There are many moments when travellers might say: I wish I were vegetarian. Special meals usually get served first on the plane, and are often more interesting that the "normal" meals. Many people choose to go vegetarian while overseas, to avoid parasites and holiday-spoiling experiences like "Bali belly" or its South Asian equivalent "Delhi belly".
"There is an argument for going vegetarian while overseas," says Dr Deb Mills, medical director of the Travel Medicine Alliance, "but sometimes people get a false sense of security because they blame meat for all their illnesses. You should be careful what you eat and drink while you're away, but just being vegetarian isn't enough."
While meat is at higher risk of contamination (Dr Mills singles out chicken, due to salmonella), it's not so simple. "Depending on where you are, it could be healthier to have a curry with meat than a raw vegetarian salad."
In western nations, restaurants now commonly offer a vegetarian option. Even Sydney's exalted Tetsuya's, with its world-famous degustation menu, offers a full alternative for herbivores.
Guides to vegetarian dining in different countries (including the Vegetarian Guides site) can be found online. But once again, it isn't always so simple. If you are vegetarian, or plan to be a meat-free traveller, there are a few things to consider.
1. Make it clear – in whatever language
Even if you learn the right words – "vegetariano" in Italian and Spanish, "vegetarien" in French, "vegetarier" in German, "chir-soo der" in Mandarin – you can't be certain of avoiding meat.
When a friend became suspicious of the allegedly vegetarian dishes in a Vienna restaurant, the waitress assured him: "Yes! It only has chicken." Similarly, can plead with a Greek souvlaki maker for "no meat", but he'll still add lamb to your sandwich – because lamb isn't "meat", apparently. In the Middle East, even desserts are not always safe, as chicken breast provides the base of some sweet delicacies.
So, for a vegetarian traveller, it pays to spell it out. In Indonesia and Malaysia, I formed the habit of telling waiters "tidak daging, tidak ikan" (no meat, no fish). A phrasebook's suggested line, "Saya hanya makan sayur" (I only eat vegetables), would have condemned me to a bland, gado gado-free diet.
2. Think of God
For a clue of how a region will cater for vegetarians, consider the religion. In Buddhist and Hindu regions, vegetarian food is easier to find. Restaurants in many Christian nations (including most of South America and the Caribbean) might require more patience.
3. Watch out for danger zones
Meat-free travellers should be aware of challenging countries. Among the hot spots:
Paris has around 20 vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but other eateries don't always like meat-free patrons. France is justifiably proud of its culinary heritage, so many patisseries and brasseries are not happy hear the word "vegetarien", and will often offer something with fish. (If you don't eat fish, watch out for "thon" [tuna], a common ingredient in "vegetarien" French pastries.)
As someone with Filipino heritage, I can't recall anywhere else where meat and seafood was such a ubiquitous, honoured part of the diet. The unusual but highly popular cuts of meat (from boiled ox tongue to balut – pan-fried duck embryos) might tempt you to go vegetarian, but unless you can live on boiled rice, that won't be so easy.
Yes, it's just next to India, and Sikhism supposedly endorses vegetarianism, but well-travelled vegetarians say that, of all nations, none are more difficult for anyone trying to avoid meat.
4. Be adventurous
Vegetarian travellers face temptation when they visit any region known for a certain dish. Take Peking duck, one of Beijing's "essential" dishes. Vegetarians desperate for this might need to catch a flight to Singapore's award-winning LingZhi Vegetarian Restaurant, renowned for its beancurd-skin Peking duck. Of course, it doesn't quite emulate the original Peking duck, but meat-free travellers should realise that they are denied certain "must-have" culinary experiences.
For gourmet vegetarians, however, these experiences are replaced by a detective's zeal to find the best meat-free cuisine. For the adventurous vegetarian, a few nations come to mind:
When wondering through the markets of Chinese cities, unsure of the delicacies displayed before you, it can be precarious looking for genuine Chinese food, even if you show people the appropriate Mandarin symbol in your phrasebook. It's all worth it, however, when you find the right place. Find a local under 30 years old. They often speak English well, and are happy to describe the food.
In parts of China, the vegetarian tradition lies in ancient medicine. Meat-free cuisine is hailed (or at least promoted) for its miracle cures. The nation also offers more than 100 varieties of tofu, many of which are anything but dull – and some of which stink to high heaven. Europe's notoriously aromatic cheeses have nothing on them.
Not all of the world's 370 million Buddhists are herbivores, despite the Buddha's dietary preferences, but a Buddhist nation like Vietnam offers many choices for the discerning vegetarian traveller – including Bodhi Tree's Heart Restaurant in Hanoi, which pioneered faux meat, mostly made from soy flour. According to the menu, this is ideal for the Buddhist faith, allowing devotees to enjoy the taste without the karmic consequences.
OK, so English cuisine is notorious, but few western nations cater so well for meat-avoiders. The animal-rights group PETA has even named London the world's most vegetarian-friendly city, despite the Beefeaters. Some of Britain's exotic regional fare has been restyled for vegetarians: meat-free haggis is available throughout Scotland, and vegetarian black pudding (The V Pud) is the top seller at a Lancashire black pudding shop.
Readers of Happy Cow, a website for healthy travel, voted New York and San Francisco the top cities for vegetarians. (Portland and Los Angeles also made the top 10.) Not all Americans are known for their healthy diets, but if you look hard enough, you can find some of the world's most intriguing vegetarian cuisine. Take the raw-food movement, for example. It's not as strong as it was, but such eating places as the Café Gratitude chain (in California and Kansas City), and the New York establishments Quintessence and Pure Food & Wine, offer raw vegetarian dishes that are, perhaps through necessity, just as clever and innovative as any Heston Blumenthal creation.
Have you switched to vegetarianism while travelling to avoid illness? Have you struggled to avoid meat while travelling? Post your comments below.