Before we started this big trip, I put a lot of thought into eating vegetarian while traveling. While some countries allowed for easy access to vegetarian cuisine (India), others created a mental stomach ache (Kazakhstan). While technically it is possible to eat pure vegetarian food anywhere, it might result in a diet of plain rice or bread in some places. For me, that wasn’t the most attractive option either, since the nutritional value of a rice-only diet isn’t exactly ideal (I also don’t believe in constantly taking vitamin supplements on the road, as some travel books and online resources suggest). So I opted for a more practical approach while traveling: eating fish.
As it turned out, in some countries, this still wasn’t going to be enough. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are landlocked countries and are not exactly famous for their fish. In fact the staples are mutton and horse meat! So the big eating adventure started out with a drastic non-veg measure – whenever necessary, picking out meat bits from dishes. Obviously, I still wasn’t going to order the mutton stew for lunch but I had to accept that traditional rice dishes, such as Plov, would be served with some meat. Luckily, this was mainly just sprinkled on top of the rice and Rick gladly assisted in picking it off for me. In other cases, the entire Plov might have been cooked in mutton stock. As there were not many food alternatives around, I implemented a new strategy: don’t think too hard about what might be in your lunch. Maybe it was cooked with beef stock, maybe not – I still had to eat something. Mostly, my mental gymnastics worked out for my stomach, except for one case in Kazakhstan which resulted in a proper toilet session. Yuck. I would like to note that Kazakhstan especially has very good bread and that the homestays are used to catering for non-carnivores. Home cooked meals at homestays are the best way to go!
So Central Asia was probably not the best cuisine on this trip. Second worst was the rather bland food in the Philippines (except for some of their seafood). Southeast Asia can also be tricky for a vegetarian because basically everything is seasoned with fish or oyster sauce. The Vietnamese are carnivores par example, yet I discovered a good trick there: the magical word “chay”. If a restaurant or a dish features this term, it is vegetarian. Believe me, I asked everyone just to double check! Because even then it might sound tricky because, for example, the Vietnamese word for beef (“bo”) might be used in the dish’s name, such as in “Bún bò Huế Chay” (Beef noodle soup Hue style). But even this is still vegetarian thanks to the magic word “chay” The tradition for occasionally eating vegetarian comes from fasting: if a wife loses her husband, she will fast for 3 days each month to commemorate his death. Seems odd but apparently there are plenty of restaurants catering to this crowd! Figuring out this tradition exisits, it made my vegetarian lifestyle a lot easier in Vietnam, even in non-touristy regions where English is not widely spoken.
Still, the absolute very best for a vegetarian is still India. I would say it is the world’s best country for veggies (regardless of the Delhi belly). Needless to say, I was in food heaven there. Indian curries still are my favorite cuisine and my very first Palak Paneer in Delhi was simply divine.
To sum things up, I had some accidental meat in some funny places along the way. On the road, it can be tricky to follow my ‘picky’ eating habits from home. A vegan lifestyle works out better in New York City than in, let’s say the Philippines. With a few strategies it worked out fine for me. And when I found delicious vegetarian Pho noodle soup, I was in food heaven. I probably had well over 5 litres of that in Vietnam. And I still crave it.