Tips for eating vegetarian in Southeast Asia

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Being a vegetarian traveller may seem daunting and even discouraging at times. Trying a country’s speciality dishes is one of the most exciting parts of immersing yourself in a new place. Beyond that, feeling satisfied with your meals each day is necessary for your overall energy levels, nutrition, and basic enjoyment. Luckily, it is actually rather easy to remain a happy vegetarian in Southeast Asia. These simple tips that I use ensure that I virtually never feel restricted when it comes to mealtimes, and hopefully they can be just as helpful for you.

Eating vegetarian in Southeast Asia

Vegetarianism is not a widespread environmental or ethical movement in Asia as it is in many western countries. However, it is incredibly common to abstain from meat for religious reasons. People are thus not surprised to hear that you do not eat meat due to the large influence of Buddhism in the region. Better yet, eating plant-based is not seen as an elitist practice, as it sometimes is in the west. You will find that it is significantly cheaper to eat vegetarian in Southeast Asia than to eat meat. And that is exactly as it should be!

vegetarian in Southeast Asia

Buddhist rice buffets

If ever you are near a Buddhist temple in the city, you are also near a plethora of veggie restaurants. You can often identify these by Buddhist prayer flags and imagery on display. I found that rice buffets were incredibly common at these places. There would be a variety of vegetable, noodle and sometimes mock meat dishes to choose from. You select a serving of 2 or 3 dishes and also get a generous pile of rice with it. Sometimes you could also get a bowl of soup if the owners were particularly giving. They may also serve vegetarian versions of the country’s speciality dishes, so you don’t have to miss out on sampling them. The food is always delicious and serious value for money.  I also found the owners of these eateries to be very warm and humble, making you want to come back and support them regularly.

Happy Cow app

The best hack for vegetarians all over the world, Happy Cow is one of the most useful apps that plant-based eaters can have. It made finding spots for eating vegetarian in Southeast Asia a breeze. You can filter it to vegan, vegetarian, or veg-friendly if you are eating with meat lovers too. What makes the app great is that you can see a price indication for each place. So if you’re a budget traveller like myself, look for those single dollar sign listings! Most places have reviews by other Happy Cow users, so you can get a sneak peek of what to expect. Images are uploaded by users as well so you can often check out the dishes that are on offer. Google maps is also embedded into the app, so you can navigate your way to the place directly from where you are. Honestly, this app is a dream.

Learn the lingo

When you’re in a foreign country, it is up to you to adapt and learn a bit of the language. The most useful translations that you as a vegetarian in Southeast Asia can learn are those for ‘vegetarian’ and ‘no meat’. Even if you are at a restaurant or street food stand that makes mostly meat dishes, you can simply say that you do not eat meat and they will likely be able to give you a vegetarian alternative. It is also helpful to do some research beforehand on the main dishes of that area. This way you’ll know of their food favourites that are naturally veggie, and those which you need to steer clear of.

vegetarian in Southeast Asia
Hanoi’s favourite dish that is all about the meat. Get to know your street food to avoid buyer’s regret!

Carry snacks

Although it shouldn’t happen that you find yourself unable to eat anything at a dinner or event, it is always best to be prepared. Vegetarian food doesn’t keep you as full as meat does, so munching more often is also necessary while you’re on the go. A great way to ensure that you never go hungry is to have some snacks on hand throughout the day. Eating fresh fruits or nuts at regular intervals is ideal for your energy and nutrition. You also won’t be starving if you land up with disappointing veggie options later in the evening.

vegetarian in Southeast Asia

Be respectful

Particularly in Asia, food is made to be shared. People will often show their love or openness to you by offering you food. They may even invite you out for a meal, or ask you to come around to eat at their home. Although you may worry about your dietary preferences, you should not take these offers lightly or hastily turn them down. Rejecting a meal can easily feel like rejecting an offer of friendship from the other’s perspective. To avoid offending anyone, explain your food choices to them and see if they are happy to have a veg-friendly meal. Turn people down kindly when they offer you their meat-heavy snack. An explanation is enough to reassure them that you appreciate the gesture.

Everyone is entitled to different preferences, rituals and opinions when it comes to food. However, especially when you are not in your home country, you should always respect the practices of that society’s food culture. Remember to never look at the food of another as disgusting or with an expression of judgement. Try as many new dishes as you are able to. Show an appropriate level of interest in dishes that you cannot eat. Act only out of love, most importantly during mealtimes. Food should remain a positive vessel of connection, generosity and shared experience.

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