Vegans Abroad! Twelve Tips for the Traveling Vegan Family
by Ginger Carlson
His passport is quite full; his belly satisfied. At three and a half, my son has now been around the world once for every year of his life. Getting to know new countries and foods has become just part of who he is, a way to explore. When we come home, it is the memory of the food, the people he got it from and where we can find it in our own town (and how it compares) that is his most valued souvenir.
While it can sometimes be intimidating to journey outside the comfortably numb of one’s own country (especially when you have dietary restrictions) traveling abroad as a family is fulfilling on so many levels. With some preparation, finding foods that you feel good about giving your family will be a snap. The fun and simple act of eating will likely become the channel for your family to meet new people, learn new customs and expand your world! These twelve brief tips will get you started on happy vegan adventures with your family around the world. Bon apetit!
1. “Yo soy vegan!” – Learn to say “I don’t eat meat” or the word for vegan (if it exists) in the language of the country where you’ll be traveling. The International Vegetarian Union has compiled a good list of translations and different “I don’t eat meat” phrases in several languages ( http://www.ivu.org/phrases/.) Be aware that even if you use the word vegetarian or vegan it may not always mean that the dish is actually vegan. The people you meet in your host country may have a different understanding of the word altogether. For instance, in Bali one often sees “Antiques Made to Order”. So you would want to remain cautious that your ‘vegetarian’ dish isn’t actually ‘meat made to order’.
2. Power of the written word. Learn to write “I don’t eat meat” or have someone write it for you. Sometimes when you are traveling in a foreign country, even you are able to get the words “I don’t eat meat” out, you may not always be understood. While in China, we carried a card with us that said “I don’t eat meat, fish, chicken, eggs, or milk” written in Mandarin. It was our saving grace! If all else fails, learn the words for “I’m deathly allergic” and you should get positive results.
3. Follow your “guide”. Not only will having a travel guide help you with the language factor, they are also very helpful in finding a restaurant or market that offer good veg options. Even in China and Russia, notoriously known for their vast consumption of various types of meat, we were able to easily find the only vegan restaurants thanks to travel guides. In my experience, The Lonely Planet travel guides seem to be the best in terms of listing vegan friendly restaurants.
4. Know the staples. In many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia you will have to make it very clear that not only do you not eat meat, but you also do not eat poultry, fish, meat oil, fish oil, oyster sauce, dried shrimp (a popular topping on fresh salads and other dishes throughout Asia), or anything derived from an animal. In places like India and other Central Asian countries, know that you may have difficulty finding cooked foods that do not have ghee (butter) or curd (yogurt) in them. Although more and more it is sometimes possible to ask for soy products such as soya paneer (cottage cheese) and soy milk when traveling abroad.
5. Enjoy local fruits. Mango, fig, pineapple, pomegranate and coconut never tasted better than when they are fresh from market or fresh off the tree from which they grew. But don’t limit yourself. Get to know the local fruits you aren’t so accustomed to like rambutan, lychee, longon, akee and even the strong smelling durian fruit if you are adventurous. Eating the local fruits can contribute to your trip being more culturally authentic, not to mention just plain yummy.
6. In the raw? Be aware of where fresh fruits and vegetables can become an issue. Among seasoned travelers, it is often said “If you haven’t picked it, peeled it, cut it or boiled it yourself, don’t eat it.” That said, raw foods may not necessarily be the way to go when traveling abroad if you want to avoid any tummy bugs. But when you do eat raw in countries where the water supply may be tainted, know that thicker skinned fruits and veggies are best and make sure you peel them yourself. It is also a good idea to possibly pick up a knife when you get to the host country so you can instantly peel and eat without having to worry about using someone else’s possibly tainted utensils.
7. Have snacks, will travel. If you have children, you likely already bring snacks with you wherever you go. When traveling, it is a great idea to bring along dried fruits, nuts or some favorite jar items to supplement your family’s diet. For example, if you are walking through a market in Asia, Africa or South America and your family suddenly gets an attack of the ‘hungries’, you may have trouble finding something that is both nutritious and vegan. Head that off at the pass and bring along some of your own favorite munchies. Having your own snacks will also help when a well-intentioned local offers your child a treat; it will often be a piece of milk chocolate that you can graciously accept and then replace with something more, well, vegan.
8. Question the soup. With the exception of Indian dishes, it may be next to impossible to find a purely vegan soup abroad (especially in Latin America, Asia, and Africa). Mostly, they are made with chicken, beef, mutton or other stocks that contain “natural flavors”, derived from a variety of meat sources.
9. Breastfeed! Although it may seem like a given to some, here’s a reminder to offer the breast when at all possible. When traveling with your babies and toddlers, it is always good to be able to offer them nature’s perfect food. You will be able to further guard against common travel woes such as dehydration and gastrointestinal troubles while providing your little globetrotters with an extra little immune booster to whatever you may have been exposed to while traveling.
10. Learn to love rice. Since rice is a staple for over one and half billion people worldwide, you are likely to encounter it often when you travel. Especially when traveling in Asia, steamed rice may begin to feel like your only safe option. Awaken your palate to the adventure of finding toppings for your rice such as soy sauce, peanut sauce, chutneys (you’ll find a large variety in Asia and the Caribbean), seaweed flakes, fresh fruit and steamed veggies with tofu or tempeh. And don’t forget to try sticky or sweet rice while in Asia, a great vegan snack made with coconut milk. But beware of any “sprinkles” you may find atop that mound; it is almost always fish!
11. Appetizers only. Vegans traveling in Europe often report a difficulty in finding main courses that work for them: so many cheeses, cream and butter sauces. However, you may be able to find that the appetizer menus offer antipastas and pides/side dishes that are primarily vegan. An added bonus is that they are usually cheaper than most entrée dishes, and still so yummy!
12. Planning for the party! Before you land in your country of choice, you will want to prepare your kids for what their eating experience will be like when you are there. Talk about the unique fruits and veggies they will see and get the amazing opportunity to try. Make it an adventure. Research the different names some of the same fruits and vegetables you already use at home. Create a family book of the new local fruits and veggies your family may encounter and use it as your family dictionary when you are out and about in markets. Leave a few blank pages to add to your book during your journey. Have taste tests and rate your new finds. Enjoy the true adventure of it all. You are likely to come home with more enlightened taste buds.
Last week while dining out at an Indian restaurant, we found ourselves using some of the same techniques described here to order our meal. My son was nibbling on papad, a lentil cracker which he gained quite an affinity for on our most recent trip to India a few months back, when the memories came back to him. He mused on the friends he had made and wondered how they were doing. He spoke of the sitar and tabla, his favorite Indian musical instruments and the food we ate after the last baithak (concert) we attended while we were there. Traveling abroad as a vegan is not only possible, but rewarding in every sense of the word. Knowing how to navigate the foods you will encounter is to infuse your travel experience with something much more than just a fully satisfied belly.
Happy VegFamily Travels!