As a planet-wandering traveller you may have been practicing how to say ‘I am vegetarian’ in several languages but it serves little use if the country you are about to explore has no real concept of the term.
Travelling for anyone can throw up a few hurdles to overcome but if you happen to be one of the world’s meat-free people, travelling can present a whole other world of challenges. Not only do you have a language barrier but you may well find yourselves in countries where culturally and traditionally meat reigns supreme. Most capital cities and larger metropolitan centres of the world will have at least a handful of vegetarian options but limited choice or missing out on a country’s culinary specialities can take some of the fun out of travelling.
So, which corners of the globe offer the easiest adventures for vegetarians? Here we include each of the continents to uncover those countries which rank as veggie heaven while also touching on those best avoided.
If you had to pick just one continent which most closely resembles veggie heaven there’s no contest – it’s Asia by a million miles. And within this vast land mass India is the country which reigns supreme with perhaps as much as 40% of its population following a vegetarian diet.
Asian cuisine does some wonderful things with tofu but this is just the tip of a luscious iceberg for the meat-free diner. So amazing is the vegetarian cuisine in parts of this continent that many carnivore-inclined travellers will find themselves opting for vegetarian dishes instead and in some places in India there often is no other choice anyway. Indeed, in many parts of Southern India the vegetarians will find a world flipped on its head as they become the norm and the flesh eaters are considered the oddballs.
The reasons for this are often linked to religious practices; Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and Buddhism all encourage or dictate to some degree meat-free diets and the religious principles of the Sikh religion which advocates universal brotherhood and the acceptance of all faiths mean ‘gurdwaras’ will offer plentiful vegetarian choices so no-one is excluded.
India – The World’s Top Destination for Vegetarians
It is hard to get truly accurate figures for vegetarian populations in India because often those who eat eggs are not considered to be vegetarian while others only follow a vegetarian diet some of the time or at certain times of year. However, whether 300 million or 500 million Indians are vegetarian what is certain is that this country numbers more vegetarians than the rest of the world put together.
What’s more, the way restaurants promote themselves (non-vegetarian, vegetarian or pure vegetarian) and how goods are labelled makes it easy to make the right choices. In short – the concept of vegetarianism is totally understood here and a normal way of life for many.
Factor in that every region of India has its own culinary distinctions which make for endless choice and variety and it isn’t hard to arrive at the conclusion that India is THE go-to destination for veggie globe trotters. While some states are decidedly more veggie-friendly than others, the region of South India is far and away the number one choice; the place where meat-eaters are the unusual ones. Be sure to check out Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states for a variety of mouth-watering street food as well as café and restaurant choices.
Other significant places to head for vegetarians in India are the state of Gujarat in the country’s north-west where it borders Pakistan and Mumbai in Maharashta State. Here you can try veggie dishes which come from just about everywhere in the country.
Be sure to try the thali – a fill-your-boots feast which tends to feature a variety of dishes at once – from curries to banana leaf served treats and from dhals to bite-size nibbles. Also not to be missed are idlis, vadas and uttappams while the rice flour and lentil pancake which might be stuffed with a countless number of meat-free choices known as a dosa is a Southern India snack so commonplace you’d be hard pushed to avoid it.
Japan’s vegetarian population falls just short of 5% of its people – almost 6 million individuals. Amazing tofu creations can be found here and although establishments dedicated to the non-meat eater are not as commonplace as elsewhere in the world outside of the large cities the concept of vegetarianism is understood. This means if you opt to base your travelling around ‘ryokans’ (food-providing guest-houses) and make your needs known you should find yourself tucking into some of the best veggie fare you might ever have sampled. Otherwise places with significant and historical Buddhist traditions such as the area around the city of Kyoto are good bets for the meat-free cuisine seeker.
More than 1 in 10 Taiwanese are vegetarian and there are thousands of vegetarian-dedicated dining places as a result on a relatively small island. This predominantly Buddhist country has even adopted a government backed one-day-a-week vegetarian ethos. One thing which makes Taiwan a good destination for veggies is its particularly stringent food-labelling laws making it easier for vegetarians to be sure they are only eating what they want to be eating.
As a country where eating meat is seen as proof of wealth, China features very low on the list of the world’s most veggie-friendly destinations. However, in the larger cities you will find options as younger generations of more cosmopolitan-inclined Chinese gradually move away from the dietary traditions of their predecessors.
Well known for its super-tasty, mega-cheap, found everywhere street food, this conglomeration of countries typically offers plenty of choice for those who choose to keep their diets meat-free.
This tiny island state boasts more than 100 dedicated vegetarian eating establishments, making it a vegetarian-friendly destination overall. From market stalls to fine dining you can tingle your taste buds with all kinds of Asian cuisine varieties which include Malaysian, Indian and Chinese as well as some more locally-created specialities which feature coconut milk and tamarind flavourings.
Thailand just happens to be home to what probably ranks as the most wonderfully bizarre vegetarian festival in the world. Perhaps best avoided by the squeamish, this annual nine-day Taoist rite-based festival is a must visit for anyone in the vicinity of Thailand around October (festivals are held country-wide but Phuket has the largest).
Otherwise, this super-popular country on the South-East Asia travellers’ circuit is considered by many to be something of a veggie heaven. Many of the country’s staple cuisine dishes can be instantly adjusted for vegetarians – pad thai, soups, papaya salads, curries etc. It will help if you can master wrapping your tongue around the word ‘mangasawirat’ (vegetarian) and you may need to be aware that Thai cuisine may have fish sauce incorporated in it.
As a country with a large Buddhist population, Vietnam offers plenty of choice for the meat-free. Street and market stalls offering vegetarian choices suitable for the Buddhist faithful will often advertise the fact. ‘Chay’ means vegetarian in Vietnamese.
As a marvellous melting-pot of cultures, Malaysia offers a feast of culinary dishes and flavours which include Indian, Chinese and Thai and overall includes a great variety for vegetarians.
A word on Buddhism & Vegetarianism – Although countries which have Buddhism as their predominant religion tend to be the most veggie friendly it is worth noting that there are many different kinds of Buddhism and they have rather varying approaches to the ‘to eat meat or not to eat’ meat question. Some branches of Buddhism expect their adherents to be strictly meat-free while others advocate abstinence where possible or even leave it as a purely individual choice. In short, don’t rely on the idea that if it’s a Buddhist country you should be OK as an all-encompassing rule of thumb.
Only 4% of Canadians class themselves as vegetarian and it is even less for those from the United States – closer to 3%. Of course both these countries are vast and some regions have heavier densities of those who choose to eat meat-free than others – most notably the coastal areas of the US.
One of the leading light as cities go for vegetarians is San Francisco – a nod back to its flower-power days when it was hippy central. San Francisco has a well-established annual vegetarian festival in October and the Haight-Ashbury area most particularly has a thriving vegetarian and vegan scene.
According to ‘People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the US’s top five cities for vegans in 2016 were 1 – Portland, Oregon, 2 – Los Angeles, 3 – New York City, 4 – Detroit, 5 – Nashville, Tennessee. A rather more surprising vegan/vegetarian friendly US destination is Austin, Texas – a state otherwise known for its cattle rearing and ranches. Distinctly alternative-flavoured Austin appeared 8th in PETA’S 2016 list and actually grabbed number one spot in 2013.
The truth for many Latin American countries (Central America, South America and Mexico) is that meat still reigns supreme and travelling around as a non-meat eater can prove tricky to say the least. In many places the entire concept of vegetarianism simply doesn’t feature in the general psyche. So much so that if you ask for something meat-free it is more than possible you could still be served poultry or fish.
Having said this however, there are certain regions or pockets in almost all Latin American countries which can offer anything from reasonable to exceptional in the way of vegetarian fare. For example, Argentina – a country known for its world class beef produce – is most often described by travelling veggies as the most challenging country of all. However, Buenos Aires and some of the other larger cities have some great vegetarian eating establishments. Being a vegetarian and eating well in Latin America is possible but you might have to put in a little more effort than you would elsewhere in the world.
Brazil – With a very encouraging 7.6% of the population classing themselves as veggie (more than 15 million people) Brazil is one of the better South American destinations for those looking for meat-free food choices. Not surprisingly, Rio is perhaps the best Brazilian city for vegetarians.
Chile – Another of the easier destination countries for vegetarians travelling around Latin America. This is in the main due to the fact that a variety of traditional fare – such as empanadas and the tomato stew known as tomatican – come in meat-free forms.
Europe is a little tricky to label one way or the other as a vegetarian-friendly destination because it can be exceptionally wonderful or a nightmare…… or even both at the same time. For example, with only 0.5% of the population being non-meat eaters Spain is not generally considered an easy destination for vegetarians. However, head to Barcelona and the truth couldn’t be more different as this wonderful city establishes itself firmly and ever-increasingly as a leading vegetarian hotspot for the whole of Europe.
And this hit-and-miss theme continues all over the continent. Along with Spain, France also sits low on the veggie-friendly front (less than 2% of the population is vegetarian) while at the higher end can be found countries with a far higher vegetarian population count such as Austria (9%). There are few European countries which don’t offer something by way of vegetarian-dedicated restaurants and cafés in their capitals and larger metropolitan sprawls. This is true even of Russia – a country where vegetarianism was once illegal.
Italy – Europe’s Number 1 Vegetarian Destination
Just as India runs away with Asia’s top spot for most vegetarian-friendly destination, Europe also has a clear heads-and-shoulders-above-the-others winner – Italy. Described by many a wandering vegetarian as heaven on the culinary front, Italy claims the highest number of vegetarian individuals in Europe – a whopping 10% of the population.
And it isn’t only the presence of so many non-meat eaters which makes Italy such a veggie-friendly hot-spot. Much of the traditional Italian cuisine is and always has been meat-free.
Pizza and pasta in 1001 wonderful meat-free options are on the menu almost everywhere you go but so too are soups, risottos, salads and vegetable based grills. Factor in to-die-for cheeses (OK for the lacto-ovo veggies) which offer something entirely different as you travel from region to region and so many varieties of bread you could have a different one for every day of the month and still not eat the same thing twice. Then there’s the mouth-watering choices for antipasto which include olives and sun-dried tomato and that rather wonderful aperitivo culture which is found countrywide once the sun sets. This wonderful part of the Italian culinary world features attractive offerings of small dishes and plates of treats and nibbles when you buy a drink.
And unlike other European destinations where the veggie-friendly options are really only guaranteed in the larger cities, meat-free fare can be found everywhere in Italy; from the walled mediaeval towns of Tuscany to the tiniest village in Sardinia you are going to be spoiled for choice.
Cultural identity in Italy is defined rather more by the region you come from than by any strong connection to the country overall; Italy didn’t even become a united country until 1871. And this highly specialised identity is borne out nowhere more obviously than through its food. Every region has something which is all its own or it has its own special twist on – from the cheese of Gorgonzola to the black truffles of Umbria and from the olive oil and chick pea lasagne of Basilicata to the flat bread of Liguria.
Where the continent of Africa is concerned, the northern African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria come out tops as the destinations for vegetarians. These countries have a wide range of traditional national dishes which have always been meat-free, most notably with such things as couscous, hummus and spiced vegetables.
The traditional slow baked stews known as tagines are one of Morocco’s best-known dishes and are often found in vegetarian form, while soups, salads and unusual and varied breads are also widespread and offer loads of choice for the meat-free diner. Factor-in the regular use of spices (you’ll see them in huge piles of every colour in the souks/markets) and you can expect a vast range of flavour sensations.
Synonymous with daily barbecues and as a nation littered with cattle ranches the size of other countries, Australia is not a place normally associated with veggie-conscious cuisine. However, as the Western world wakes up to the need for healthier diets and green practices things are changing fast here. Today more than 2 million Australians classify themselves as vegetarian – 11% of the total population – and that number is growing all the time.
New Zealand isn’t far behind – more than 1 in every 10 Kiwis are vegetarian. Figures overall which mean any vegetarians travelling around Australia and New Zealand should find themselves well catered for.