Although complementary and inextricably bound to one another, these two concepts present the modern day traveller with a colossal minefield across which it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to navigate. A path which when successful, can create unforgettable experiences; yet, when misjudged, can lead to close examination of bathroom walls while your digestive system accustoms itself to the finer merits of foreign food.
Coined in 1944 by Donald Watson and wife Dorothy, the term ‘vegan’ combines the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’ in a kind of symbolic conclusion of strict adherence to vegetarian principles. With a mantra of avoiding all suffering and cruelty to both people and animals, vegans do not use or consume anything that comes from animals, whether alive (such as milk and eggs) or dead (such as meat and leather). Despite omitting crucial components of the food pyramid, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids, it is most certainly possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle on a vegan diet. Balance is paramount and the American Dietetic Association considers “appropriately planned” vegan diets “nutritionally adequate”.
However, how do you make sure you get your soya fix when backpacking across the Sahara? When preparing to embark on an adventure around the globe, perhaps vegans have to be a little more wary.
Meat the locals
There are many countries where the concept of veganism is wholly unfathomable, and Amanda Baker, media officer for The Vegan Society, speaks of the notoriety of Middle America where carnivorous culture makes searching for a vegan meal nigh impossible. “It is not that places like Texas should be avoided, it is just that there is such a strong meat-eating culture. It is the same with polar and colder regions. It is so much harder to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, so naturally they are harder to find.”
Andrew Gorman, recent graduate and hard-core vegan of three years also spoke of the difficulty of veganism in colder climes, “I have a friend in Russia who has turned carnivorous after 13 years of vegetarianism in order to experience the culture and avoid freezing to death!” Places in Northern Europe, such as Norway or Finland are equally as difficult as is, surprisingly, France. As Gorman explained, “Most French consider veganism to be some sort of rare disease that only happens elsewhere. In a restaurant, I was once offered tuna as a vegan option.”
UK, USA and Canada
Obviously, the UK, USA, and Canada have already clocked that veganism isn’t for a handful of ascetics but is becoming an ever more common phenomenon; hence the chain of Toronto restaurants called ‘Fresh’, specialists in serving vegan food with an Asian bent, who created an innovative and interesting menu on which much vegan food today is based. The metropolitan melting-pot, New York has been quick to cotton on and in San Francisco, vegans are in for a treat with their very own gourmet restaurant; providing delicacies such as spring vegetable cilantro coconut curry, teff crepes with South Indian red lentil daal, and black pepper and rosemary glazed tempeh (see www.milleniumrestaurant.com).
Amanda Baker points out that for many foreign visitors; the UK is one of the leading lights in catering for veganism. “There are over 30 vegan restaurants in London alone, and other British cities, such as Glasgow, have seen an expansion in the number of vegan restaurants.” There are over 3 million vegetarians and vegans in the UK and a further 3 million people have problems digesting milk, and supermarkets and delicatessens throughout the nation are wising up to alternative options. Restaurants, however, are another kettle of (tofu) fish. Gorman also remarked, “Most places have at least a couple of vegetarian dishes but these are usually cheese-based or contain eggs. London has a budding little vegan restaurant scene so there’s getting to be a bit of price competition. Pubs, needless to say, are a vegan nightmare.”
Elsewhere in Europe, many places are fairly problem free for the vegan traveller. Eastern Europe, despite doom-filled warnings of an animal-centred diet and paucity of fresh fruit and vegetables actually have a remarkable number of surprises and all vegan travelling needs is a little patience and a lot of imagination. Most eateries, in addition to the ‘meat, meat and more meat’ options, have vegetable and bean based dishes, and the best approach is to order a couple with accompanying rice or potatoes in a kind of tapas style. Many Eastern countries have a large Turkish or Middle Eastern influence which constitute the true European home of the kebab, thus falafel is often available at very low prices and (mostly) decent quality.
The subtropical climate of Mediterranean Europe lends itself well to fresh fruit and vegetables – paradise for vegans. Italy is perfect due to the profusion of pasta dishes with no meat, although make sure that it is not egg pasta and not smothered it in parmesan. The large backpacking scene in Spain (Barcelona in particular) has carved out a specialist vegan niche.
A little further afield, many Buddhist countries or those with vegan specialties as a diet staple are perfect – with an abundance of rice and root vegetables in Singapore and Thailand, and couscous, pulses and falafel galore in North Africa and the Middle East. Demographics of religions provide a clear indication of the food that you are likely to encounter whilst away, and the predominance of Hinduism in India and Sikhism further north, in places such as the Punjab region of India and Pakistan ensure that there is a wealth of vegetarian and vegan cuisine available.
Wherever you are, you are never going to be stuck for something to eat, and even the most unlikely places have vegan-friendly alternatives. The most important advice is to make sure you are well prepared for any eventuality. Many vegans recommend carrying an emergency supply of energy food for when the going gets tough. Andrew Gorman’s rations of choice include, “a pot of honey, a small plastic spoon and some nuts. Stuff that doesn’t go off and smelly in your bag.”
Use your imagination
Obviously, it will be difficult to maintain your usual diet while backpacking, but this is the case for any traveller, whether vegan or not. What is most important is to immerse yourself in the culture, and the cuisine, of foreign countries as much as you can whilst maintaining a balanced nutritional intake. One of the delights of travelling is the sampling of new and exotic foods and, as Voltaire said “nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” Take these words to heart, enjoy using your imagination and use your experiences to find out new ways to eat.
Essential tips for backpacking vegans
Get the VEGAN PASSPORT – £3.99 from the Vegan Society, by George D. Rodger (vegansociety.com/shop) Pocket-sized wonder that provides information and phrases to help the vegan abroad, with the current edition containing essential information about veganism in 56 languages. Also contains the language and the script, so if you cannot pronounce Basque, Croatian, Hungarian, Malay or Mongolian, then you can just show it to people.
cordonvert.co.uk Cordon Vert School – cookery school that offers courses for vegetarian and vegan cuisine, cookbooks and innovative recipes that reflect an almost unrivalled variety of international influences and flavours.
vegetarian-vacations.com/travelveggie.html Pretty basic, but a good starting point for any itchy-footed vegans.
happycow.net Excellent resource for any vegan related worries. Complete with a (perhaps overly) enthusiastic travel guide for vegetarians (vegans, well… just don’t eat the cheese).
www.veganchef.com – a must, especially for those with a sweet tooth!
Plant Based Nutrition and Health by Stephen Walsh. Written by the Chair of the UK Vegan Society and Science Coordinator of the International Vegetarian Union, this book makes a strong case for choosing a plant based diet and contains invaluable nutritional advice for vegans and vegetarians.