Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vegetarian travel

A few people have asked about my food experience traveling as a vegetarian. After visiting China, which is a notoriously difficult travel destination for vegetarians, I thought it was time to address this question. Though I’ve always been able to find something to eat everywhere we’ve traveled so far, it has been admittedly difficult to explore the culture of some of these places through the food because so many of the cuisines are so meat-centric.

What I’ve read about China, and I believe is true of many of the countries we have visited, is that consumption of meat is a cultural symbol of wealth and status. Since the majority of the population is relatively poor, meat has historically been considered a luxury. As a result, most food found in restaurants, and even street food, is heavily meat-oriented (including chicken, fish and seafood) and vegetables are also often cooked in animal fat. Many vegetarian restaurants even have “mock meat” on their menus and use tofu/gluten to mimic the look, texture and taste of meat dishes (which I’m personally not a fan of). In China and West Africa in particular, the idea of being vegetarian was usually met with confusing looks because people can’t understand why any foreign visitor (viewed as rich) would not eat meat. As our guidebook warned us about China, “sensitivity to vegetarians is generally low.”

So what I found is that the more tourist-oriented places like hostels and guesthouses have been where I’ve had some of my best meals (since they’re accustomed to the vegetarian backpacker crowd), though they often certainly lack much of the authenticity of local cuisine you’d find elsewhere.

In China we were lucky to stay with friends who spoke Mandarin and could take the guesswork out of ordering food so it wasn’t until we reached Chengdu that we faced the challenges and pitfalls of finding food on our own. For our first meal there, we ordered a tofu dish after confirming it had no meat (with the help of a few phrases our friends armed us with) but upon examination, found ground pork or beef in it. Then there was the amazing dumpling place Vipin discovered where we unsuccessfully tried to order off-menu vegetable dumplings.

One notable exception in China was going out for street food in Xian’s Muslim Quarter where Ravi was with us and helped me navigate the options. I had these amazing fried sandwiches with greens and eggs inside as well as some tasty mini-pancakes made of rice flower with red bean jelly and crushed peanuts on top. Emboldened by this experience, we had some street food again in Lijiang where we tried a sandwich with spicy noodles and greens in something like a pita pocket and another sandwich on traditional fried Naxi bread with fried eggs, tomato and goat cheese inside. The food we had at the guesthouses along our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge was outstanding as well. Since they’re used to vegetarian travelers they all had extensive veggie options on their menus.

Outside of China, India was by far the best place we’ve been for vegetarians. Since much of the population is vegetarian India is a dream for vegetarians with tons of flavorful options at almost every restaurant, including sushi restaurants and McDonald's! My experiences elsewhere:
- In the Middle East and North Africa I found a world of delicious vegetarian salads and dips beyond hummus and baba ganoush but main dishes almost always featured meat.
- In Morocco I could usually find a vegetarian tagine or couscous but the quality fluctuated wildly across restaurants.
- In East Africa I was surprised by how often we found Indian-inspired vegetarian dishes everywhere we went, including at safari lodges, probably because of the large Indian population there.

Luckily, I could almost always find some pizza whenever I needed a little bit of comfort food and an escape from the food jungle while traveling.

3 comments:

  1. One of my friends who is kosher said that he loved traveling in India because he could eat so much of the food there!

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