I’ve been vegetarian for coming up for 18 years. I think it’s fair to say most veggies are quite concerned about what they eat: we’ve made a conscious choice to avoid meat after all. The choices we have are inherently more limited in terms of what we buy, cook and when we eat out. Therefore what happens when we go abroad on an educational tour can be even more of a concern for us than our meat-eating friends.
I’m going to concentrate relaying my experiences on Europe, as it’s the part of the world I know best. The first thing to say is that things have changed, a huge amount, even in the past 15 years or so.
The first thing we used to face, quite widely, was incomprehension. I recall years back ordering a vegetarian meal in Germany and eying the soup up suspiciously. I asked the waitress if it was vegetarian. “Ja” she replied. “But it looks like chicken stock” I said. “Good heavens, no!” she replied. “It’s beef stock.” She didn’t seem to grasp that just because it didn’t have pieces of meat floating around it, it should automatically qualify as vegetarian.
Then there’s the particularly French curiosity of not counting bacon, ham, or sometimes chicken as meat. You used to order a vegetarian salad, and out it would come, splendidly decorated with little pieces of bacon. It wasn’t a mistake: I was told “mais ce n’est que des lardons!” (but it’s only bacon!) as if only beef, venison or lamb counts as proper meat.
Things have improved, quite markedly. More and more people are moving either full time or part time to vegetarian diets for a whole range of reasons: animal welfare, health or “green” concerns. The latter is particularly strong in Germany, where there’s been a huge recent growth in veggie options, because meat rearing is seen as very damaging for the environment.
You see it in the supermarkets: you can buy all sorts of meat-free versions of traditional German sausages for example. Every McDonald’s in Germany now does a veggie burger, which actually tastes amazingly good. I miss German Schnitzels (thin breaded meat cutlets) more than any other meat and was astounded to see them on the menu in Bremen’s swanky Ratskeller restaurant. I could have cried. They were outstanding and this would’ve been unthinkable even ten years ago. I even took a photo to mark the event!
How to Spot Vegetarian Dishes in Europe and Beyond
As a veggie traveller, you do need to be aware that your particular favourites at home may well not be available and it’s useful to know what items are available as the veggie option so you can ask for them, or recognise them on menus.
In Austria or Germany look out for Käsespätzle, which is a delicious macaroni-cheese type local dish. In Spain, vegetarian paella is great, and a welcome find amongst the heavily meat/fish based menus. In the Czech Republic or Slovakia you’ll often find deep fried mushrooms. In neighbouring Hungary it will be deep fried cheese. It sounds like a heart-attack waiting to happen (and probably is) but it tastes great. In Poland go for vegetarian Pierogi, which is widely served. In France I always tend to just ask for a veggie omelet with fries, or a salad (no tuna or bacon!). In Switzerland ask for Rösti. It’s the most sensational grated potato dish, often with added onions, cheese or herbs. In Greece, enjoy the plentiful fresh salads.
Some countries are inherently far more veggie friendly than others. The Netherlands tends to be excellent. Scandinavia is surprisingly poor, at least if you don’t eat fish. They adore their fish dishes and veggie options are scarcer than you might expect. Italy is generally great because of the availability of veggie pizza and pasta. By contrast in Central Europe I’ve frequently been given a plate of plain boiled potatoes with some tasteless steamed vegetables. If you’re lucky, they chuck on a fried egg.
One useful tip to remember is that if you’re in a country that isn’t big on vegetarian options (e.g. parts of Central Europe) look for an Italian restaurant there and you’ll be fine. Similarly there are 400 million vegetarians in India, and many more elsewhere in South East Asia. Look for an Indian, Thai or Indonesian restaurant anywhere and you’ll generally be spoilt for choice.
One Thai restaurant I visited had no veggie options and I was shocked. When I asked about this, they pointed to the bottom of the menu: every single one of their dozens of choices was available as a meat-free option. My shock turned rapidly to big greedy eyes and a fair amount of gluttony! Ever tried Thai Duck Green Curry with substitute duck made from Seitan (wheat gluten)? It’s amazing!
The gold-standard for vegetarians in Europe is the UK. There are estimates that as many as 10% of the UK adult population is full time, or mainly, vegetarian. Because of this, you will find veggie everything here. Most hotels for example have cooked English breakfasts and cooked veggie breakfasts. You don’t have to seek out specific vegetarian restaurants, as you do in Portugal or Croatia: every regular restaurant will tend to offer you not just one option, but several. Products are clearly labelled in shops with a nice green “V”. You’re not treated as some weird exception: there are enough of us about to have created a lot of demand that’s now catered for. It really is a delight.
Two tips every traveling vegetarian should know:
- Make it very clear what you eat or don’t eat. As at home you can still run into people who don’t grasp the difference between vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and pescatarians. It’s always worth saying very clearly for example “I’m vegetarian: I don’t eat meat or fish.” Otherwise you might get a nice fried carp served up (with head and tail attached) as your veggie option.
- Realise that your choices might be far more limited at home, but it’s not the end of the world. We all love to eat great food, but it’s not the only aspect to travelling. You experience so many amazing things when away, and will be back within a week or two to your usual diet, that you can afford to be a bit tolerant with your meal choices. An omelet wouldn’t be my first choice at home, but I get to see Rodin’s sculptures when I’m in Paris. I’m actually willing to make this brave sacrifice for my greater pleasure!
You will find something to eat (even a plate of unappealing steamed vegetables) almost everywhere, and if you keep this as your philosophy you’ll be a far happier veggie traveller.