The Vegetarian's Guide to the World
Welcome to the first vegetarian's-eye view to travel destinations. If you would like to add a country, have extra information, or disagree with my assessment, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to hear from you!
My ranking system is worked out by taking into account a number of factors:
1. The amount of restaurants with veggie options.
2. The average citizen's acceptance of vegetarianism.
3. Consistency across the country.
4. Yumminess of vegetarian cuisine.
I have approached America on a state-by-state basis as they have huge
polarisation of opinion depending on where you are.
5 points = Delicious food, widespread cultural appreciation, lots of options.
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4 points = Delicious food, cultural understanding if not appreciation, reasonable options - though may be limited in number and not everywhere.
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3 points = Not a difficult country to travel in, but not easy either. Don't expect to find many vegetarian options in restaurants, but you should be ok with market vendors and the like.
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2 points = Pretty challenging. In some places you'll do ok, maybe even find something really tasty, but you'll probably get a fair few meaty surprises in your 'vegetarian' option. Head out of town and you'll start to really struggle.
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1 point = Almost no cultural understanding; people will probably think you're soft in the head and finding anything to eat in most of the country will be a real challenge.
Despite Karl Pilkington chowing down on Cairo bull's balls in An Idiot Abroad, Egypt remains my favourite country to visit as a vegetarian. Never did I have to explain twice, never did I find an unidentified animal remain swimming in my dinner. Never did I visit somewhere where there weren’t at least half a dozen options on the menu for me and never did I feel like people thought I was weird. In fact every Egyptian I spoke to about my not eating meat enthusiastically commended me on my care for animals. Even more amazing was that the vast majority of food served to us was vegetarian by default. I never had to say a word. And what food! The most delicious cuisine imaginable, I’d go back in a heart-beat.
Spain is not a vegetarian’s paradise unfortunately, in some places you can find omelettes etcetera in cafes, but that’s about it – and expect surprise meat. It is actually one of only two countries in the world where I’ve genuinely not been able to find something and gone hungry – on more than one occasion. Depressingly, at the feast de La Asuncion; a massive nationwide fiesta – I ate nothing for 24 hours and then gave up looking and sat on the pavement outside MacDonalds with a carton of rubbish fries. It gets two stars because at least there’s usually something naff like that you can eat if nothing else.
France is a bit of a mixed bag with vegetarians. As a general rule you can always find a fantastic omelette or crepe at a café and if you don’t try and eat out too much you’ll eat like a king. The cheese, oh god the cheese. Hit the boulangerie and grab yourself some amazing rustic bread, then the fromagerie, then the epicerie (before twelve in the south, because everyone will go back to bed after that) and have yourself a mouth party. The problem comes if you try to go to a nice restaurant or if some kind person offers to make you food; expect surprise meat. It won’t occur to them, as a general rule, to not cook yours in with all the juices of everything else and they will probably think you’re a bit of a moron. The French are notoriously grandiose about their food – and vegetarians are weird.
“Traditionally, eating of meat has been the symbol of prosperity in Bulgaria. When we talk of food, we understand meat meals. There aren’t many people who define themselves as vegetarians. You won’t die of hunger; although meat dominates the menus of restaurants and eateries, they usually have a meatless section. Besides, every place in Bulgaria has its permanent market place/s with heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls and small dairy shops and bakeries around. So, a kilo of tomatoes, a hunk of brine cheese, a loaf of homemade white or brown bread, and your meal is ready. This is what the average Bulgarian would eat if they happen to be away from home and won’t bother with a cooked meal.”
- Contributed by Anna Vladeva, Varna, Bulgaria
"Vegetarians are pretty rare because they unfortunately miss out on the majority of the local cuisine, which is pretty traditional. Most of the soups and risottos will use animal stock as a base, there will be bacon in dishes that won’t even be mentioned, fish isn’t even considered meat… it can be difficult, but if you’re willing to give it a go you can make it work. Rural areas will be even tougher, but the advantage here is that they’ll have a stockpile of fresh produce that you’ll be able to work with youself."
- Contributed by Jelena Vukas, Split, Croatia
As a general rule, the average Italian does not have a great understanding or respect for the decision to be vegetarian. Generally it’s perceived to be the lifestyle choice of weird, soap-dodging hippies, but that’s quite ironic as Italy is actually pretty awesome for vegetarians. In fact, so much so, that Italian restaurants are international SOS responses for vegetarians all over the world. Can’t find anything to eat in a country? Whether it’s South America or Mongolia, if you’re in a town there’s almost always a pizzeria or an Italian of some kind and wherever that is, there’s something you can eat. It’s a huge testament to the popularity of Italian food. Italy itself is a delicious place to travel in and you’ll encounter very few problems – what drags it down from a 5 is cultural attitude and the fact that one time in Genoa I found a piece of meat in my pizza vegetale.
Options in Belgium will not be dissimilar to what you will find in France, however you may find it ever so slightly easier as the Belgians are not quite so zealous when it comes to their cuisine. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but in general Belgians are likely to be more sympathetic to your opinions on foie gras production.
Second only to India, the UK actually has the most sophisticated vegetarian culture in the world. A YouGov survey in November 2013 showed that an absolutely whopping 17% of 18-24 year olds now define themselves as vegetarian and the current total of vegetarians of all ages amounts to 5% of the population. This is expected to rise to 10% in the next few years in the wake of the horse meat scandal and rising awareness of the environmental and health implications of large-scale meat consumption; that’ll be one in ten. This is great news and makes me super proud! Wherever you are in Britain, be it a greasy spoon, a supermarket or a fancy restaurant, you won’t find yourself without something yummy to eat.
Saying to a Mongolian that you don’t eat meat is pretty much like saying that you don’t eat. In fairness to Mongolians, their carnivorousness is much more justified than in most countries. For six months of the year the country freezes solid and is covered in deep snow; the capital Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures as low as -40C for the duration of the winter months. This makes growing vegetables almost an impossibility. In the spring when the country thaws, the roads need to be re-laid due to pot holes that could swallow a truck and these roads are the only link to the outside world for most Mongolians. The country has one, rather small, airport which is notoriously hard to get in or out of due to the high winds whipping across the steppes and one railway line (the trans-Siberian) which runs north to south of this much longer east-to-west country. As such, imports are very expensive and almost non-existent outside of the capital. I visited a supermarket in Ulaanbaatar that was selling apples at US$15 for six.
The result of this is what makes Mongolia completely magical. 70% of the population still live a nomadic lifestyle, almost unchanged for thousands of years, and it’s the last true horse culture left in the world. The Mongolians follow their herds to their seasonal pastures and the herds provide them with almost everything they need – including their food. Meat and dairy is the order of the day. Where there’s a will there’s a way though, don’t expect gourmet cuisine in Mongolia as a vegetarian, but if you follow my tips, you’ll get by enough to experience this spell-binding country in all its natural, untouched, wonder.
Laos is a great place to be a vegetarian, although a very sad place. Like most Buddhist countries, vegetarianism as a concept is understood and respected, and I wish I could say that’s why it’s a good place to be meat-free, but the truth is much sadder. The truth is that Laos is the poorest country in the world. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than were dropped in totality in the First and Second World Wars combined. That’s combined. Not because Laos was especially involved you understand, but because it was in the way. The bombs were dropped indiscriminately across the country by American planes that’d failed to deliver their payloads and were unable to land with them still in. Today there is still approximately 80 million unexploded bombs across the country and 300 annual deaths as a result – 40% of which are children foraging for scrap metal. The sad fact is that poverty and vegetarianism often go involuntarily hand-in-hand so you’ll be fine here – food-wise anyway, I can’t promise that emotionally you will be, but it’s a stunning country whose people have a miraculous capacity for resilience and kindness. I know a lot of hard-core backpackers who will tell you that this is their favourite place in the world.
Like Laos, Burma has the combination of Buddhism and poverty which generally results in a lot of vegetarian cuisine, the latter part at last being something I find hard to celebrate. The food is delicious, it’s similar to other South East Asian cuisines, but it has its own stamp to it. You’ll find a lot of really yummy avocado dishes which are unique to the country, as well as fantastic Indian-fusion street snacks; samosas and dumplings and fritters etc. I would say Burma is probably my favourite place for this kind of indiscriminate munching! What pulls it down from a 5 is fish sauce, the Burmese version is fermented and much stronger than the Thai kind and they put it with absolutely everything. You’ll have to work quite hard to be 100% certain there’s none in your dinner. Due to the fact that Burma has been almost completely sealed from the outside world for the last 50 years and is only just now beginning to open up, you will find almost no outside influences at all. It is one of the only countries in the world that can say that it has not a single Macdonalds. This is changing however and every year more and more of the outside world creeps in; for better and worse.
Thailand is often cited as a great county for vegetarians and it is, but like Burma – watch out for fish sauce! It is in everything and it won’t be listed as an ingredient, nor will the average Thai person disclose it without prompting as they won’t usually consider it non-vegetarian. All the salads; papaya salad, cucumber salad etcetera (every menu will be full of them and they are delicious) will most likely have fish sauce in it so make sure you specifically say no fish sauce. Most places on the tourist trail will understand. Go off piste and you’ll have a slightly harder time though.
Vietnam has a very different feel to it than the rest of South East Asia, mostly as a result of the massive Chinese influence. It’s beautiful and you will still find lots of vegetarian food and, for the most part, a sympathetic cultural attitude; just not quite so much as elsewhere in the region. Vietnam’s most iconic national dishes are meat based; for instance pho, a beef noodle soup, as well as massive quantities of sea food. Banh Mi rolls however, are awesome, as well as fresh Vietnamese spring rolls which are rolled in flat noodle instead of pastry.
Cambodian cuisine is similar to Thai, but generally milder. You won’t get the epic heatwave that Thai chilli will hit you with, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective! Again the apocryphal fish sauce is an element that requires constant vigilance to avoid. As a former French colony you’ll find lots of great baguettes and bakeries still in good standing too.
Malaysia is my favourite place in the world for food (yes I’m aware that I said that about Egypt, but I never can decide between these two). It has a massive Indian population which has influenced the cuisine; where there be Indians, there be awesome grub. The cuisine in itself is a combination of South East Asian styles and Indian food and you will find fantastic vegetarian tandooris all over the country. Yum!
Being the wealthiest country in the world and a global financial powerhouse means that this diddy little country caters to anyone and everything. The only problem may be your bank balance, especially if you’ve become too accustomed to a Thai back-packer budget. If money’s tight, stick to little India – you’ll find really authentic traditionally-served nosh there with a more reasonable price tag.
India is the vegetarian Holy Grail with 70% of the population being strictly meat-free. Not even fish sauce! Huzzah! There’s not a great deal more to say other than that this is the only country in the world where the vegetarian option is the default option – paradise. Indian food is so heavily based on spices and flavours that even the most dedicated carnivore doesn’t feel the absence.
Home of juice fasting, the maple syrup and cayenne pepper diet and every other fad known to man, California will and does cater to everyone. Literally everyone. If you decide you want to live in a tree and eat only vegetables grown in caves by shamanic monks, you’ll probably be fine in California.