Spending so much time on the road lately has taught me a lot about the kind of vegetarian I am. Or, more specifically, about the kind of vegetarian I think one has to be to maintain any sort of sanity across international borders.
Let me explain: I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian. That means I’ll eat eggs and dairy, but no meat, no fish, no liquid or greasy remnants of what was once a living animal. I won’t pick the pepperoni off a pizza and call it plain cheese; I won’t eat a tomato soup made with beef broth just because I can’t see the chunks of meat. I won’t even eat Skittles because they’re made with gelatine – the same reason I may be the only girl in history who made it through college without ever taking a Jello shot. All this is to say, I don’t consider vegetarianism a fluid concept: I’ve known the exact parameters of my diet since the age of 13, and have never been one to blur them for the sake of convenience.
But what I’ve underestimated up until recently is the importance of just rolling with the punches when it comes to vegetarianism abroad; of learning from gaffs and mis-orders and misunderstandings; of being able to move on without being too hard on yourself when that hunk of chicken or splash of fish sauce somehow sneaks its way onto your plate despite all your best efforts.
Case in point: Thailand. Of all the Asian destinations I’d mapped out for my trip, this was to be the biggest culinary draw by far. I’m mad for curries, a fiend for pad thai, addicted to green papaya salad and a hasty devourer of sticky rice. I believe peanut sauce makes everything taste better and a squeeze of fresh lime is a hugely undervalued condiment. And so I spent my first 24 hours in Bangkok greedily slurping up noodles and spicy salads at street food stalls seated on tiny plastic stools.
What I hadn’t realized before arriving in Thailand is that the country has a veritable encyclopedia of foods – foods I adore back home – that
are just shy of actually being vegetarian. They’ve got all the tofu you could ask for and long, squirmy rice noodles with crunchy peanuts and sweet pineapple hiding in between. It’s a country with no fewer than three distinct types of basil, tiny violet-colored eggplants the size of pearl tomatoes, and miniature purple garlic with skin so delicate you don’t even remove the outer layer before eating it – you just let it slip down over your tongue. Yes, it’s an herbivore’s dream – until you realize the devil’s in the details.
On my second night in Bangkok, I got a disappointing surprise. Crouched alongside the kitchen table of my hostel with a cellophane baggy of freshly made green papaya salad, I took an extra moment or two to chew my first mouthful.
“This tomato is gummy,” I noted, swallowing quickly.
Hayley, my long-suffering food-tester, fished around her own baggie with a miniature plastic fork, eventually dredging up a translucent little round of pink.
“Did it look like this?” she asked.
“Yeah. Tomatoes must be really out of season to be that pink.”
“Right. Except that – and I know we’ve never seen this before – I
think they’re dried shimp.”
This wasn’t the first time the poor girl had had to break such news to me gently. There had already been a particularly memorable incident in KL involving a small piece of squid that looked like a sliced potato. Now, as then, I immediately reached for my water, gulping down half the bottle in five seconds, rinsing my mouth out and shoving the package off offending food away. “Right, OK,” I told Hayley, a minute later, “I guess I’ll have to find something else for dinner, then.”
I headed down to 7-11, bought myself an ice cream, and forgot about the whole thing within hours. There was no beating myself up for not watching the ingredients more closely as the woman making my salad tossed them into the mortar and mixed. There was no sudden pang of anxiety over the bags and bags of the stuff I’d already consumed up until then. Just a determination to do better with the new information I now had.
The thing is, being a vegetarian abroad sometimes means not getting hung up on the small stuff. It means not punishing yourself or giving up trying new things just because you’ve accidentally taken a bite of something in error. It means taking note of ingredients, making more informed decisions next time and, in the end, just doing the best you can.
That green papaya salad? I kept ordering it, sans shrimp. Until I found out it was also made with fish sauce. Then I took a Thai cooking class and learned how to make it myself, from scratch, replacing the fish sauce with salt. And you know what? It tastes exactly the same.
Ditto for pad thai without oyster sauce (surprise!), curry without shrimp paste (didn’t see that one coming!), and hot and sour soup with a little cube of mushroom bouillon. Surprisingly none of these dishes start out quite vegetarian, but it’s shockingly easy (and tasty) to make them that way with a little homework.
So, have I accidentally stumbled into some unfortunately meaty circumstances while traveling? Sure. But I’m still just as committed to vegetarianism as I was when I was 13 or 16 or 22. I still go out of my way to avoid meat and seek out new vege-friendly foods wherever I go. The difference is, now I’m learning to accept the fact that not everything is necessarily as it seems. And sometimes that’s OK: the trick is learning to rinse your mouth out and move on.