I’ve been a full vegetarian for about a year. After cutting out red meat thanks to a nasty bout of food poisoning in Peru in 2012, I slowly weaned myself off all other meat. That means I have been an avid traveller as both a full-on meat eater and as a vegetarian. And to be honest, I find the latter difficult. Going from endless food options to a limited few has left me staring at menus for obscene amounts of time or wandering around to find something suitable.
I’m not about to go back to eating a burger or chowing down on a piece of fried chicken (although if I were to go back, fried chicken would be my ultimate weakness). But there are a few things I have learned over the past year when it comes to being a veggie traveller. Here’s how I have managed.
1. You Realize How Many Dishes Have Hidden Meat
I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been excited when I see a risotto on a menu only to order it and see that it comes with a hefty dose of pancetta sprinkled on top. A lot of menus don’t list all the ingredients in the dishes, so what may appear to be full-on vegetarian could include meat. There’s also the pesky chicken and beef broth in soups, pasta sauces and even mashed vegetables if you’re completely opposed to anything meat related. I now make sure to ask every single time if a dish either includes meat or was cooked with meat.
2. Having Another Food Allergy or Intolerance Is Extra Annoying
I’m extremely allergic to mushrooms, which makes being a vegetarian extra complicated since the ingredient often substitutes for meat in certain dishes. But I’m also allergic to dairy and have a wheat intolerance. Add those two elements into the equation and I sometimes feel like all I can eat is salad and tofu. Luckily my dairy and wheat allergies aren’t so bad that I can’t deal with them if I do consume a bit of each. And if I followed these rules exactly I’d be living on mainly just grilled vegetables and quinoa, if I’m lucky. Depending on my destination, I’ll alter my eating habits. North American destinations and most of Europe have loads of vegan, vegetarian and wheat-free restaurants and cafes, but Caribbean islands, Central America and South America can be tricky, so I deal with a little wheat belly.
3. You’ll Eat A LOT of Rice and Beans (and Probably Pasta)
As a vegetarian, protein can be hard to come by depending on where you are in the world. In places like Asia it’s fine since you’ll find tofu in many dishes, while in destinations such as Spain and Portugal I’ve had to search long and hard for something that includes a healthy protein. It seems to often be overlooked that as a vegetarian you still do need some source of protein. When all else fails, beans and rice are my go-to (if I can find hot sauce to go on it, I’ll add that for some flavour). And chances are if you say you’re vegetarian, someone will offer you a pasta dish, so get used to eating loads of carby noodles (hopefully you can get gluten-free pasta if you need it). What I do now is always travel with nuts, protein bars or powder so when I’m in a pinch I have a healthy source of protein available. Since I eat eggs and I’m not vegan, I will almost always include eggs in my breakfast so I know I am getting at least one protein source in a day.
4. Everything Has Cheese In It
Damn cheese. It seems to be the ingredient that most places in the world put into vegetarian dishes to give it protein. And that’s fine if you’re okay eating loads of dairy and don’t mind all that excess fat. Be wary of hidden cheese in egg dishes, sauces and pastas. I find Mexico and Italy to be some of the cheesiest countries out there. I’ll bypass the creamy cheese-sauce pasta for plain rice any day because cheese is the worst kind of dairy for me.
5. Being Pescatarian Helps
This is honestly what has saved me while travelling this past year. I won’t eat it every day or even that often, but if I’m tired of beans and rice and can’t see another good protein choice in sight, I’ll opt for fish (not shellfish, I have a thing against that too). I don’t eat fish when I am home and wouldn’t cook it myself, but it has helped keep me balanced while travelling. Obviously it’s all a personal choice and if you’re a strict vegetarian this clearly won’t work for you, but it has helped me, at least in this transition phase. Maybe one day I’ll try to go vegan, but I may need a few more years of being veggie before I tackle that ☺