20 of your tales of vegetarian woe
- 22 January 2013
- From the section Magazine
What do vegetarians eat in a country where refusing meat is regarded as a sign of madness? A Magazine feature published last week raised this question, and there was a huge response from readers.
It might be tomato pasta. Again. Or salad. Plain rice. Or vegetable stew... with lumps of chicken to pick out. For the BBC's Dany Mitzman in Bologna, Italy - where vegetarianism is seen as an exotic illness - it's tagliatelle with mushrooms. Here is a selection of tales from our vegetarian readers trying to find meat-free options when far from home.
1. Breanna, Whistler, Canada: I was a vegan when I moved to West Africa in 2002. I rapidly started eating dairy, eggs and fish again just to be able to survive. I not only encountered bewilderment but inevitably would get asked "why no meat?" and end up in long discussions where my friends and colleagues tried to convert me. I tried every explanation: loving animals, hating plants, being a Buddhist, but all in vain. After a few months, I finally hit upon gold. I simply told people that my grandfather had forbidden it before he died. Nobody would dream of asking me - an unmarried young woman - to go against my grandfather's wishes. After that, everyone went out of their way to find meatless dishes for me to eat.
2. Lucy, Glasgow: In Cuba, a very helpful restaurateur bent over backwards when I told him, "soy vegetariano". However, when he served me my plate of crisps, grilled vegetables, beans and rice, he proclaimed: "But you cannot be a vegetarian - you're not skinny!"
3. Grant Finepen, Subic, Philippines: Try being a vegetarian in Texas. My friend went to a BBQ and said he didn't eat meat so, after many sympathetic words of consolation, he was given a burger bun with a salad.
4. Phil, Riccione, Italy: When I first moved to Italy, everyone thought my vegetarianism was odd, but my wife's nonna [grandmother] thought it was extremely suspicious. Initially, when we were invited for lunch, she would try to tempt me with all manner of cooked beasts. After failing to win me over, she now cooks separate "vegetarian" pasta sauce just for me, but she sneaks finely-minced meat into it. My wife caught her in the act, to which her defence was "Keep quiet! Everybody needs to eat meat. Besides, otherwise it won't taste as good."
5. Angus Gafraidh, London, UK: The French are overwhelmingly in favour of animal rights, in that every animal has the right to be eaten by a French person. While staying in Bayeux I ordered a meat-free salad and was served a tuna salad. When I explained that I didn't eat any form of meat including fish, the waiter retreated into the kitchen, a puzzled and slightly outraged look on his face. One by one the kitchen staff poked their heads out for a shifty look at this strange creature who did not eat animals. Eventually I ended up with a slightly misshapen cheese quiche - I am sure they had laboriously picked the ham pieces out - and a salad that smelled faintly of tuna. Next time I will take my own sandwiches.
6. Demarest Campbell, San Francisco, US: In South Africa, requesting vegetables is like swearing at the wait-staff. One bewildered waiter told me haughtily, "But, vegetables is what food eats."
7. Richard Ward, Keighley, UK: Try Newfoundland in Canada. I was on a road trip there for a week a couple of years ago, I basically had to live on onion rings and side salads. Everything had meat in it and the staff in restaurants and cafes openly mocked that I didn't eat meat. Only one place served a veggie option... and you guessed it, veggie lasagne - the bane of all vegetarians I know. It's just lazy catering.
8. Georgina Rowbotham, York, UK: The concept of vegetarianism absolutely does not exist in Tanzania. After trying to explain a couple of times that meat available in the UK often isn't farmed very pleasantly, I watched a schoolgirl chase my dinner (a decent-sized chicken) around the school courtyard until she caught it, I decided that since there wasn't an abundance of food and since it was the very definition of free-range, I had no problem tucking into it later that evening.
9. Christopher Smith, Pewsey, UK: I remember going out to eat in a restaurant in Bamberg in Germany. We ordered ravioli, having first established that the filling was vegetarian, There then followed a lengthy animated discussion between the management and my German-speaking friend on whether the pink meaty filling inside the ravioli was spinach or not.
10. Julieta, Buenos Aires, Argentina: I am also a non-meat eater in a country where vegetarianism is an exotic illness. Try telling people you don't eat red meat in Argentina. First question is always "Why?", followed by "Are you sick?" and, later, any of the following: "Are you sure? Come on, a bit won't hurt", or "Don't you ever feel like you're dying for steak?"
11. Kedaar Raman, Troy, New York: I have travelled far and wide. My family raised me as a traditional Hindu Brahmin vegetarian. I have found it hardest to find vegetarian food in Malaysia, China and Vermont when I lived with local farmers. I was always given the look of pity when I told locals I did not eat meat. I explained it was a personal choice and that I did not feel like I was missing out on anything since I have never eaten meat in my life. If a mother does not put a piece of meat in a baby's mouth and say it is food, the baby does not know it is food.
12. Martha P, Buxton, Derbyshire: In the deep south of New Zealand, we stopped at the one pub in the village for lunch. When I asked the bar-keep what vegetarian options there were, he sucked his teeth - "You're in meat country now, love" - and proceeded to make me a most delicious salad sandwich.
13. Marcus Oliver, London, UK: As a third-generation vegetarian (no meat, no fish), I made life even more difficult for myself by getting into practical farming in Ireland from school age. People I met and worked with couldn't understand how I could help raise livestock and yet never eat the end products. I later became an agricultural journalist for 30 years. I remember vividly a steak house in Maidenhead where the waiter brought out a leg of chicken as a substitute for the steaks my colleagues were enjoying. I sent this back complaining that it, too, was meat. I eventually got a huge lump of sweaty cheddar cheese plonked on my plate, enough for a family of four. On another occasion, at a beef production conference in Ireland, one of the delegates had to be forcefully restrained by his fellow farmers from punching me. He couldn't see how I could report fairly on the conference when I wouldn't eat the exquisite beef on offer.
14. Otto Gross, Boonton Township, New Jersey, US: On my first business trip to South Korea, the response to telling people I was vegetarian in Seoul was, "Vegetables are what they feed animals before they kill and serve them." But these experiences are not just overseas. On entering South Dakota, one of the first signs we saw was "South Dakota. Vegetarians not welcome". Now this was definitely meant in jest, but it underscored we were infidels in the land of beef.
15. Laura Dover, Calgary, Canada: When I was in (then) Czechoslovakia in 1992, I order a meatless, fishless pizza. Sure enough, they brought me a ham pizza. My Czech boyfriend berated the waitress and pointed out the meat on the pizza. "But it is chopped up in small pieces!" she exclaimed.
16. Jonathan Lesser, Jerusalem, Israel: My experiences of avoiding eating meat dishes are mostly based on my childhood during numerous walking tours throughout the UK. In the 1960s "kosher only" was relatively unknown. Much to my embarrassment, my Dad was constantly asking fish and chip owners what they fried their chips in: "No sir, no meat in our oil, just pure lard..." We had to "schlap" (an apt word here) all our dishes with us, not to mention tins of kosher Spam, in itself a contradiction of terms. We usually went pretty hungry on those walking tours.
17. Sarah, Surrey: Not only am I a vegetarian, but I love to travel and the two don't often go hand in hand. In Asia, I quickly became accustomed to eating simple foods such as plain boiled rice (including for breakfast) to ensure I didn't go hungry. But it wasn't all bad. Tropical climates offer the most beautiful exotic fruits, vegetables and spices at incredibly low prices. There were also a few vegetarian restaurants, particularly in Borneo, serving some of the most delicious veggie food I've ever eaten. Yes, in some countries locals struggled to comprehend that I didn't eat meat, but in others there were locals who - primarily for religious reasons - were vegetarians themselves, and for once I was in the majority. Amazing.
18. Jonathan Pagden, Chesham, Bucks: I once stayed in a hotel in Munich (in a land famous for offering six varieties of meat for breakfast), and asked for the vegetarian lunch option. The waiter brought a plate of bacon. When I pointed this out, he said, with a completely straight face, "It came from a vegetarian pig." I still don't know whether he was joking.
19. Cheryl, Austin, Texas, US: I routinely travel around the world for work and the reactions to non-meat eaters are routinely hysterical. "Is chicken meat? Is pork meat? It's just a little. You'll never notice. Are you ill? Poor thing..." When I worked in eastern Hungary, the company cafeteria staff would try very hard to come up with something suitable (their soups, appetizers, main courses, desserts all have animal products and even the veggies are cooked in butter). It became a daily contest and everyone would gather around to see what had been concocted for me on any given day. One day I received something that looked vaguely like a deep-fried brick, about four inches long and an inch deep. I cut into it to find that it was a block of cheese. Similar adventures even in India and South America, where bean and lentils are easy to come by.
20. Damian Bown, London, England: Reminds me of a story that my sister recounts of visiting a restaurant in northern Italy and asking "I am a vegetarian, is that a problem?" to which the waiter replied "Only for you madam, only for you."
And five good experiences...
John Crane, Prague: Not sure where Dany is eating. I have spent a lot of time in Bologna eating pumpkin ravioli, pasta with sage butter and pistachio pesto with Portobello mushrooms. I am sure that the Bolognese use a lot of meat, but the idea that there is a dearth of vegetarian dishes is a bit disingenuous.
Joe Sweeney, Gyffin, Wales: I hitchhiked around the world in the 1980s for six to seven years and never had problems finding vegetarian food. India is the nirvana for vegetarians, especially Kerala where restaurants have to distinguish themselves as meat restaurants as most are vegetarian.
Tony Palmer, Leiston, Suffolk: My wife is a vegetarian and we like foreign travel. A couple of years ago, we went to Greece for the first time - Crete to be precise. My wife was apprehensive, imagining it to be a very meat-based cuisine. How wrong could we have been? Every restaurant we went to had a good vegetarian selection, even little family-run ones hidden in the mountains. And some national dishes are vegetarian, such as briam, a vegetable stew, and a Cretan speciality of aubergine slices covered with a vegetable mix that translates to "little shoes". After watching my wife living on chips and salad in Spain and omelette in Portugal in the past, I can't recommend Greece highly enough to the vegetarian traveller.
Mary Fitzpatrick, Amsterdam, Netherlands: I have been a vegetarian for 30 years and a year ago moved to Europe from Portland, Oregon - the most vegetarian-friendly place anywhere. I was in the UK for several months and Indian food was the big relief for me. In Europe, I have not had any difficulty as there are always delicious cheese sandwiches, many pizza selections and salad options. But a vegetarian needs more than that and it is difficult finding good bean or tofu dishes. Costa Rica had the freshest and healthiest vegetarian food at every food service area. Lots of beans and rice and fresh fruit and veggies - a vegetarian's paradise for sure.
Lindsey Laing, Glasgow: On a walking tour in Budapest I was told it would be really difficult to find something to eat, as in Hungary they serve meat with a side of meat. We traipsed around trying to find somewhere that would satisfy this fussy veggie, as I was sick to the back teeth of cheese pizza. We finally found a great restaurant where we had the best meal we had eaten in eight countries. Garlic cream soup served in a big loaf of bread as a bowl as a starter. Vegetables and potatoes for main and palinka (the national drink) for pudding. Still can't stop thinking about that starter...