Chris Caldicott: A few magic words that could save a vegetarian traveller's bacon
Saturday 28 September 2013
"Ana natbateeyah", "Watashi wa nikku-o tabemasen", "Ich bin Vegetarier"...
These are the magic words for "I am a vegetarian" in Arabic, Japanese and German. For those who prefer green beans to Kobe beef, learning how to say this in a local language is your passport to meat-free eating.
Even carnivores might want to learn the Arabic. I spent several weeks living with Bedu nomads who respected my vegetarian needs from day one. It may have meant a limited diet of fruit, nuts and every conceivable product made with camel and goat milk, but I was spared the trial of having to eat the grisly morsels of loins and groins every other guest to their camp was obliged to consume as a matter of courtesy.
I once travelled around Japan staying in ryokans – family-run inns that offer guests home-cooked breakfasts and evening meals. Although none of my hosts could understand a word of English, once I uttered my magic words in Japanese, they went out of their way to provide me with sumptuous feasts of local vegetarian delicacies.
The Germans, frankly, thought I was weird – but they were too polite to say so and always found something I could eat (even if some thought that simply slicing ham very thinly would do the job).
World Vegetarian Day is marked on Tuesday – and navigating the vegetarian world has become a labour of love for my wife, Carolyn, and I; we've travelled to more than 100 countries seeking out vegetarian dishes. Most of Asia, we've found, is a paradise for vegetarians, especially India, where the majority of the population lives meat-free.
East of Kolkata there's a fabulous array of dishes using tofu and tempeh (a soy-based protein) instead of meat – just watch out for fish sauce being added. Even in China, where virtually every living thing is considered food, if you know what to ask for, you can find delicious and inventive vegetarian dishes using wild mushrooms and "Buddhist meat" made from wheat gluten.
Beans in one form or another are popular in every country from Mexico to Chile, and can be delicious in combination with other ubiquitous Latin American ingredients such as tomatoes, chillies, corn, avocados, potatoes, rice and cheese.
Sub-Saharan Africa can be more of a challenge. Luckily, there are Indian or Lebanese cafés in most countries, offering more vegetarian-friendly dishes than most African fare. I found it worth visiting Ethiopia during lent, when the Orthodox Christian community commits to a strict vegetarian diet for 40 days.
North Africa is easier. Here you can feast on vegetable tajines, falafel and salads. It can go badly wrong, though. Once at a dinner party in Marrakech, I asked our hostess what was in the little samosa-style canapés. When she said "brie" I tucked in – only to discover later that she had said "brain".
'World Food Café – Quick and Easy Recipes from a Vegetarian Journey' by Chris and Carolyn Caldicott is published by Frances Lincoln (£20)
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