Traveling with dietary restrictions can be challenging, but it shouldn’t stop you from seeing the world — even on a backpacker’s budget. Blogger and food tour leader Akila McConnell has been a devoted vegetarian her entire life. In this guest post, Akila offers unconventional tips and practical advice for traveling the world as a vegetarian backpacker.
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.
“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 plantains) 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.
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 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.
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’s mind (and waistline) expands as she travels and eats across the world. She is currently based in Atlanta and owns the food tour company, Atlanta Food Walks, a food tour that highlights Atlanta’s undiscovered neighborhoods, restaurants, and art It even contains recipes for healthy and easy-to-make dishes. When she isn’t busy leading tours, she’s writing and blogging about food.