Europe is not only a land of architectural marvels but also one of culinary wonders. But exploring the gastronomy of some European countries can be a challenge for vegetarians and vegans. Meat very often dominates the menu and the concepts of vegetarianism and veganism are still somewhat alien, especially in countries like Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal.
Consider the reaction I got from a waiter in a Brussels café last summer. After quickly scanning the menu and not seeing anything which did not include meat, chicken or seafood, I asked if there was a vegetarian dish available. “Yes, we have tagliatelle with shrimp!” he suggested cheerfully. When I pointed out that shrimp is not exactly vegetarian, he looked clearly confused. “Oh, then you must be vegan!” he concluded.
The most veggie-friendly country in Europe by far is the UK which has the largest vegetarian population in Europe. This is a country where folks frown at fur and stand up for animal rights. Almost every restaurant serves vegetarian options and meat-less foods you can pick up at the supermarket are clearly labeled as ‘suitable for vegetarians and vegans’.
As for most other European countries, you will definitely need a good dose of patience as you’ll have some explaining to do… but vegetarians and vegans can enjoy everything Europe has to offer, including its cuisine!
Here are 10 helpful tips for vegetarians and vegans on the road:
1. Do some pre-travel research. Most big cities will have a few vegetarian restaurants. Websites like Veggie Heaven and Happy Cow feature veggie-friendly restaurants around the world and will point you in the right direction.
2. Before you go, contact your airline to book a vegetarian or vegan meal in advance. Airlines offer a whole host of special meals, including lacto-ovo vegetarian, Indian vegetarian, vegan, and Jain (which excludes onions, potatoes, garlic or root vegetables). Contact the airline at least 72 hours before departure to request your special meal. During flights, special meals are often served first!
3. Be prepared to explain what you do and do not eat. In many countries, concepts of vegetarianism and veganism are not very well understood. Fish and seafood all too often wrongly fall into the vegetarian category for many Europeans. Be prepared to explain that as a vegetarian, you do not eat meat, fish or poultry. Vegans will have to explain that eggs, all dairy products and honey are also off limits.
4. Ask about the ingredients. Soups are often made from chicken or meat stock, and vegans should know that pasta and noodles may contain eggs. Always check ingredients with the waiter before ordering.
5. Order off the menu. In many restaurants, chefs are happy to prepare a special dish which is not on the menu. Do not hesitate to explain your requirements and make some suggestions. You may be surprised by what he cooks up!
6. Try some veggie-friendly cuisines. Indian, Italian, Lebanese and Chinese cuisines feature many vegetarian and vegan dishes. Every city, even small, will have at least one of these restaurants.
7. Find a Hare Krishna restaurant. When traveling in countries where meat is the mainstay and vegetarianism unheard of, I look out for the Hare Krishnas. Hare Krishna restaurants and temples are found in many large cities across Europe. This is a sure bet to find some delicious Indian vegetarian fare (vegans beware of ghee – clarified butter – and yogurt!). Check www.harekrishna.com to find one in the city you plan to visit.
8. Speak the language. Learn how to say “I’m vegetarian / vegan. I don’t eat meat or fish (or eggs and milk products)” in the local language of the country you’re visiting. Visit this page for handy phrases in different languages. Vegans can check out the Vegan Passport.
9. Take some of your favourite snacks with you. Stock up on nuts, seeds and dried fruits. These are good for their protein-content and high energy when you’re on the go and need a pick-up.
10. Have a picnic! Buy fresh bread, hummus, raw vegetables, fruit, nuts, olives, snacks or sandwiches at a local market or supermarket (check labels to make sure there are no animal ingredients) and have a picnic in a local park.
Bon voyage and bon appetit!