Being a vegetarian is always a challenge, even at home. It can lead to awkward moments when I go to someone’s house for dinner and they’ve whipped up a nice meaty meal, and I do feel a little left out at barbecues when I’m relegated to eating the side dishes. Declining to eat meat while traveling around the world is an even trickier proposition. After all, one of travel’s greatest pleasures is exploring the local cuisines along the way, and my decision to be a vegetarian precludes me from sampling any dish containing anything that used to be an animal. That is a lot of local cuisine in a lot of the world.
I didn’t get to try the steaks in Argentina, the döner kebabs in Turkey, the roast chicken in France, or the seafood (or raw horse) sushi in Japan. Across southeast Asia, there were many meals where I couldn’t find a single vegetarian item on the menu and had to improvise (“rice with some vegetables on top, please”) or simply leave the restaurant and find someplace else to go. In countries where I didn’t speak the language, I would ask an English-speaking local to write “I am a vegetarian” in their language on a piece of paper for me, which I could then show to waiters in lieu of having to make ridiculous hand gestures to explain what I needed. It usually worked, but it was often followed by the waiter sadly shaking his or her head. This gesture was easily understood: “only meat here.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge was getting people to understand what my exact dietary needs were. There were numerous slightly amusing situations where a perplexed waiter tried to figure out exactly what was acceptable (e.g., “okay, so you don’t want the chicken in your salad, but bacon is okay, right?”). Choosing whether or not to eat meat is a luxury that much of the world can’t afford, and I found that many people just didn’t understand why I would turn down meat when given the opportunity to eat it.
In more well-to-do countries, people seemed to stumble over the term “vegetarian” itself. Turkish cuisine features some of the most delicious vegetables I have ever tasted, not to mention all of the fabulous meatless mezes, but when I mentioned that I was vegetarian, people would laugh in my face. They didn’t even think of their meat-free food as “vegetarian,” a word that, to them, apparently smacked of some strange cult. And in France, perhaps not surprisingly, many people looked down their nose at me. Pierre once told a waiter in Paris that I was vegetarian and the waiter snootily retorted, “well, that’s too bad for her, isn’t it?” But still, somehow I managed to cobble together fantastic meals while we were there, featuring roasted vegetables, fresh salads, and – of course – creamy cheese on crusty bread.
As challenging as it is, though, I can’t say I ever regret my vegetarianism, even when traveling. Though I admit that I have briefly considered being a carnivore “just this once” (usually late at night when I’m absolutely famished and there is nothing available that is meat-free), I don’t do it. I know that I’m probably missing out on the full travel experience by not completely immersing myself in the culture and/or not sampling as much local flavor as I can, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make in the name of my health, animal welfare, and the environment. Just because I’ve left home, I don’t think that means I should throw my morals and my compassion out the window. Finding meat-free options can be tough, but it’s doable; I never starved. Plus, dessert — the best part of any meal, obviously — doesn’t tend to include meat, meaning I’m free to enjoy whatever the local sweet specialty is.
I also have a theory, which I cannot prove and have no idea if it’s true or not; namely, that my vegetarianism kept me from getting sick while traveling. We visited a lot of countries with reputations for making travelers ill. But, unlike my carnivorous husband, my stomach was happier on the road than it is at home. This leads me to believe that travelers’ tummy troubles frequently arise from eating undercooked or poorly prepared meat. And since my conclusion is based on an uncontrolled study with a sample size of two people (Pierre and me), it should be taken with nothing more than a grain of salt.
Finally, lest there be any doubt which country on this trip had the best food (in my humble opinion), let me spell it out: India. Hands down. I already loved Indian food, but the bounty of vegetarian deliciousness in the country is awe-inspiring. In the U.S., a vegetarian restaurant is something unusual. In India, restaurants that serve meat will proudly proclaim themselves “Non-Veg” on a banner outside; it’s that unexpected. It can be a bit disconcerting to suddenly realize that every item on the menu is meat-free, and thus a possibility (so many options!), but you won’t find me complaining about that. To be spoiled for choice when it comes to eating on the road is a rare and wonderful thing for we vegetarians.