Being vegetarian in Singapore is hard, they say. In a country full of culinary delights that are as awfully unhealthy as they are incredibly delicious, this is occasionally – and only very occasionally – true. Being a vegetarian in your home city, or in any first-world city caught up with the soy milk and quinoa crazes that have swarmed our societies (and as a self-confessed soy junkie I say this endearingly) can also be surprisingly easy.
Starbucks has veggie sandwiches; every hipster café has a veggie burger and even your local food court has locally made and now internationally popular tempeh treats. In a land where you speak the language and understand the culture, you’ll be fine. It’s a minor inconvenience at worst.
Venture further afield, however, and your solid-as-a-stack-of-tofu safety net is gone completely. Reading labels to check for gelatin is no longer a luxury you can afford. Sending food back to the kitchen? Good luck with that. After years of not eating meat, your taste buds become incredibly sensitive to the now-unfamiliar flavours of seafood and meat. Once it’s there, you know it’s there.
The first time you sit in a café with an unfamiliar language being yelled over your head, a suspicious sausage sitting in the middle of what you thought was a meat-free meal, it dawns on you: If you persist with the same dietary strictness you arrived with, you’re going to be that traveller.
And you, the open-minded, earth-roaming, globetrotter that you are, don’t want to be that traveller. Nobody likes that traveller. The sort who corrects people because something wasn’t done the way you think it should’ve been done. The sort who isn’t there to learn but to teach, to correct instead of to observe. And so, for the very first time since you began your healthy life on a moral high ground and cruelty-free couscous, you eat around the offending bit of bacon, or you ignore that slight taste of salmon. “You can do this,” you tell yourself, hoping you won’t be ill (it happens when you’ve been perfectly pork-free for years).
And just like we can all learn to swim in questionable water in Cambodia, or piss in a doorless bathroom in China, we learn to adapt.
Speaking of China, it was here that I learnt to graciously accept the good intentions of others instead of sticking to your beliefs, as strict as they once may have been. Well-meaning ayis at a restaurant may, from time to time, take your request for no meat to mean less meat (or more meat, in some cases), and – through a good mix of charity and misunderstanding – throw a sprinkling of minced meat onto your otherwise successful order. “This poor foreigner, missing out on all that flavour!” You can almost hear it right out loud.
Or perhaps you’re invited to a new friend’s house for dinner. “I know you’re vegetarian, so I made you lots of fish!” you’re told as you’re taken to a table struggling under the weight of fish, prawns, and every seafood dish known to humanity.
I once made the regrettable mistake of very politely and quite reluctantly turning down a steaming plate of fish, cooked specially for me. It was promptly replaced with every vegan’s worst nightmare, simply because it’s the hardest to explain: eggs. Next move: eat the damn eggs.
So you learn to either communicate better or to suck it up and slurp it down because someone’s good intentions might quite likely be a higher priority than your dietary preferences. Try asking for a vegan meal at a rural farm-side homestay; you’re unlikely to get it, and you’re very likely to inadvertently offend the community you are putting your money towards developing.
In Russia, I was thrilled when one day, out of nowhere, every place I went to had a brand-new vegetarian menu full of vegetable-based treats, and plenty to choose from – not usually how it happens in these meat-hungry parts of the world. “Finally, the land of salmon, meat, and vodka has come around!” I thought. No such luck – this highly religious orthodox community has a habit of creating a pre-Easter menu for Lent: A sacrifice for most diners, but like Christmas come early for the uninformed vegetarian.
A religious time of feasting eventually did come around on Easter Sunday – a resurrection of hearty beef slices for almost everyone, the return to a life of bland potato and mushrooms in various configurations for the rest of us vegetarians.
IT’S A WRAP
Wherever you are in the world, though, gentrification has stretched its smoothie-powered limbs far and wide. Vegetarian hipsters (again, said both confession-ally and endearingly) travel and take with them a demand for home-brewed beer, black bean burgers, and what’s more dangerous still: the means to pay for it. It’s becoming easier than ever to travel as a vegetarian, though I do wonder if that takes some of the fun out of it. Surrounding yourself in cosy cafes filled with hummus wraps and Helvetica signs can only bring so much to your travel experience – a comfort for many of us, sure, but a potential distraction from the path you had set out to explore.
COMING HOME TO COMFORT FOOD
Home will always have the comfort food you seek – whether it’s overpriced kale or the local treats you know your way around. For the strict vegan turned occasional eat-around-the-chicken eater, I have some advice that makes travelling so much more fulfilling, so long as you don’t tell the vegan police: If you close your eyes and try not to think about why your food is slightly tastier than usual and – for the life of you – you have absolutely no idea why, then it doesn’t count.
Keep chewing and travel on.