Why being a vegetarian traveller is often so hard to swallow

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.

A bit chippy sometimes you say salad and the waiter hears fries. Photograph: Michael Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Luckily, I love potatoes. And almost every cuisine in the world knows how to fry potatoes. Also, fortunately for me, I eat cheese. Several years ago, in Slovenia, the waiter asked if I ate cheese. Yes, maybe cheese on some vegetables? I asked, hopefully, with the help of my friend who was translating. After that long round of negotiations, the waiter brought me my main course: a block of cheese, carved artistically into the shape of a sheep, on a bed of lettuce.

I remember the wave of hungry resentment I felt at the sight of that cheese sculpture, but sitting on that grimy rooftop restaurant in Istanbul, while my husband ate his kebab, watching the gulls fly over the Bosphorus, it felt silly to feel bad for myself because there was nothing other than potatoes to eat. Travelling as a vegetarian can have difficult moments if you are going to an authentic restaurant you better bring biscuits to tide you over but it is still travel, an act of enormous privilege.

In fact, travelling as a vegetarian has offered a unique window into the places I have been to. I used to cringe every time I remembered the low opinion that Anthony Bourdain had of people like me: Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food, he declared in Kitchen Confidential. But a few years ago in Cambodia, after a series of increasingly befuddled questions and answers, the waiter gave up and invited me into the kitchen. Maybe he was being sarcastic? But I accepted with alacrity.

Wheres the beef? Chef Anthony Bourdain, no fan of vegetarian food, apparently. Photograph: Heathcliff O'Malley/Rex

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In the smoky, dark kitchen with a half-naked chain-smoking chef, I made sure that no powdered shrimp or fermented fish made its way into my noodles. Smelling ingredients while miming fish movements and watching hand-pulled noodles get chopped on a concrete slab, I felt well-compensated for not having that increasingly ephemeral phenomenon an authentic meal.

In Turkey, the manager of a B&B in Cappadocia took pity on me after he saw me surviving on chunks of bread and led me home to his mother. While we watched Turkish reality television in a living room that was fashioned out of a volcanic rock cave, she cooked fluorescent green banana peppers, ripe ribbed tomatoes and gleaming aubergine.

Having a kitchen at hand makes all the difference when you are a vegetarian who likes to travel. Some of the most memorable meals I ate were in France but they were not fancy restaurant meals. I was at a writing residency in a mountain village in the south where there were no shops and certainly no restaurants. A farmer who lived on the other side of the mountain would visit the village twice a week to sell vegetables and eggs. They were astonishingly delicious vegetables and all they needed was salt and pepper, a little butter or olive oil.

After it rained, all the villagers would disappear into the woods acting nonchalantly. A charming neighbour decided that since I didnt eat meat, La France must reveal another side of herself to me. One morning he took me along after I vowed not to give away his cache. Together, we raced against other neighbours and foraged for dewy, newborn mushrooms. I felt as if I was in one of those life-or-death video games. It was worth all the drama when I ate my mushroom omelette at lunch. In France, the bastion of steak tartar and fattened bird liver, I learned to love vegetables even more.

Oh, Lamour In France I learned to love vegetables even more Photograph: Alamy

My love affair with vegetables began early. I stopped eating meat at the age of eight, after seeing my grandmother killing a hen in the ritual Muslim way. After the head was severed, I looked in horror at the still-alive bird body thrashing around and decided never again. But over the years, that visceral horror has passed and eating vegetarian has become more of a habit rather than an ideology. After my doctor told me that I was B12 deficient, I even tried to eat some beef. I was revolted by its stringiness. The vegetables had colonized my taste buds.

But of course there was New Orleans. My husband and I waited for two hours before we could get into Jacques Imo, a restaurant that was recommended by both a food writer friend and our taxi driver from the airport. Yes, there was a vegetarian pasta on the menu but when my husbands oysters came to the table, there was something about them. My husband pried it out of its half-shell and offered it to me on his fork. I ate it. It was a gift. From him to me. And from me to an eight-year-old on the verge of noticing blood and bones.

And while it was delicious, it did not turn me into a carnivore. I want my carnivorous friends to eat all the meat they want to, especially in India where battle lines are being drawn over hamburgers and beef kheema. In New York, I go out of my way to Honest Chops, to buy organic, halal meat for my family. Yet, I am not even remotely tempted to eat any myself. And when we travel, I am grateful for the adventures that emerge because I am a vegetarian.

To be hungry is to be curious. When you cant eat what is in front of you, you have to persuade people to feed you. You learn to explain your dilemma in multiple languages. You learn that in some cultures, fish is practically a vegetable and in others, mushrooms are halfway to flesh. You learn to go with the flow and you learn to see the world at slant. Most of all, you get to poke a tiny hole in the traveller stereotype of the macho explorer sitting down to eat raw intestines with the locals and really, isnt that why we go places?

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/apr/28/why-being-vegetarian-traveller-hard-to-swallow