Avoiding meat and fish while travelling can be frustrating and sometimes impossible says Shahnaz Habib, but it can also lead to all sorts of adventures and give you a unique insight into a destination
In India, where I grew up, I was never considered vegetarian enough. I do not eat fish or meat, but I do eat eggs, which meant outing myself as a non-vegetarian when someone asked if I am pure veg. After all, this is a country where states have passed laws banning beef. But in the US, I have met vegetarians who eat chicken. Vegetarians who have casually thrown the term flexitarian at me, as if it were a sprinkle of coriander. Vegetarians who are at pains to let you know they are not crazy, like, you know, vegans.
Over three decades of being vegetarian, I have learned the hard way that there is no universal definition of what a vegetarian is. And when you are travelling and eating, finding vegetarian sustenance is not just a matter of asking: Do you have anything vegetarian? Depending on where you are, Do you have anything vegetarian? has to be followed with an arsenal of inquiries, from Can you make that without fish sauce? to Are the beans cooked in lard or oil?
Of course its cooked in lard, the waiter at a Mexican restaurant in New York huffed proudly, our food is authentic.
In Turkey even the most innocuous looking vegetable soup or rice dish contains invisible meat, in the form of chicken or lamb stock. One of my first meals in Istanbul was at a tiny kebab restaurant on a rather rickety balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. Etsis yemek var mi? (Do you have any meatless food?) I asked the waiter, trying not to be daunted by the smirks from the men drinking tea at the next table. The lentil soup was made with beef bouillon. The aubergine kebab had meat in between the vegetable pieces. It turned out that the only vegetarian thing the kitchen could make was a potato salad, so I ordered that. My salad arrived 20 minutes after my husbands chicken kebab. An enormous heap of fries on a flatbread.