Why being a vegetarian traveller is hard

The menu boasted of nothing but various combinations of meat and two veg, so I wasn't overly optimistic about my chances of a fabulous feed in the only hotel restaurant in a remote part of New Zealand's South Island.

But the owner was keen to assuage my fears. "Vegetarian?" he asked cheerily. "Of course we have vegetarian meals! No problem at all."

He reappeared a half-hour later with plates for my travel companions, each one bearing a generous slab of steak, a pyramid of mashed potato and a pile of carrots. And then, with a flourish, he brought mine: a plate of mashed potato, carrot and a bare space where the meat might otherwise have been.

Life on the road for a vegetarian is, of course, a hell of a lot easier today than it used to be when vegos were much thinner on the ground and, often as a result of limited choices, just thinner generally.

Today, an estimated half a billion people in the world don't eat meat and even in Australia, a country raised on a sheep's back (and its shoulder, loin, rump and shank), few people seem to have a beef with Meatless Monday or our annual Meat-Free Week, promoted by, among others, Bowel Cancer Australia.

But travelling around Australia, where the latest report from Roy Morgan Research shows that more than 11 per cent of us are now vegetarians, can still prove problematic.

"Oh that's OK," a café-owner in Katherine replied when I told her, apologetically, that I was a vego. "I'll cut the beef extra thin."

Staying on cattle properties (no, the irony wasn't lost on me either) researching a book in different areas of outback Australia, I was amazed to be served an identical vegetarian lasagne at every stop.

Finally, I was told it was from the Country Women's Association of Australia's cookbook: a dish for emergencies only – like the visit of a vegetarian. For the travelling vego, the trouble can start as soon as you leave home soil. I vividly recall three connecting flights on an American airline 10 years ago, when every leg saw me presented with peanut butter and celery sticks.


Even on major airlines today, the service can leave a lot to be desired – especially when they decide to cover every vegetarian option in a one-size-fits-all package.

Vegans don't eat eggs or dairy but most vegetarians do. Even so, we're all punished for our differences with synthetic margarines, dry crackers with no cheese, fried vegetables for breakfast in place of eggs and wizened dried fruit instead of our neighbours' delicious-looking chocolate bars.

If the cheap no-frills Asian airlines can offer a wide range of choices – from vegan to pesce (fish) via ovo-lacto (eggs and milk) – why can't the full-cost ones? India, where 38 per cent of the population is vegetarian, is a Mecca for the meat-free. However, a rashly ordered birthday dinner salad in one of the most fabulous restaurants in Rajasthan led to 24 hours on the bathroom floor, unable to decide which end of my body needed the toilet bowl most.

Even when you think you're being extra careful, you can still be caught unawares. In Lahore, in Pakistan's north-east, I wandered into a café, stopping only to pat the pet goat tethered outside. I ordered a lentil and potato Tarka Aloo and sat down to wait, idly watching as the café owner went out with a large bowl to tend to the animal.

A drink? A wash? I craned forward to see. First, the man placed a tender hand on its head, the next he pulled it back, produced a large knife and, with one deft movement, slashed its throat, the purple blood spurting into the bowl. Someone had just ordered goat curry.

Different regions of the same country can also vary wildly. Guangzhou in southern China has a vast array of vegetarian restaurants and dishes to choose from, and especially those specialising in the weird cuisine of mock meat. There, tofu, tempeh, gluten, taro and potato are fashioned into meat-like shapes, like pork chops, chicken wings or lamb cutlets, with utterly convincing flavouring and textures. You'll find similar food fakery in Hue in Vietnam.

But often when you travel beyond the cities, meatless meals can be few and far between. I'll never forget going into a tiny café in a small town in northern China in the winter, and seeing everyone there eating the same gluggy brown dish.

When the café owner wasn't able to explain its origins, he led me through the back into the kitchen to show me. The sight of all those skinned dogs hanging from the ceiling will never leave me. I went to bed hungry that night.

It can be similar on other continents. In out-of-the-way places in many countries in South America, particularly in meat-loving Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, the lands of exalted parrillas or steakhouses, you're regarded with, if not confusion, then downright distrust.

I asked the waiter in one restaurant near Mar del Plata, Argentina, for anything without meat, and he pointed to the item on the menu translated into English as 'Chicken Small Matters'. "Not much meat," he told me helpfully.

Someone else explained the small matters as feet, beaks and … hmmm … sexual organs. That evening, I feasted on papas fritas (hot chips).

People mocked cricketer Shane Warne for travelling around India with tins of baked beans after it was reported he'd had 1900 cans of beans and spaghetti flown over during the Australian team's 1998 tour. The subject of 'Baked Bean-gate' came up again two years ago when Warnie appeared on TV's I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and he claimed the beans were for his team-mates too.

But I have to admit a sneaking sympathy for him, having travelled around the world myself with a few emergency cans in my luggage. Vegetarians can never be too confident of finding something safe to eat while travelling.

The US, for example, can also be disappointing when you stray too far from the organic health-food emporiums of the coastal fringes. Once, in Fort Worth, Texas, I was invited to a Fourth of July barbecue  where the barbie in question was big enough, claimed its proud owner, "to roast a whole cow on a spit".

It was. But, despite being bigger than a touring caravan there was still no space to grill a vegetable on its massive side metal plate, and its huge vat of a deep fat fryer was strictly chicken and fries territory.

Hard to believe the US also gave us that vegetarian life-saver in the 1960s, Textured Vegetable Protein or TVP, a soy protein isolate used most often as a meat-extender but with a whole other raison d'etre for vegos. It's not exactly a healthy option, however. The defatted thermoplastic proteins are heated to 200 degrees Centigrade which denatures them into a tasteless dehydrated mass – yum!

With its history of drought and famine, it's amazing to think you might fare better in Africa. Ethiopia, for instance, can be a vegie dream. Orthodox Christians there "fast" – eat no animal products – for 208 days in the year, serving up delicious lentil dals and vegetable and chickpea curries.

Europe is a whole other story. You might see plenty of meatless dishes on a menu in Italy, where 12 per cent of the country describe themselves as vegetariano.

Yet you may well find the mushroom risotto is cooked with chicken stock, the thin crust on the pizza is made extra tasty with the addition of lard, and the pudding contains beef suet. Che delusiono!

Is near-neighbour Greece any better? In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding a young vegetarian man is introduced to Aunt Voula.

"What do you mean, he don't eat no meat?' she exclaims. "Oh that's OK," she finally recovers. "I make lamb …"

That said, both countries have tasty vegetarian staples on their menus – like pasta puttanesca, pomodoro or pesto and spanakopita – which is more than you can say for the UK.

There a measly two per cent of the population say they don't eat meat, and even pesce-vegie favourites like fish and chips are routinely deep fried in lard, along with local delicacies like deep-fried pizzas (honestly!) and the infamous deep-fried Mars bars.

One café in Scotland told me their vegetarian option was meatloaf salad. "Well, it's a salad, isn't it?" the café owner replied belligerently when challenged.

Thank God in the UK for Marmite, their version of Vegemite, and Quorn, the protein substitute made of dried mushrooms bound together by egg albumen.

But maybe it's just a question of education. After telling one restaurant in the south of England I was a vegetarian, they suggested a nice piece of pork. When I must have looked bewildered, they countered fiercely, "It's organic!"

Oh dear. At least in that isolated corner of New Zealand's south their vegetarian solution was at least edible …