The Vegetarian Backpacker

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 2nd, 2010

When we tell people that we’re traveling around the world, the first question I get is, “But, how do you eat?” I was raised a vegetarian, stuck with my vegetarianism through college in the South, the land of vegetables boiled with ham hocks, and wasn’t going to change my eating habits because of our round-the-world trip. At the same time, eating is one of the main reasons we travel, so one year of boring salads and convenience store packaged foods wasn’t going to cut it. The good news is that after eight months on the road, I’m still a happy vegetarian backpacker because I follow these four rules:

Learn the Local Language. Many languages have a word that means “vegetarian,” but I’ve often found that term is not used. For example, we’re currently in Japan, where “bejetarian” means “vegetarian,” but I’ve received many blank looks because Japanese people don’t use that word. On the other hand, if I ask for “yasai” dishes, they’ll offer me vegetable-based meals.

Japanese vegetarian food

“Vegetarian” also means different things in different countries. In Thailand, the translation for vegetarian can also mean fish stock. If you say “jai ka,” the restaurant will offer you Buddhist vegetarian meals, which don’t include any meat products or onions or garlic.

Do Some Research. HappyCow.net contains a listing of vegetarian restaurants across the world, and most guidebooks provide a “vegetarian listing.” I highly recommend finding locals who speak English to ask for recommendations. In Florence, our hotel owner recommended La Cipolla Rossa, a restaurant that specialized in creative Italian dishes. My husband ate a perfectly cooked steak while I was served a beautiful vegetarian entrée consisting of grilled vegetables and cheese.

In addition to searching for specific restaurants, research local specialties. Nearly every country specializes in some vegetarian item, like tofu and tsukemono (pickled vegetables) in Japan, amarillos (fried plaintains) in Puerto Rico, gazpacho in Spain, and bibimbap (a medley of rice, vegetables, and eggs) in Korea. At the same time, in certain countries, vegetarian specialties have “hidden” meat products; for example, most Thai and Cambodian recipes are made with fish sauce, so it’s important to specify no fish sauce when ordering those dishes.

vegetarian food from Japan

Be Willing to Move On. Unlike high-end restaurants that can afford English-speaking staff and an abundance of options, mom-and-pop restaurants frequented by backpackers may not have the ingredients available to cook vegetarian meals. If you talk to the wait staff and they can’t make anything, thank them for the trouble and move on to a different restaurant. Often times, you might end up eating a dish without meat but that has been cooked with an animal-based product simply due to miscommunication.

Carry Backup Supplies. On our last night camping in Australia, I was offered a baked potato and potato chips for dinner while the rest of the group ate grilled chicken and baked potatoes. I supplemented that inadequate carb-heavy meal with my backup stash of granola bars. We always carry one day’s worth of healthy snack items, which we restock in major cities. Finding vegetarian products in big cities is usually fairly easy: granola bars, trail mix, nuts, and packets of dried fruit are available in supermarkets and convenience stores. In small towns where packaged produce may not be as readily available, we haunt the neighborhood markets for fresh fruits and vegetables.

vegetarian food overseas

I admit that it’s a little more difficult to find options for me than for my omnivorous husband. Yet you can always find vegetarian food if you think creatively. In Italy, most first courses or primi piatti are vegetarian-based pasta dishes, so I often ordered two first courses rather than a first course and a main course. Though most Irish meals consist of some type of beef, soups and baked potatoes are served in nearly every pub. In Japan, a famously seafood-driven society, most Buddhist and Shinto temples offer a reasonably priced vegetarian meal for lunch. For the vegetarian traveler, eating on the road doesn’t have to be all salads, but it does take a bit more thought and work.

Akila is eating her away around the world with her husband, Patrick. Their blog contains delicious pictures and write-ups about the food they eat. It’s a website that always makes me hungry. Follow their adventures and feasts at “The Road Forks.” It even contains recipes for healthy and easy-to-make dishes.

comments 29 Comments

Awesome site, bookmarked :D Love the name too :)
I’ve written about being a travelling veggie myself, and Erin over at the There are loads of us out there – it’s great to remind people how easy it is ;)

While I am not a vegetarian, it is important for me to eat healthy, and these are great tips for veggies and non-veggies alike! Not loading up on red meat and other foods that tend to be heavy or unhealthy can really amp up your energy for exciting adventures.

So far, traveling as a vegetarian has gone pretty well for me. Have you traveled in Thailand or India? I can imagine that eating Thai or Indian curry can be a bit tricky (if you’re a strict vegetarian) since many curry dishes contain fish oil or shrimp pasta from the beginning and can’t be made 100% vegetarian.

My husband and I are not vegetarians, but we do follow the eating philosophy of: “mystery vegetables are better than mystery meat.” So, we often choose to eat vegetarian on the road. This often causes locals confusion – they just can’t understand not wanting to eat meat. Probably the easiest – and perhaps tastiest – place to eat veg was India. Loved how many “pure veg” restaurants were in each and every place we visited.

NomadicMatt

When I was in college I read “Fast Food Nation” and became a vegetarian. I was one for 3 years. Then I drove across country and American grab and go cuisine wasn’t exactly conducive to eating veggie. So I started eating meat again. While I continue to eat healthy, I really like eating meat. From Yakitori to Argentinean steaks to Thai pork noodle soup, I think of all the good food I’d miss out on if I only stuck to my veggies. I understand why people want to be vegetarians and I really think it is great but for me, I’d think I’d miss out on too many cultural dishes by limiting my diet to just non-meats. After all, food is huge part of culture.

Great tips for travelling vegetarian here. I agree that speaking some of the local language is essential and often the word ‘vegetarian’ is meaningless. It’s better to say “I don´t eat meat, fish or chicken” and ideally list as many meat types as you can – often chicken or ham ‘doesn’t count’ as meat! In Laos I learnt how to say “no fish paste please” as it’s often a hidden ingredient.

Happy Cow is a great resource and using the couchsurfing forums can be a useful way of asking locals which dishes are vegetarian friendly.

@Erica – Thailand can be difficult because of the fish paste added but meals can be prepared without it if you ask. In India it isn’t a problem at all – it’s the best country in the world to travel as a vegetarian. All you have to do is ask if a meal is ‘veg’ (using the English word) and you can be sure it is safe, as the local vegetarians are very strict. It’s easy to find great food everywhere.

Thanks Matt for featuring this post! Erica, India is super super easy. On the front of restaurants, there will be a huge billboard that says “veg” or “nonveg” and you can often find “veg” only restaurants.

In Thailand, tell people “jai ka” which is the Buddhist term for vegetarianism and means no fish paste, fish oil, or onions or garlic. You won’t have a problem. Except for in South Korea, I am yet to find a country that doesn’t work well with my vegetarianism.

Thanks Akila! This is definitely an issue vegetarians should consider before leaving. After much thought on the topic I decided, like Matt mentioned, that food is an integral part of a culture and I’d be missing out if I was too rigid about it. So when we’re invited to share a meal with locals I’ll eat what’s put in front of me (I even ate tripe!) but I don’t go seeking out meat dishes either. It’s a compromise I’m comfortable with. I also don’t make much of a fuss if there’s fish sauce in a curry and things like that.

Another thing I’d recommend is self-catering. We travel in a motorhome so it’s easy for us but you could also stay at hostels with a kitchen or camp with some cook-ware. Doing grocery shopping in another country is one of our favourite things to do when we first arrive somewhere new.

I’m in my eleventh year as a vegetarian. For the last two years, my husband (also veggie) and I lived in China, as well as traveled to Thailand and the Phillipines. Chinese people don’t understand vegetarianism (when we returned a dish with beef they said “But it’s cut up small.”) but it forced us to learn lots of words and really build relationships with the restaurants we frequented – after returning enough dishes, they came to understand and we became friendly because we were different from other foreigners! In the far out areas, traveling, we always brought along a jar of Skippy, nuts, and bread just in case.

Great post for future reference! So far, I’ve only been to NZ and didn’t have any problems finding things to eat there as a vegetarian, and of course there wasn’t a language barrier. I did notice a lot of places had gluten-free options too, even some of the little roadside cafes out in the middle of nowhere.

As a vegetarian, I find it a bit difficult to roam around India itself..when I went to South East Asia and South America, I had to spell out veg means no meat, no fish..

I’ve been a veggie for over a decade and I haven’t had any problems traveling and being one. These are all such awesome tips!!!!! Btw, I’m marrying an Argentine and one the biggest steak eaters I know, also I consider Argentina my 2nd home, but I never once felt that I was missing out on the culture or getting to know my fiance any better by not eating meat.

Appu

Within India most of the restaurants are vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian And is not expensive mostly.
I am thinking what if I visit abroad. Maybe vegetarian restaurants are costly – people say that. Correct?

Pink

I travelled in East Africa with a vegetarian and meals were not an easy event. If you eat eggs, much easier, fish – thats very doable. But, if not, its a real challenge. The supplementing is key. Cashew nuts are cheap and abundant in East Africa. I would caution about fruit – eat only the fruit that you can peel in a developing country because alot of disease is transmitted in the food and water and you want to be able to remove the outer lining before eating. Also, the laws on which insecticides can be used are not as strict and you don’t know what has been sprayed on the outside of your fruit. I prefer bananas as the fruit of choice because the peel is so thick and there is unlikely to be contamination of the fruit. Every culture has grains but that makes your trip quite carb heavy unless you supplement with fruit and nuts.

In the past 4 months I met a lot of vegetarians traveling through Central America, which is a huge hub for meat. That said, I found restaurants always willing to accommodate them as best they could. Those who ate eggs and fish definitely had an easier time.

They all said they needed to be a bit flexible though as often the beans, that the restaurant so kindly offered as an option, were cooked in lard.

Interesting site indeed. Usually I’ve never had a problem being a picky eater. However, gonna be hard to be a vegetarian in Russia!

NomadicMatt

how so?

Abbie

Good to know that it is possible to travel the world as a vegetarian :)

Great post, I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years and out of all the countries I’ve visited the only place I found it really difficult to order vegetarian food was Laos. It was quite a few years ago so it may have changed a lot now but I remember receiving quite a few strange looks when asking for food with no meat there and also leaving a few pounds lighter..

Nice! I stopped eating meat 16 years ago, but being a travel writer and spending a lot of time on the road makes that pretty difficult. This is a great conversation- thanks everyone for adding your travel tips :) I do eat fish and seafood now, though, so that makes life a lot easier. I also “try” almost anything, so a bite of something unusual is part of the foreign experience for me, but I have to be clear that I’m only “trying.” It’s hard to sit down with a local and not offend them with my choice- doing research is essential, as is learning a few words in the local language to help you along.

My case seems funny, but it’s not! I’m a vegetarian in a country, Iran, where it’s not easy to find vegetarian meals. I work as a travel guide and each time I leave the capital city, Tehran, I know I must suffice to whatever I can find to eat!

At some restaurants, they have a dish called cooked vegetables with different recipe. Sometimes, it’s fried, but they still call it COOKED vegetables! In other places, I should explain to the chef what I can take. So, I have to invent what I can eat out of what is available inside the kitchen.

Despite all the problems, I can survive and I enjoy being a vegetarian. Although I’ve started to be one since a few years ago, it’s so strong in me that I never even think about taking something else when there’s nothing to eat. Of course, I must say that THERE ARE NICE FRUITS AVAILABLE IN IRAN”.

Rahman Mehraby
Destination Iran

Thank you for this article. Most people assume you can not possibly travel extensively and remain true to your vegetarian dietary restrictions but I beg to differ. I have even had discussions with friends who believed that I couldn’t possibly experience a culture in its entirety without eating their authentic cuisine, a lot of which involves meat. But guess what, I completely beg to differ. I have had vegetarian couscous and lots of olives in Morocco; rice, beans and steamed bananas in a village in Uganda; and lots of “fromage” in France. Travel is a personal experience; you have to enjoy it in the way you know best. And being vegetarian is a part of me I would never want to lose that no matter where in the world I go. And like it says in the article, there are always vegetarian specialties in every cuisine. Don’t ever assume (like my parents do) that just because you are vegetarian, you can’t travel anywhere in this world. Well maybe when I go to Russia, I might have to carry a bag full of granola bars.

Matt Report

I’m not a vegetarian but I do try to make sure that my meat is organic or as close to as possible. That means buying grass fed beef from a lady I know that raises the cows herself. Matt I think it’s cool that you are eating meat again. Everything in moderation right!

I’m curious to see what will happen once my husband & I are able to travel again. It’s only been about 6 months since he was diagnosed as a type 1 (genetic) diabetic, so it’s been a hectic and intense half year of learning about how he has to eat now. I think it’ll be an interesting challenge when we can finally travel to communicate our needs.

Thanks for sharing this. As a vegetarian about to start on a round the world trip soon, this aspect has been high on my minds. Though I am considering starting to eat meat for the same reasons Matt has mentioned, to feel the whole experience. But after 15 years of being a vegetarian, I don’t know how my mind is going to react to meat or fish. So its good to know its possible being a vegetarian and traveling the world.

Bharathi

Just happened to come across your comment while surfing.
Indian veggie currys in India are NEVER EVER cooked with meat/fish based products. You will enjoy great veggie meals in India, everywhere.

Alisa

Hi everyone,
I am in my final year at university and I am writing a dissertation on vegetarianism and tourism. This article and all the comments gave me a better understanding of the topic. As a vegetarian I will definitely use the tips in the future. Thank you!

I’m a vegan guy from Germany and I am going on a 10 months trip through Australia and New Zealand. I am really struggling about being vegan there. Regarding the expensive prices and our inability to cook really much in our campervan (which we will make the trip with) I am afraid to become a non vegan or even a vegetarian, which seems to be not much better than a meat eater if you do some research on milk and eggs (male chicken).

Do you guys know how much wheat gluten or raw soy costs down under?

I really don’t believe I can get the stuff I primarily eat in some parts of Western Australia. If so, the price levels are probably too high for our budget.

I am a vegetarian as well. I agree with what you say in your article. It may be a bit more of a challenge finding food for vegetarians than it is for meat-eaters, but in the end (if not being to picky) an empty stomach is not needed. And if a restaurant does serve a vegetarian dish they would normally not make, absolutely thank them as they may have gone a whole different route to care for you. :)

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