Because, honestly, it can be quite tough to find vegetarian dishes in places where every single local specialty contains seafood, pork or both. And fish sauce. And anchovies, but those are just spices, right? (Except that spices don’t usually stare at you from your plate with their dead eyes…). Here are
1.) Find Buddhist restaurants
Especially in Vietnam, that is how I survived. Most dishes there will usually contain meat and/or fish, and asking for a vegetarian meal most likely just gets you another spoonful of vegetables to accompany your meat. But Buddhists are vegan or at least eat vegan from time to time, so you can safely dig into delicious local dishes in Buddhist restaurants as those will definitely be vegan. Often, Buddhist dishes contain multiple types of mock meat that are very close to meat in terms of taste and consistency.
2.) Learn the lingo
The word “vegetarian” is often confused with “vegetable”, so if you want vegetarian dishes, you need to find out how the locals refer to them. Don’t ask for dishes “without meat” as they will most likely contain fish instead. The Vietnamese word for vegetarian is “chay”, btw.
3.) Resort to pictures
I can’t actually take credit for this amazing idea. Rather, it was a lovely friend who came up with it. If you don’t speak the local language, just show this picture and they’ll get what you want right away (tried and tested in some godforsaken village on the Laotian countryside).
4.) Find Facebook groups
There are a lot of helpful groups where vegetarians share restaurant tips. Become a member before you arrive. So you can spend all that otherwise wasted time waiting for your connecting flight at a boring airport connected to the free WIFI jotting down insider veggie spots.
5.) Use the happycow app
I’m surviving mostly with the help of this wonderful app that lists vegetarian, vegan and veggie-friendly places, as well as vegetarian grocery stores. There’s a surprisingly big amount of local eateries all over Asia featured on the app.
6.) Get to know the local dishes
Even though most dishes in South East Asia contain meat or fish, there might be two or three that are originally vegetarian. Also, if you know exactly which ingredient (chicken, beef, fish) you don’t want, you can specifically ask to leave that out. Which is usually much clearer than „no meat please“.
7.) Expect the unexpected
Just because you asked for something, doesn’t mean that you are going to get it! Vietnamese fried rice usually contains tiny pieces of pork, lots of curries are made with fish sauce and a combo of tofu and fish is pretty common in Indonesia – but the locals might still see these dishes as „vegetarian“. You might have to go through a couple of trial and errors (and weirdly colored pieces of meat) before you figure out the best way to get that vegetarian dish you want.
8.) Be patient
Admittedly, it is not always easy to find vegetarian food. In Vietnam, I got pretty desperate after visiting the third restaurant in a row and having nothing but plain rice and morning glory. In Kuching, Borneo there are a couple of places that literally do not serve a single vegetarian dish – not even plain rice!
But there is always that one friendly cook who is willing to adjust the menu for you, or this cute vegetarian cafe tucked away in a side street, or a market stall with an owner who is vegan himself and therefore would not get close to animal products. It just takes a little time to find those places.