A few years ago, my husband received an e-mail from some friends of ours. These particular friends were heading to Nepal for a trekking vacation (they're both quite athletic) and had an overnight in Seoul, Korea. Brendan had lived in Seoul for two and a half years, and they wanted restaurant recommendations, specifically for trying Korean food that they could eat.
They were (and are) both vegetarians, of the religious variety - Hindu, in fact.
Brendan mulled it over, and mulled it some more. He racked his brain and even asked me for advice - I'd visited him for four days in 2003, so while I've been to Seoul, one can hardly say I know the city. My culinary memories of Seoul, beyond regular Korean food, were a.) that I dragged the poor man to Starbucks on the first floor of Jongno Tower - I was living in Guizhou, visiting from China and had neither seen an espresso nor a Western-style sweet in months - even Starbucks was acceptable at that point; and b.) eating a tentacle pancake (haemul pajeon I think) with sochu in a brown-carpeted dive bar near a complex of 30 identical white apartment buildings.
Oh yes, and c.) those little cornbread nuggets filled with custard cream sold in boxes at subway stations. You can buy them at MRT Jiantan now, next to Sushi Take-Out. Just so you know.
One thing I definitely did not remember was eating anything that was even remotely vegetarian. Even kimchi has seafood-based ingredients, and as everyone knows, kimchi is the lifeblood of Korean food.
Brendan sent back a carefully considered reply, noting that while Korean vegetarian food does exist, it's extremely hard to come by and not to trust things that look vegetarian: there's a good chance there's meat-based seasoning or oil in there somewhere - so no kimchi. He recommended several places where one could eat vegetarian food. The kicker? Not one of them served Korean food, because he couldn't think of a single place in Seoul where it was available.
So to a pair of Indian/Indian-Americans wanting to try Korean food in Korea, he recommended mostly south Indian vegetarian restaurants and similar places, because he wasn't sure where else one could eat with their dietary requirements!
Yes, it does exist, by the way: you can eat vegetarian Korean meals in some temples, and I am sure a vegetarian who lived in Korea for as long as Brendan did would have sourced a few places that Brendan never thought to look for, being a meat-eater. On the whole, though, going veg in Korea is as difficult as eating doing so China - if not more so. With one night in the country, getting to such a place would be near impossible.
That's kind of the central issue I've been debating since I began traveling: I've wanted to become vegetarian for years, and it's quite easy to do in Taiwan (although giving up 肉圓 might prove to be impossible - so delicious!). While not necessarily healthier generally, vegetarianism would be healthier for me: I'm not one of those goody-goodies who eats baked chicken breast and lean pork. I like my aboriginal fatty mountain boar, my bright pink pork slices with ginger, my bacon, my sausages of all kinds (from Asian to German to Polish), my Taiwanese fried chicken, my Thai red curry beef, my lamb kebab and mutton curry, my butter chicken and pork vindaloo, and my super calorie-tastic 排骨 (basically a giant hunk of fried or otherwise unhealthy pork attached to a bit of rib). I don't do lean breast, I do scrumptious leg. Vegetarianism would certainly improve my overall health, even though some theoretical person who prefers healthily-cooked meat (I don't know who this person is, because everyone knows that the best tasting meat is usually the least healthy) wouldn't necessarily be any healthier for giving it up.
It's not really about health, though - it's more about ethics. It is possible to eat meat ethically, and I am not against continuing to eat meat that was raised well and in an environmentally sound way - let's face it, the conditions at most chicken batteries, cattle and pig farms would be considered animal abuse if not for the influence of the meat industry - and killed with ethically sound principles. In the USA, I could have found a co-op, farmer's market or direct meat delivery that would have satisfied my desire for ethically sourced meat. Unfortunately, especially in Asia, one can't be sure of that. I'm generally happy to eat mountain boar (山豬肉) because I've been to aboriginal communities where I've seen it raised and it looks ethically sound, but there's no way to find out where the mutton in my mutton curry came from, where the pork in my 肉圓 came from, and I've really decreased how often I eat chicken because you can be sure that no chicken in any meat you eat in Taiwan was treated well: even the woman down the street with a chicken coop - honestly, those poor things are cooped up (pardon the pun) in stacked cages, and if she's the neighborhood chicken lady, then I shudder to think how chickens in bigger farms are treated. I do have an "all things pig" butcher in Jingmei day market who raises his pigs in Bali, near Danshui, and says they're treated well. I can't be sure of this unless I actually go visit, but one can hope.
There's also an environmental factor, and for that reason as well I've been trying to decrease how much meat I eat, even though I haven't given it up entirely. At home I more or less cook entirely vegetarian, although I've been known to very occasionally break that rule and make Indian or Thai curry, beer cooked sausage, Ethiopian doro wot, baked pork loin or satay at home.
That said, it is possible to raise animals for meat in an environmentally friendly way: Michael Pollan's outlined it, it's been discussed on TED and it's generally known that while it's possible to make meat an environmentally friendly choice, it's generally not being done now. In the USA you can source meat raised this way, but abroad it's basically impossible.
Which brings me to the central conundrum: it's easy enough to go veg in Taiwan as well as India, where religious traditions have made it a culturally accepted and accommodated practice, but when one travels as often as we do, how does one go veg while traveling in so many other places? Of course one can do it - I've met vegetarians in China (not sure how that worked out for them, but OK) and I'm sure that more than one vegetarian has taught English in Korea. I know a vegetarian who studied in Prague. I've been to Prague and I can promise you that your only realistic choices if you don't eat meat and want to eat out are bread, deep fried cheese and potatoes. How does one go veg in Mongolia - I've never been there, but I've taught Mongolian students who cooked the real deal for me (ie not Tony Chen's Mongolian Grill but actual Mongolian food) and it's mostly meat, starch, onions, potatoes and fermented milk. I never tried the fermented milk - I've heard it's rather horrid - but the other stuff was good. How can a patty of ground meat covered in hashed potatoes possibly be bad?
How does one travel in countries where one doesn't speak the language and can't easily request vegetarian food? Those vegetarians I knew in China told stories of how they'd say "我不要 ______" (pointing to their phrasebook) and ended up with an extra portion of it on their plate. I've heard that old "probably an urban legend" story about the vegetarian in western China who got into an argument with a local restaurant cook over whether chicken was a vegetable. I've heard stories of foreigners in Korea requesting no meat and having the waiter smile and nod - then their meal comes with meat - as Brendan puts it, "from the waiter's point of view, that person was being rude. The waiter, very appropriately in his mind, did not draw attention to this by not pointing out that it is impolite to ask for a change to the order". In Taiwan, I took a vegetarian to a Thai restaurant thinking that they had plenty of veggie food, only to find that all of it - even the vegetables - was cooked with some sort of meat product or topped with ground meat or oyster/shrimp sauce.
There's also the issue of knowing whether an ingredient contains meat in a paste, gelatin, stock or oil form, because you often just can't find that information out - you can check beforehand to see what common ingredients in that culture's cuisine contain meat, but you can never be entirely sure: another reason why Brendan stressed a bit over the e-mail to our friends. If I were to go vegetarian, I'd basically have to accept as an avid traveler that I would be ingesting meat-based products even if I wasn't ingesting the flesh itself, and there's basically nothing I can do about that. (A public service announcement to vegetarians in China or Korea - unless you are super strict about it and only eat at home or in temples/dedicated vegetarian restaurants, you probably have ingested a meat product of some kind. Sorry, but it's true). Most Thai and Indonesian dishes contain fish or squid oil. Most kimchi contains shrimp or fish paste (or both). Most Japanese food contains some sort of seafood-based flavoring, although it is easier to eat vegetarian in Japan than many other parts of Asia: you end up consuming a lot of udon, soba, egg and rice balls, basically.
Other parts of the world are not so challenging: although it might be a bit monotonous you can get by on cheese, eggs, beans and rice in much of Latin America. I don't have much experience with Africa - Egypt may count technically but...well...not so much culturally - but in Egypt and much of the Levant you can get your fill of hummus, pita, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, lebneh and foulle (not sure of the spelling). Ethiopia has a fine vegetarian cuisine. Western Europe is fine, but start heading east and you'll run into problems.
Never mind that as an avid traveler, I like to experience the best cuisine that my chosen destination has to offer. Yes, I can go to Sichuan and not try hot pot, ma po doufu, kung pao chicken, shui zhu niu, or pork-stuffed peppers. I can go to Guizhou and not try the famous flat rice "skin" noodles (topped with ground pork or lamb) or lamb noodle soup. I can go to Egypt and never allow shwarma or roast pigeon to pass my lips (pigeon is really good, by the way). I can go to Donggang and not try the world-class seafood, and go to an aboriginal area and not get the mountain boar or flying fish. I can go to Ethiopia and never touch doro wot or yebeg alecha. I can go to India and never touch a vindaloo, tandoori chicken or Hyderabadi biriyani. I can go to Panama and avoid bistek picado or pollo asado as I am forcing yet another helping of rice and beans down my gullet.
I can - but do I really want to? Am I not missing out on a key cultural experience by not trying the local food, which so often is made with meat? On the "do good" scale, does the importance of eating ethically outweigh the satisfaction - not to mention tastiness - of experiencing the culinary aspect of regional culture? Do I want to be like our Indian friends - whom I admire greatly for their commitment to vegetarianism, by the way - who stopped in Korea and probably didn't eat one bite of Korean food, because they couldn't? I love Korean food.
It also brings up some sticky comparative moral points: if I were go to vegetarian (and I'm not saying I will), would my refusal to try local meat-based cuisine be some sort of judgment call on locals who do eat it? Is that anywhere near fair? (Simple answer: no). If they are morally just fine eating meat - and I believe they are - then am I really any better for not eating it? And yet, can I reconcile that to the way most animals slaughtered for meat are treated?
The good news: if you're traveling in the countryside of a developing country (but not an urban area), there's a much better chance that the animal that died to make your meal lived a better life than the animal in a farm or battery in the USA.
I already know I can't possibly make sure that all the meat I try abroad is ethically sourced, so if I became vegetarian, it would leave me with the difficult choices of:
1.) Travel less, and limit it to countries where I can procure food with minimum difficulty;
2.) Travel to those other countries and reconcile myself to lots of crackers and dried fruit in the hotel, and sadness over missing out on trying the local cuisine;
3.) Be "vegetarian" with the knowledge that I probably am ingesting meat of some kind in ingredient form, and pretend I don't notice. I can accept that sometimes even if I ask for a vegetarian dish, it may end up containing meat, and that it's OK to not make a scene by refusing to eat it - I do believe that offending locals with such scenes is worse than eating meat. OR to quote the Dandy Warhols: you get what you got and you learn how to like it.
None of these are really viable except #3, which would basically make me not a vegetarian.
What it's come down to is this: I'm not a vegetarian and while I'm still traveling I probably won't be. That doesn't mean I can't do better: I have started to cook vegetarian at home because that's an easy change (although I still stock fish oil and will continue to do so). I will still occasionally enjoy a local delicacy or indulge my taste for Taiwanese meatballs or Tainan-style dry noodles, while eating mostly vegetarian. I can accept that in some countries, within some regional cuisines, it is OK to eat meat. I can (and do) avoid styrofoam-wrapped cuts of antiseptic meat from the supermarket and buy it at the day market, from the guy who raises the pigs himself. When possible I can seek out humanely-raised and slaughtered meat or even halal meat, which doesn't necessarily guarantee it was raised well, but does mean that it was at least killed humanely.
In short, I can accept that I'm not a vegetarian, but that doesn't mean I can't do better when it comes to health, the environment and meat-based ethics.
I wish I had good advice for how to deal with this if you are vegetarian and want to travel, but honestly, I don't. It is restrictive and unfair, and there's no easy answer, just like there's no good riposte (or re-post, ha ha) to the "it's harder for women to date in Asia than men" problem. It would boil down to things you can read in a guidebook:
1.) If in Asia, seek out meals in temples
2.) Stock up on food you can eat in your hotel or cook in the hostel kitchen
3.) Do your research on ingredients before you go
4.) Accept that vegetarian versions of many famous local dishes won't be available
5.) Prioritize countries with ample vegetarian options, such as Taiwan, Mediterranean countries and India
6.) Figure out how to say "I am a vegetarian, I don't eat meat or meat products" in the local language of any country you visit, and if possible, cite religious reasons (whether or not it's true - which is also morally ambiguous but if you are vegetarian for ethical reasons, it is probably the lesser of two evils) - saying "I'm a Buddhist vegetarian" in China will get you farther than "I'm a vegetarian" - they'll understand what the former means, and will either ignore the latter or look at you like you just grew a foot on your head.
7.) This is going to sound awful, and I don't mean it to be, but it's cold hard truth: if possible, consider not being vegan if you are leaning that way and it's not for religious or allergy reasons. You might be able to avoid meat, but you can forget avoiding meat, dairy and eggs in most countries (Taiwan and India are still good options for travel, though).
How about you? Any vegetarian world travelers out there have better advice or stories to tell about how they got by without eating meat in countries where vegetarianism is not generally known or accepted? Any success stories of living veg in Korea, Mongolia or China? Did you get to enjoy local cuisine at all or did you have to be hyper-vigilant and picky? Who knows - you might (maybe - probably not, but maybe) just convert me!