Traveling While Vegan
By Keira on December 02, 2011
Featured Member Post
In an earlier post, I covered traveling on the cheap while vegan. However, based on some of the things I find across the net (sad stories of how so-and-so had to start eating fish, or gave up veganism because of travel) it's clearly time for travel tips for staying vegan.
Image: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal via ZUMA Press.
- Try. This sounds condescending, but I came across so many stories about how people “just couldn’t” stay vegetarian in situation x, y or z, in places we cruised through. Each to their own and I’m not judging these people (well, a little, maybe), but if you really want to stay veg, it is probably possible in most situations. Try, think outside the box, and plan. No, you can’t get vegan cheese and sausages everywhere, but there’s usually enough to get by with if you look. (Please note I am thinking about urban areas here – in less populated areas, or very poor areas, having control over your food is a way bigger issue for the traveler and the locals).
- Ask. If there is nothing on the menu, ask what can be done. We found tofu and three vegan dishes at a seafood restaurant in Micronesia. It was always there (the owner makes it for Japanese tourists) but not on the menu, and no vegetarian had ever asked. Ask about ingredients – if you don’t want to "slip up” and have the lovely lactose-intolerant-by-lack-of-practice gastro fun that abounds, check, and check again. Find out if milk is in the pizza base, ask if egg is in the glaze on the pastry, ask if the soup has beef stock.
- Pack. As per the cheapo tips, take peanut butter if you’re not allergic. It adds protein and fat to your diet when other sources are thin on the ground, its often easy to find, they let you take it through customs (though not into the cabin of the plain – its a gel) and can supplement whatever you find in restaurants. Also, carry your own breakfast materials. Vegan breaky is hard to come by, and is usually proteinless. We take our own cereal and soy milk, and oats in particular make a good, filling breakfast. Add a scoop of peanut butter, some chopped fruit, and you’ll be set.
- Prepare. Learn the words for eggs, milk, dairy, butter, cheese, margarine, whey, meat, animal fat, chicken, beef, pork, bacon, and gelatine in the languages of your destinations. Or just write them down, especially if they are in a non-roman alphabet. This is invaluable for reading labels in supermarkets and avoiding yucky surprises – such as chicken fat in your lentils, or butter in your biccies. It doesn’t matter if you can’t read the rest of the ingredients – you care what isn’t there, not what is.
- Research. Understand that global brands change their recipes in different markets. For example, McVities Digestives are generally vegan in Australia, France and Italy, but were not vegan in the UK. This means reading the labels even for things that are familiar.
- Google. Use the power of the google map. If you are looking for a restaurant in walking distance, pop your location into a google map, then state the destination as “vegan”. Then click the “did you mean another vegan” link for a list of options. It searches restaurant info as well as reviews, so have a quick read through to make sure it didn’t give you “Beef Shack” because of a review that said they had no vegan food. If that doesn’t work, try Indian food, or felafel. Google knows nearly all.
- Inquire. Ask ahead and get involved in an online forum, such as vegie boards, Thorn Tree or Couch Surfing, and either ask the board or send an individual email to another vegan, asking about good places to eat. They will know what is good, and what is actually closed, where ancient Happy Cow references don’t.
- Read. Investigate the local food. Its easier not to get duped if you know in advance that 'cuisines' on the label in Paris means the lentils have chicken fat, that Ma Po Tofu usually has pork, and all the potato soups of the word have animal-based stock.
- List. Make a list of local foods that are usually vegan in the place you are visiting, and keep on the look out for them.
- Shop. Try to find places to stay where you can access a kitchen. Where you can’t, find out what you have access to and shop accordingly. Lots of hotels and hostels have a kettle, a microwave and/or a toaster, either in your room or in a central kitchen. Also night staff frequently let you use the staff one if you ask nicely. Vegies are microwaveable in a freezer bag with a sprinkle of water, and there’s often a veg noodle soup packet, or a tin of beans that can be reheated, available in the supermarket. Add some bread and hommus or some chips and salsa, and some chocolate for dessert, and dinner can be had just about anywhere.
- Strategize. Always have a plan B, such as a close-by falafel place, some bread and dip in you room, or just some chocolate in your handbag – because no matter how often you explain, or how much you research, things will be closed and new friends will try to feed you fish.
- Vigilance. Check and re-check the meal on the flight, and then call again the night before and at the counter. They always lose your VGML preference, and then they don’t have anything to replace it with. Add to that sparse pickings in airports, and the fact that you can't get hummus onto a plane (also considered a gel), and this becomes very important. We have a situation with our tickets (Fuck you, United Airlines) that means we always have to re-book our whole ticket AT THE AIRPORT just before the flight, so we haven’t gotten out vegan meal since New York. We mostly eat biscuits, bread, nuts, and fruit instead, which we take with us.
- Question. Try to ask questions where the right answer is “no” – lots of cultures have an emphasis on hospitality and service and individuals want to make you happy, and frequently you’ll get an unthinking “yes yes” from someone who doesn’t understand what you said but wants to make you happy. If you ask, “Does this have milk?” or “Is this real leather?”, you’re more likely to get a truthful answer, than if you ask “Is this dairy free?”
Realize that you will slip up, and that icky animal foods will get in to your diet one way or another. Then, let it go. I accidentally poisoned Mr. with butter (lactose makes us both sick now) because I didn’t notice it in the Italian ingredients list. A restaurant once gave me turkey bacon in Singapore, and told me it was vegan (they got confused about no meat versus no pork) – I was exhausted and just picked it out.
We’re pretty sure that at some point we were fed some non-veg ramen noodle flavouring, more than once. There was yoghurt on our felafel even though we said no (we wiped it off), and we don’t concern ourselves with what emulsifiers might be in otherwise vegan bread in foreign bakeries (unless there’s an ingredients list). It's hard work, and no one is perfect, but you can get close.
What are your tips for staying vegan (or vegetarian) during your travels? Leave me a comment if you have ideas – I always love to hear them
Ease of being vegan around the world (in order of easiest to most difficult place to be vegan based on my totally subjective experience of being an English-speaking, relatively wealthy, white, traveler):
- USA – There is vegan food absolutely everywhere here, available 24/7 - corner stores, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants and airplanes. A traveler could easily stay vegan here, and food is much cheaper than in Australia.
- Georgia – Once you know what to ask for, ready made vegan food is plentiful in Georgia, despite the severe lack of tofu.
- Italy – Italy ties with Georgia for the availability of accidentally vegan food, and it has more tofu (barely), but the vegan options aren’t as calorific or protein-y. Even awesome pasta can’t beat eggplant stuffed with walnuts for nutrition.
- Singapore – Similar to Malaysia, easier only because English is the official language.
- Malaysia – Between the Buddhist restaurants and Indian restaurants, Malaysia has got you covered. Add lots of fresh fruit, supermarkets sporting tofu desserts, and soy bean drink available everywhere, and this is a pretty easy to place to be vegan. (Note: The islands are an exception – Tioman had no vegetarian protein at all, so keep your stay short.)
- France – The hardest thing about being vegan in France is the price, followed by the fact that there is pastry everywhere and you can’t have any. Vegan food is available though, and the shops cater well for us.
- Australia – Yes, its dead easy to be vegan in Melbourne or Sydney, but have you traveled/lived in smaller places? If you are traveling vegan in rural Oz, make sure you have a knife, because you’ll be bringing your own supermarket-bought tofu to add protein to the pasta with tomato, chef salad, stir fried vegies, and avocado sandwiches you’ll be eating.
- UK – The cities have veg restaurants and shops, and across Scotland you can find vegan sausages and soy milk in supermarkets. It is very difficult to find tofu, or a veg meal once you get outside the big cities though, and the variety of vegetables in not what we lucky Aussies are used to.
- Micronesia – It is easy to live vegan in Micronesia, but as a traveler, it would be more difficult with limited options to eat out, and very little protein. Pack your peanut butter, turn down meals at the houses of new friends, and learn to enjoy cold tofu.
- Denmark – Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult (which only makes sense if you’ve seen In The Loop). Unfortunately, vegans are not very well catered for in Copenhagen, so make sure you have access to a kitchen.
Keira blogs all things food at Around the World Vegan.