On a visit to Ponnani in Malappuram district of Kerala (South India), I remember taking in the smell of fish laid out to dry on the beach on a thin piece of cloth. There were dhowboats nearby and the sound of waves breaking on the seashore.
I wrinkled my nose and followed my parents into a small eatery for lunch. Having grown up in India all along, I wasn’t prepared for what was given to me as “meals”.
Rice with fish.
Enlightenment and discovery
When I asked for vegetarian fare, all I got was a blank stare and a watery lentil curry. For the first time in 20 years, I realised that it is tough to be vegetarian — not just in China or Mongolia — but also in India that has millions of vegetarians.
As cultures and landscapes vary, so does food. Ponnani is a small beach town enriched by Muslim influences. Why did I expect it to be like my hometown which — surrounded by mountains — shelters generations of Hindu Brahmins for whom fish and meat are anathema?
Like my father said, I went to Ponnani. Ponnani did not come to me. Jokes aside, I swallowed the tasteless curry along with my pride that day.
Marriage brought me to Singapore two decades ago. A land famous for jumbo crabs and chicken rice, Singapore’s food courts overwhelmed me.
I quickly learned to look for Buddhist stalls and eateries that adhere to vegetarianism. One of Singapore’s oldest Indian restaurants — Komala Vilas — stood as a blessing in Little India.
The scene has also changed quite a lot now with a host of Indian, Mexican, Japanese and Thai restaurants serving a variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Being vegetarian has not discouraged me from travel, though I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for hotel staff. Some have gone nuts trying to decode my recipes.
All this has also been somewhat embarrassing for my teen — you are so annoying, Mother — but I think it’s okay if you know how to smile and be nice.
Besides, the world is changing. Many countries are fast adopting vegan trends with more people turning to plant-based food.
The pro-veggie mayor of Turin in Italy had announced in 2016 that Turin would be Italy’s first vegetarian city, while a more recent report marvelled that an food app has listed more than 900 restaurants with vegan options in Africa.
Places like Italy, India, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Germany and Taiwan are up there on lists of best countries for travelling vegetarians today.
Gratitude and flexibility
Before all that, I have survived countries like Vietnam and France, thanks to the amazing patience and the accommodating people in these nations. Of course, that I am open to dairy products made things a tad easier; pasta, pizza, sandwiches, fried rice, milkshakes and ice creams were available almost everywhere.
There were chefs who cooked my aglio olio with spinach, mushrooms and broccoli. There were waiters who stayed till I finished blurting out my order — no egg, no fish, no meat, no duck oil, no chicken powder — nodding their heads and smiling.
From Australia, Italy, Dubai and UK to Thailand, Indonesia, Qatar and Cambodia, I marvelled at how different nations chose and ate their vegetables — some grilled them, some baked with cheese, some stir-fried them with rice, while others wrapped them around flatbreads with sauce.
Nowadays, there are apps meant to guide vegetarians to places that have good vegetarian food. Here are a few: Dysh, which is essentially Instagram for food. Each post carries a location and rating. You can look for local dyshers around you to see what they are eating and where.
Another one is HappyCow; made for vegetarians, this app allows users to search by type — from vegan to veg-friendly places. It also uses the user’s location to find vegetarian restaurants and stores nearby while also giving the user a price range. You can also plan trips with this app by typing in places and looking at options available there.
One app that helps bridge the communication between vegetarian traveller and the world is Veganagogo. The app helps to translate phrases for the vegetarian traveller. You can easily select a language to communicate your dietary needs to hotel staff.
Find new food and new friends!
Befriending the locals is not only good for getting more information but also for finding new friends in a foreign country.
Most locals are more than happy to guide tourists and chances are they may help you discover much more than you set out to find. And if you don’t know many languages, there’s always Google Translate.
Getting a serviced apartment might work better for those that can cook their own food. This would be ideal also for those that love to see what the locals are buying in supermarkets. You may end up spotting stuff you would want to take back home!
Being vegetarian can bring on challenges that resolve themselves if you learn to look at the bright side and keep your smile.
But remember to use those apps if you ever find yourself stuck in a food court in downtown Singapore, or smelling the sea at the beautiful beach town of Ponnani!