A Vegetarian’s Survival Guide to Dining in Asia

Before we begin, let me set the record straight. By choice, I don’t eat seafood or meat except for chicken. The only two situations where I break this rule are (1) when I am dining in someone’s home out of courtesy and respect for the host and (2) if there isn’t an alternative option for my last meal on Earth.

So let’s get to it. It comes as no surprise that they eat A LOT of seafood in Asia. Fish, prawn, crab, squid, you name it. If it comes from the sea, they probably eat it. Pork, beef, and lamb are common options as well, followed by chicken. While more and more countries are catching on to the vegetarian lifestyle, many are still behind. In general, most aren’t familiar with the term vegan, but at the very least, vegetarianism is understood and can be accommodated for.

Curry udon in Nikko, Japan

Learn the Words

For those of you who are strict vegetarians or have a meat allergy, do know that meat is often what makes food go from dish to delicacy. When you visit Asia, it would be best to learn the words for the types of meat or seafood you don’t eat and fit them into a polite sentence. Ask the people at your hotel/hostel for help, and in your explanation, be very clear on what you can and can’t eat.

Just so you don’t unnecessarily find yourself in a pickle, here is the equivalent of “I’m vegetarian” in a few Asian languages, to start you off. May all veggies alike never unknowingly eat meat abroad again.

Japanese: ベジタリアン – Bejitarian (vegetarian) or Watashi wa beijitarian desu (I’m vegetarian)

Mandarin: 我吃素 – Wo Chi Shu (literally: I eat vegetables)

Korean: 고기 빼고 주세요 – Koji baego juseyo (literally: Please take out the meat)

Thai: ผม กินเจ – Phom kin je (for men) and ดิฉัน กินเจ – Di-chan kin je (for women)

Malay: Saya seorang vegetarian

Pointing & Pictures

If you want a backup, after clumsily blurting out what you think explains your diet restrictions, I recommend the Point It book. This traveler’s kit of sorts has been making its rounds over the internet and has become increasingly popular. It’s a photographic collection of foods, drinks, and miscellaneous things that show someone what you mean instead of telling them. If there are display cases of plastic food like in Japan or bilingual menus, simply point to what you want to order. For those who go out of their way to alter a dish on the menu for you, which by the way is not common and in many places, is disrespectful, a couple of thank you’s never hurt anyone.

Cook Your Own Food

Though you might be missing out on some fantastic, local cuisine, cooking your own food is a way to kill two birds with one stone (no pun intended). It’s cheaper than eating out, and you know exactly what went into the meal you’re about to eat. Not to mention doing so is a great way to involve others you meet at a hostel or get to know your couchsurfing host. You might even get a chance to learn how to prepare an authentic dish.

Worst case scenario, if you can’t find food that suits your dietary needs, maybe you settle for a Subway sandwich or 7/11 TV Dinner.

Utensils & Manners

In Asia, chopsticks might as well be an extension of your fingers because you’ll use them to eat just about everything, and in India, you’ll use your hands in traditional restaurants. Most places will offer Western utensils, but just like the English language, you shouldn’t expect it. Sometimes it’s okay to slurp your noodles, maybe it’s rude to drink straight from the bowl, check if you should take your shoes off, you might look out of place hunching over to put food in your mouth as opposed to lifting the bowl towards you. Again, manners are something you must adapt to when you get to a new country. Study the people next to you, and do as the Asians do.

Veggie Archives

Below, you will find a list of fellow travel bloggers who are vegetarian, in some form, or have written in depth about traveling with certain diet restrictions. Arm yourself with the knowledge so that you can feel comfortable enjoying all the incredible cuisine that Asia has to offer.

If you’ve written about traveling with meat allergies, diet restrictions, or being a vegetarian, leave your link in the comments section.

In my own personal experience, I didn’t find it difficult to eat meat free in Asia. What with all the soups, noodles, rice, and salads they have to offer, you’ll never go hungry. It’s all about being proactive in your food choices and taking the time to get to know the foods and the people serving it.

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