A Traveling Vegetarian

Today is Earth Day. One way to lessen your load on the earth is to be a vegetarian, or to cut down on your consumption of meat. I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years. I don’t eat the best possible diet – ice cream and chocolate have been known to pass my lips and I have coffee every morning – but I eat a diet based on vegetables and grains and try for organic and locally grown when possible.

I am also a traveler. Sometimes the two – vegetarian and traveler – are difficult to be together. Twenty years ago, when we discovered vacation rentals in Europe, my travel life changed. Now I could go where I wanted and not have to eat in restaurants all the time. I travel with a small stainless steel pot with a tight lid for cooking brown rice, some high quality sea salt and my good vegetable knife so I can easily create a vegetarian meal in my “home away from home”.

We usually eat some meals out but we like to do most of our own cooking. This means that we don’t end up immersing ourselves in the local cuisine, but to me local cuisine is usually different ways of cooking dead pigs, so I don’t feel that I am missing much. (And to complete the picture – we don’t drink much wine either.)

Vegetarian Ploughman's Lunch
Vegetarian Ploughman’s Lunch

In most European countries you can find vegetarian items on menus. Travel is easier for the lacto-vegetarian (who eats dairy products like butter, cheese and eggs) and more difficult for the vegan (no dairy). Many people who do not understand vegetarians expect us to eat salad at every meal. Now I like a salad, but in the middle of winter after a long hike, it is not a substantial food for me. I like pasta, cooked grains, bread and vegetables.

Vegetarian Expectations in Different European Countries

  • England is the best country for traveling vegetarians. There are many vegetarians in England and if the server at the restaurant is not one, most likely they know one, so you are not treated like an idiot. They frequently ask if you are vegan. You will find vegetarian options in pubs and tea rooms, and most good restaurants have a few vegetarian options. The Indian restaurants throughout England are a good option.
  • Switzerland is also good. Every restaurant offers a “gemuse teller” (vegetable plate) and there are usually other things to choose from, usually involving cheese. Their bread is such good quality that it is a meal in itself.
  • Italy is good because of the way their menus are organized. You usually find vegetarian pastas and contorni (vegetable side dishes). Only once in Italy did they refuse to seat us when we told them I was a vegetarian. In some seaside places every dish has seafood, but you can ask for spaghetti with tomato sauce. In Tuscany I find a big selection, but in most other regions I end up eating the same thing for every meal (in Liguria  I eat spaghetti with pesto, in Umbria spaghetti with truffles – good on the first and second nights, boring by the third).
  • Franceis not easy but most good sized towns have a vegetarian restaurant. I have had some of the best meals of my life in vegetarian restaurants in France. In other countries vegetarian restaurants can feature undercooked rice and many old hippies, but in France the food is good quality and innovative and even the old hippies are fashionable. In “normal” restaurants I end up eating omelets.
  • Germany is difficult. They like their meat and I end up eating salad or just potatoes.

I have not been to Spain in 30 years, but I hear it is difficult for vegetarians. The same with eastern Europe.

Thank You to the Chinese Immigrant Communities

Twenty years ago, when we finished our year of travel in Europe, I wanted to write to China thanking them for their immigrants (or is it emigrants? the people who left). It was the Chinese restaurants across Europe that made it possible for us to eat many days.

I remember a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Vienna where we were staying in a hotel so had no kitchen. We ate there every night for a week. We have eaten in Chinese restaurants in England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy – and Lichtenstein! In the Netherlands we eat in Indonesian restaurants.

You would think with this way of eating we would want to travel in Asia? But we don’t. Our hearts are in Europe but our stomachs are in the far east.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

6 thoughts on “A Traveling Vegetarian”

  1. Pauline,
    I loved this post! I’ll never forget your Switzerland story about “That’s is not meat (meat chunks in casserole) … THAT is meat! (huge hunk of meat on plate)”
    It’s only been about 16 months since I stopped eating meat, and I haven’t been to Europe since then. It’s been a learning experience, even here in the US. I’m picky about my vegetables (can’t stand eggplant, peppers, etc.), so am glad that I love salads – because sometimes “entree” type salads are the best option for me. My switch to non-meat eating has made my carnivore friends more aware of menu choices, too.
    I guess I can look forward to good meals in France – yay! – some repetitive pasta dishes in Italy, and Chinese food. I’m okay with that. 😉

  2. Great post. I think being a vegetarian is so misunderstood.

    I am not a vegetarian but I do not eat red meat and pork. I get the same thing at restaurants that are heavily meat based. I know just what you mean about being expected to eat salad. My mom freaked out when I first stopped eating red meat/pork and could not figure out what I could eat. I am very happy with pasta, cheese, and pizza 🙂 I also need to avoid MSG (migraine trigger). Unfortunately for me, Chinese food is not a good choice due to the heavily MSG additives in most dishes.

  3. Nice to hear from some other vegetarians or semi-vegetarians! Here is the story Colleen is referring to: Steve and I were at a countryside restaurant outside of Vienna for a Sunday lunch. We told the waiter we wanted to order vegetarian and he said fine. We ordered a potato dish. It arrived with small pieces of ham mixed with the potatoes. We pointed out the meat to him and he said “that is not meat”, then pointed to a group the next table eating a huge pot roast and said “that is meat”. We were all laughing. We picked out the pieces of ham and ate our lunch.

    Susan, we run into the same thing. When people are used to basing a meal around meat, they don’t know what to feed you. I find it easier to go out to restaurants with friends, so we can all order what we want. If we do go to someone’s house, I offer to bring a vegetarian dish so they don’t have to figure out exactly what we can eat.

    Do Chinese restaurants still use MSG? I see many that say they don’t on their menus. I think the worst thing is the “fake meat” products in Chinese restaurants – they are loaded with chemicals. Thai restaurants work well for us too. And Indian.

  4. It’s getting much easier to eat vegetarian (and eat well) in Spain. Or at least in larger towns and cities, like Seville. Though you do have to be careful about the “Vienna Syndrome” as, for example, a dish of grilled mushrooms might come with bits of jamón serrano in it, which won’t be mentioned in the menu description. This happened once to a friend of mine, but when we pointed it out to the waiter he was brought a new dish of mushrooms without the jamón, no problem.

    Many places these days will make up a nice selection of grilled veg (even if it’s not on the menu) that is quite substantial and tasty, with aubergine, courgette, peppers, etc. And there is usually a selection of marinated veg salads at most tapa bars. With those you mostly have to watch out for added tuna or prawns, but many are vegetarian dishes, often including potatoes. One of the best tapas I’ve ever had was marinated radishes, which was most unexpected.

    For those who eat eggs and dairy, there are variations of Spanish omelettes and “revueltos” (basically scrambled eggs with different additions – mushrooms, asparagus, peppers, spinach) and there is a typical Spanish dish called “pisto”, which is a type of ratatouille, usually served with a fried egg on top. The cheese here is wonderful and goes very well with fresh bread and olives.

    I’d say about half the places I frequent these days have a vegetarian section on the menus, and there are also several excellent vegetarian restaurants in Seville. Also, non-Spanish restaurants, especially Italian, Indian and Arabic, have good vegetarian options on their menus.

  5. Thank you, Pauline, for posting about your vegetarian eating experiences in Europe. I haven’t traveled in Europe or the middle east since I was a teen. At that time I lived on bread and desserts. I’m getting ready to go to Europe this summer with friends who are not vegetarian, and I was wondering what was in store for me so I did an internet search. My biggest concern is Hungary. I could make a good pun there, but I pass.

  6. Azahar, thanks for the Spain information. The last time I was in Spain was 1972 and I was not a vegetarian – but I always heard it is difficult for vegetarians – seems like times have changed. And your Sevilla Tapas website is a good place for someone to start learning about food in Spain: http://azahar-sevilla.com/sevilletapas/

    Cat, I would love to hear how it goes for you in Eastern Europe. I have heard it is difficult in some countries to get vegetable dishes.

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