Of fish heads and chicken stock: how to eat and travel while veggie

This is an actual restaurant I saw in Shanghai, 2006.

This is an actual restaurant I saw in Shanghai, 2006.

Sometimes, you gotta compromise. Which is how I wound up eating fish heads in China, despite being vegetarian for 13 years. And as anyone who has traveled with a food allergy or restriction can attest, it’s not always easy to know exactly what’s in your meal. Further, while you want to get something that agrees with you, health and/or ethics-wise, you don’t want to accidentally offend your hosts. As I’ve traveled more (and become a more picky eater,) I’ve gotten better at finessing my way through menus, ingredients, and language/cultural barriers.

When I was traveling in China, my decade-long veggie-ness fell slightly by the wayside, through no fault of my own. “Vegetarian” just wasn’t a word that translated well: when eating out, and I explained I didn’t eat meat, I was served fish; when I tried to politely refuse, I was asked if I was a Buddhist, then served green veggies that had clearly been cooked in fish oil. (Buddhists are the only people in China who don’t eat both fish and meat, I guess. So it was more a cultural difference than a language one.)

(An aside: everything in Shanghai tasted like it was cooked in fish oil, including the pizza. Seriously.)

Especially when out with a group, where people tended to order a few dishes for everyone and then put the dishes on a lazy susan, it was just easier to deal with the fish. The spicy tofu was great, but it did have a slightly fishy aftertaste. Even when I did try to make the effort to explain what I wanted, it didn’t always work. One memorable meal I ordered was a lovely seaweed salad— topped with dried silkworms. (Picked ‘em off, seemed easier!)

However, when I was in Turkey, I did put my foot down. In the Black Sea region, where I worked, meat was in almost everything. Undeterred, I invited my students out to a restaurant with me, then asked for help with the menu. (And took copious notes.) There were a few meat-free dishes, if you knew where to look.

My favorite restaurant in the small town of Ünye, Turkey. I knew it only as "Serap's place."

My favorite restaurant in the small town of Ünye, Turkey. I knew it only as “Serap’s place.”

Back to the fish heads: I was traveling with my mom, and on our last day in Shanghai, a friend and colleague of hers offered to show us a few last sights— in her family’s car, a luxury that was not lost on us. At the end of the day, they took us out to a nice restaurant. The main course was a large, well-prepared fish, which the waitress brought out on a large serving platter. Then, almost ceremoniously, she cut off the fish head, put it on a small serving dish and handed it to my mom’s friend.

Who then turned to us, and with a smile, said, “You are the guests of honor! You must have.” We stuttered out a few “oh no we couldn’t possiblys” but our host just placed the dish in front of us.

So we looked at each other, picked up our chopsticks, and proceeded to eat that fish head with as much gusto as we could. (Tip: go for the forehead. There’s actually meat there.)

Sometimes, its best to just compromise— of course, I’m not allergic to meat. I just choose to not eat it. For the food-restricted traveler, I’ve compiled a few help things I’ve learned while traveling.

1. Do your homework.

May seem obvious, but you need to have a good idea of the local food before you go. Heck, you have the Internet: look at recipe pages, restaurant reviews, the county “cuisine” section on Wikipedia. Do searches for bloggers and writers who have visited the places you’re going. If you’re traveling to the land of bread and meats (like I am now, in the Czech Republic) and you’re gluten-free and vegetarian, don’t go into a restaurant and randomly order off the menu.

And if you’re traveling off the beaten path, be aware that the further off the trail you go, the more limited your food options will be. If you’re vegan, going to a remote village where everything is cooked in yak butter may not be the best choice.

Salad and quiche in Frankfurt, Germany: even in meat-heavy places, it's still possible to get a vegetarian meal.

Salad and quiche in Frankfurt, Germany: even in meat-heavy places, it’s still possible to get a vegetarian meal.

2. Have a basic idea how to order in their language.

Buy a phrasebook, write it in a notebook, make flashcards. If you had food allergies, if you have celiac’s disease, if you can’t eat pork for religious reasons, you need be able to say that (at least haltingly) in the local language. Or bring along a card that does. Lonely Planet is good for this— all their phrasebooks have a “vegetarian and specials meals” section.

Also, if you’re vegetarian, it’s a good idea to be able to ask for a specific, meat-free dish. Salad and grilled vegetables are good places to start.

3. Ask a local.

When all else fails, invite someone out to dinner and offer to pay. Most people are happy to talk about their country’s cuisine. However: for crying out loud, do not imply their food is somehow gross or weird. All cultures have food that is strange to other cultures. I mean, hot dogs. Also, in America, we make a national past time of deep frying everything. Including beer. (Of course there’s deep fried beer.)

To avoid pasta in Roma, Italy, order risotto.

To avoid pasta in Roma, Italy, order risotto.

4. Decide what your comfort zone is.

Food restrictions come in a variety of sizes: religious restrictions, food allergies, spiritual ones. It’s important to know when to put your foot down and ask for something different, and when to just eat something. (This will have a lot to do with how hungry you are.) And again, knowing before you go is really important. For example, during my China trip, my mom, another professor and I went to Beijing.  Where I discovered that almost every rice dish was cooked in pork. (Sigh.) Unfortunately, my mom’s colleague was Muslim, and he ate nothing there but plain white rice and tea.

Being vegetarian, I’ve found my comfort zone is this: no actual meat, and I try to avoid meaty products whenever possible. But if everything is cooked in fish oil or made with chicken stock, I’ll eat the meal, rather than go hungry. This was particularly true in Turkey, where almost everything was made with chicken stock: rice, beans, soup, steamed veggies. Forgoing all dishes with chicken stock would’ve mean going hungry sometimes, as I didn’t have a kitchen where I was living. (Only so many nuts, grapes and yogurt one can eat.) Also, I was there during Ramadan, which meant most of the restaurants were closed.

Snacking in Czech: bananas, peanuts and cheese.

Snacking in Czech: bananas, peanuts and cheese.

Snacks in China: peanut butter from home, soybean milk, and an egg from the convenience store.

Snacks in China: peanut butter from home, soybean milk, and an egg from the convenience store.

5. Have a backup plan.

There’s no shame in bringing snacks from home with you. Also, remember that often, the best ingredients are the simplest ones: hit up grocery stores for yogurt, nuts, cheese or packages of tofu; find a farmer’s market for fruits and veggies. All those things are naturally vegetarian— and gluten-free.

Packaged tofu in China.

Packaged tofu in China.

In the end, I’ve discovered some wonderfully tasty dishes and drinks while traveling. Just keep your phrasebook, and sense of humor, handy!

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