shrimp or I would have gone hungry. Argentina and Brasil were a breeze! :)

    • Emily Bailey

      I agree with you – pretty cool that you’re a vegetarian, Benny. I also didn’t realize it! And yeah, so many people think vegetarians eat meat such as fish or even chicken. I’m sorry you had to eat fish (personally, I can’t stand the taste at all) but I’m glad you didn’t go hungry. :)

  • Niels Bom

    I really identify with your story, I slowly started disliking meat and then fish. What also struck me is that after a meal with a lot of meat in it, I felt more heavy and tired. If I ate vegetarian I almost never felt that way.

    I'm also slowly starting to dislike dairy and egg products, but it could also be that that is a conceptual thing.

  • Allard

    I thought this blog would just be a good guide for my polyglottery, but as a vegetarian, this also has some great tips :-)

  • Anonymous

    To be honest I dont agree with not getting into ethical discussions. As a vegan if someone me why I dont eat animal products I tell them that animals are my friends and I dont eat my friends. If people want to eat meat then they should be forced to know what harm they are doing. If they cause the death of an animal simple because they want to titilate their taste buds they should be adult enough to open their eyes and learn about the suffering they cause. Manners be damned. Animal rights are more important than upsetting someones dinner. If they get upset then there is not much point in being around them.

    • Benny the Irish polyglot

      While I agree with your eating philosophy, I have to say that even as a vegetarian I find pushy vegans (and vegetarians) to be frustrating company. It’s incompatible with open minded travel.

      I never eat meat, but I also never force my values on others. I have my views on animal suffering, but it’s not my place to force this on others. Positive education rather than guilt-based arguments are the best way forward.

      The “how do you sleep at night” argument would leave you friendless in countries like Argentina and Hungary that are crazy about their meat… They’d see you as far too weird and incompatible to hang out with.

      I have to say that this attitude would do more damage than good to the vegetarian/vegan movement. I have had many people get interested in vegetarianism because they see that I’m NORMAL and act like they do (and am of course healthy). Rude vegans I have met just tell meat eaters “man, I’d hate to be like that guy!”

      I live by example – and they think that if I’m that similar to them and living fine, maybe they can give this veggie thing a try.

      Upsetting people is not just a case of bad manners, it’s a crap way to change the world and convince them of anything. Aggressive arguments just make people even more adamant about their previous beliefs.

      I never use the suffering argument when this comes up in a discussion and because of that people are genuinely curious to hear me say more.

      • dorcssa

        I know it’s an old post, but I just started to read your blog and bumped into this.

        I totally agree with you about pushy vegans, it’s just contra productive.

        I eat meat myself, but usually not everyday, I’m not that much of a meat eater, and mainly like fish and chicken. Although sometimes I can’t refuse a good sausage, hungarian ones can be really tasty :) But I can understand if someone doesn’t like the taste of meat.

        The vegans has some point about animal suffering, although not entirely. If the killing is quick, the animals don’t suffer that much. Nowdays the problem comes from overproducing, and animals crowding in small spaces because of that. Imo that is far worse than the killing part. When I was a child, we used to hace chickens and ducks living with us (I even swam with them in our little pool :) ), and I’d like to think that they were happy. The killing part happened in an instant. If every meat source would be like this, and people would only eat it in moderation, well, that’d be great :)

      • Gus Mueller

        I have a friend who’s a vegan and he just does it, doesn’t push it. Great guy before and great guy now. And a little inspiring.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to be of help! Enjoy France, the Crêpes are excellent :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    No worries! Spain is indeed tricky, but there is always a solution :)

  • Anonymous

    Happy Cow is great. I’m planning on taking a year off school to bum around Europe, and was looking forward to trying local cuisine, only I was worried about the no animal product thing (I’m a vegan.) Since France is sort of known as the land of milk, cream, and butter, I was so happy to find at least 5 vegan restaurants show up when I checked out paris. Great article!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks! Enjoy Spain :)

  • Anonymous

    Is there a single photo of you where you don’t look like a total dick ?

  • Street-Smart Language Learning

    Holy crap, Benny, not only do we share the non-drinking thing, but we’re also both vegetarians (vegan here). This is getting creepy.

  • Michelle Martin

    Glad to have found this…I’m moving to Korea in about a month and a half and have been a little worried because it’s far from the most veg-friendly country… I have heard that if you say you are allergic they will take you more seriously, so that’s what I’m banking on. Treasure trove of tips here and in the comments section, thanks!

  • Yadav TSSS

    Great post… :) Thanks… :) I am a strict Vegan and can you tell me, what you feel about the idea of a strict vegan (not even milk and milk products) on a world tour???

    Do you think it is possible to survive as a vegan in colder climatic conditions??

    • Benny Lewis

      Yes it’s definitely possible. I’ve met many travelling vegans. But I have to admit that you can be lazy and still eat vegetarian in many places, but you have to be extremely observant as a vegan. Once you are used to a place and know what it has, it’s no work though!

  • Obi-Mom Kenobi

    Thanks for the ideas. I’ve been wondering how to address this issue as both my son and I are allergic to dairy products and I cannot eat any gluten-containing foods for a serious medical condition. It might not be the same issue, or the same solutions when the time comes, but I’ve been pondering how we’re going to eat while in the Netherlands and Italy while still being culturally appropriate and considerate of our Dutch and Italian friends-to-be.

  • Vegetarian thali

    I’m a long-time vegetarian currently living in the land of pork and sausage; sometimes resorting to pretzels and beer for mere survival. Happy to find this group on here. :)

  • Christine

    Its always great to hear about another vegetarian and alas, the misunderstandings that come from telling someone “I’m a vegetarian” are almost too numerous to count.

    I spent two months last summer in France studying abroad with a group of twenty other Americans from my university. There was one other vegetarian besides myself on the trip who in her loudest, voice would always proclaim “Je suis vegeterienne!” to all the restaurant staff wherever we went. I had already had problems with that phrase in the past and knew it was much easier to simply explain that I didn’t want something/didn’t like it/or say I was allergic rather than receiving a plate of limp lettuce or two scoops of mashed potatoes without the rest of the sides that were supposed to come with the meal.

    More often than not my loud comrade would also proclaim “Et elle aussi!” and instead of a delicious three course meal I was doomed a tiny salad (with prawns which is hardly vegetarian either way). The wait staff would usually not listen to anything I had to say after that and hardly look my way. One restaurant manager in Paris actually started full-tilt yelling after I requested a salad sans prawns.

    On another occasion my Colombian friend had to explain to her parents exactly what I would and wouldn’t eat because and I quote “Estoy vegetariana doesn’t really mean anything.”

    I love all the suggestions you’ve listed in this article, spot on surviving while traveling.

  • Emily Bailey

    Very helpful! I’m a vegetarian and though I don’t have the money to travel right now, I’ve wondered if eating vegetarian would just be somewhat of a challenge or if it would be nearly impossible and I’m glad to see that it will be an interesting and perhaps fun challenge for me.

    I’ve found that even here in NH USA I come across people who get offended by vegetarians or question my reasons. I’m pretty sympathetic towards them and honestly say I’d rather not eat animals and that I don’t like the taste of meat anyway.

  • Emily Bailey

    Same here!!

  • Catie Joy

    This is wonderful! I’ve been a vegetarian since birth and I’ve traveled to Ecuador (Guayaquil) twice (about to head there for the third time this summer), and finding flavorful, healthy vegetarian foods has been the chief difficulty of the experience for me. Luckily, since I stay with my boyfriend’s family there, I’m able to cook a lot of my own meals or eat only the vegetarian parts of the meals that are prepared for me, but going to restaurants has often meant being handed a giant plate of “algo vegetariano,” which in Guayaquil just means a giant heap of starchy stuff–corn, potatoes, plantains, etc., all compounded by the fact that until now I haven’t had the confidence to order on my own, never mind make special requests (“can X be prepared without chicken?”) in Spanish. Anyway, these are fantastic suggestions. Thank you for this!

  • Venu Freyr K

    As one vegetarian to another, HELLO!

  • Tomos Burton

    Sometimes I think ”Yeah,choosing Japan,good one!” but then I think ”Well the vegetarians that ARE in Japan do have a lot of bad times but they’re still there”. I’m not a city person but I know I’ll have to live in one. My current plan is to live in Okinawa. First I thought Tokyo, then I thought Kyoto, then I found out that Okinawa was supposed to be good. And I want a Japanese wife so I am really serious about this. I think some parts of Japan must be worse than others.

  • Vikram Krishnamoorthy

    Wonderful post. As a vegetarian myself (for moral reasons), one of the things that has helped me out i have to say is the culture i came from. Being from an indian background means that i have a huge variety of cuisine to chose from, considering that lots of indian food (not all of course) is vegetarian (makes it really easy when traveling there i have to say :) ). IT’s a very rewarding type of diet i have to say, very healthy and no moral burdens. I definitely agree with your point of not trying to convert people. Not just when traveling, but even at home, i never try to convert people to vegetarianism. I feel like it shows disrespect for the other person, as if i don’t respect their choices that they made. Just my 2 cents.

  • Stephanie

    Great article with some great advice! I traveled to Japan as a vegetarian and found some challenges and some benefits with it. First off- totally agree with you that sometimes you have to know what is vegetarian-but-not-called-vegetarian. In Japan, that would be Buddhist cuisine (Shojin Ryori). I also had the privilege of staying with a host family. I definitely did exactly what you recommend and profusely thanked them for being so kind in hosting my particular dietary restrictions and as extra thanks I cooked them one of my favorite vegetarian meals one night so that I could give back while also having the opportunity to share my culture with them. As for the questions I was asked about why I was vegetarian, I generally answer that I think it is healthier and better for animals and the environment. But that’s hard to communicate across a language barrier, so on my next trip to Japan my answer is just going to be that it’s for religious reasons! That way it’s clear that I am very passionate about it but I am also clear that it is a personal choice and I don’t expect to change the world to follow my beliefs. I have to say one of the biggest advantages of being a vegetarian abroad was that it pushed me outside my comfort zone. I had to practice some basic Japanese, try local restaurants, and visit local grocery stores. I couldn’t just eat at the McDonald’s down the street everyday and that was WAAAAY better and more fun in the long run!
    Again- great post and thanks for sharing!

  • Scarlett O’Hara

    Great post, indeed. I am a vegetarian too, and I’ve done a fair bit of travel myself, and have never once struggled for food. I always seem to find something on the menu to eat, even in countries which haven’t heard of the v word. And I’ve done it very similar to your ways… I am not strict, I do not get into an argument on why I am a vegetarian, I explain clearly to the waitress that I will not eat fish, poultry and meat but can inhale cheese or milk products, and they are always more than willing to oblige, and I always read my menu very clearly.
    Yes, there have been a zillion moments when I had to explain my vegetarianism, and my answer is – I was born one, I ate meat by mistake a couple of times, I did like the taste of it, but I prefer to not eat now. And no, I don’t have a problem if you eat meat when you are dining out with me.
    And I always smile when people express shock at how I could get veggie food in countries like Thailand and HK, and I smile… coz these people have no clue that some of the hardcore meat-eating countries have the best veggie food too (ex – Thai, Ethiopian)

  • Randi

    I wrote a very similar article recently but geared to traveling in Central America. I really like your last suggestion, to be easy-going about it all. I’ve been in a situation or two where I got a bit frustrated but in the end just had to laugh about it. After all, I’m extremely lucky to be able to eat three meals every day so not getting exactly what I want sometimes isn’t the end of the world. :)

    Here is the article I mentioned. A vegan version was also published on Happy Cow.


  • Sonia Sahni

    Great post… Over the years, we have figured out our short cuts to maintain our vegetarian diet.

  • Odette C.

    What could you do if you plan to do a homestay with a family in a country that cherishes meat, in my case, Korea?