Vegan Food from Around the World

When it comes to vegan travel, no two countries are alike. In some destinations, vegan/vegetarian is part of the traditional cuisine, while in other places, the idea is so foreign that most locals kept asking what I could eat, and puzzled by the reason behind it (In Cuba and Ecuador people just went speechless after I said “soy vegana”). Since I became a vegan last August, I’ve traveled a bit here and there, and I’ve found authentic vegan dishes that were native to the region and not just vegan reinventions (tempeh and kimchi tacos? Ugh, no thank you). It has since became my quest to find and share vegan food in different cultures, so here’s the first in the series.

(You can also read this as “how to eat out as a vegan,” since I don’t know how to cook and eat out every single meal. This is my vegan version of eat-your-way-around-the-world.)

Ethiopian

Last December I missed my flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, so I stayed one night in Addis Ababa and had dinner and breakfast there. Having no prior knowledge of Ethiopian food, I was utterly surprised by the amazing vegan breakfast buffet at my hotel and learned that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes a number of fasting days (refrain from eating animal products), including Wednesdays, Fridays, so Ethiopian cuisine contains many dishes that are traditionally vegan. And even on Ethiopian Airline, besides the standard airline meal, you can ask for “fasting” food, and it’s fully vegan!

Vegan dishes such as chickpeas, split peas, fava beans (tastes like Mexican refried beans), Atkilt Wot (cabbage and carrots), and mchicha (the Swahili name for a local green, native to East Africa, but I think in the US they use collard greens instead), on top of Injera.

Indian

I call Indian food just “food,” because it is my go-to cuisine even when I was an omnivore.

A large percentage of the population of India is vegetarian for religious reasons so Indian food also has lots of dishes that are traditionally vegetarian or vegan. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of dishes in which vegetables and legumes are the main ingredients.

The thing to watch out for as vegans is dairy. Though the dishes normally don’t contain eggs, dairy is pretty common, so when ordering vegan Indian food in restaurants it’s a good idea to ask if it contains common dairy products such as curd (yogurt), paneer (cheese), and ghee (clarified butter).

There are many Indian veggie dishes that typically do not contain any dairy at all. A few examples are dishes based on chickpeas (Chana Masala), eggplant (Baingan Bhartha, my favorite), as well as lentils (Daal), cabbage, cauliflower (Aloo Gobi), peas, and potatoes.

Chinese

Many Chinese dishes are traditionally vegan, with ingredients such as eggplant, tomatoes, string beans, mushroom, wood ear, bitter melon, cauliflower, peppers and other vegetables. Chinese vegan dishes vary from province to province so I only know some of the most popular ones from the northeast, such as Di San Xian (地三鲜, potatoes, eggplant and peppers), spicy wood ear or cucumbers, roasted sweet potatoes and veggie stir fry (炒菜, shredded potatoes and other veggies), etc.

There’s also Buddhist cuisine (斋饭) with heavy Chinese influence. I didn’t know much about Buddhism since I was born and raised by atheist parents and we rarely go to temples. It’s only after becoming a vegan, I started to try out Buddhist cuisines in New York City and learn about them. I think a very distinctive feature of Buddhist cuisine is its creative use of soy products. There are mock meats of every kind made with textured soy protein and tofu, like this menu (http://www.buddha-bodai.com/menu.html) from Buddha Bodai in NYC.

Typical food made with soy proteins (they really look like and taste like meat) and veggies at a Buddhist restaurant in Montreal.

However keep in mind that even though Chinese food rarely contains dairy or butter, eggs are commonly used in vegetarian dishes, and a lot of people do not know the difference between vegan and vegetarian. It’s always good to ask before ordering.

Mexican

Yes there are barbacoa, carne asada, machacado con huevo, and enchiladas verdes (all of them used to my favorites), but Mexican staples such as corn tortillas, rice and beans (without lard), guacamole, and nopales are vegan. There are also popular dishes that can be made vegan, such as chilaquiles (without egg), elote (without cheese), chiles rellenos (instead of cheese, it’s stuffed with potatoes), tamales with beans or veggies. It’s also easy to have vegan tacos with nopales, mushrooms, avocados and beans.

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Tamales de frijol (bean tamales) with mole around Zócalo in Mexico City.

Swahili

Discovering Swahili cuisine was one of the highlights of my trip to Tanzania.

The vegan food in East Africa is based on fresh and local ingredients that grow bountifully in the equatorial climate, so there are lots of local greens and tropical fruits. For breakfast or snack, there are mandazi and kitumbua (sometimes it’s mentioned in English in its plural form vitumbua), as well as pineapple, banana and passion fruit.

Fruit stand in Stone Town, Zanzibar
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Ugali with mchicha

The staples, ugali (made with corn flour boiled in water), chapati (flatbread), mchicha (local green, tastes like spinach) and maharage (beans) are fully vegan. There are also many other veggie stews made with sweet potato leaves (matembele, I love it) or pumpkin leaves with tomato sauce. Other common veggies are cassava, avocado, tomatoes and bananas. And in Zanzibar, you can also have pilau (flavored rice) with veggies.

Chapati with avocados, it almost like guacamole, but the Tanzanian recipe also has banana in it.
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This is a 5 star restaurant!

I’ve written more than 130 restaurant reviews, and received many votes on my reviews. Sometimes my friends ask me, why this restaurant is a 4 star and that one is a 5 star? So I want to answer the question here. I tried to stay consistent with my ratings and here is my rating standard for restaurants on Yelp:

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5 Star

Great authentic food. Authenticity is the most important thing when it comes to the difference between a 4 star restaurant and a 5 star restaurant. Serving regional cuisine is a plus, for a restaurant, instead of Mexican food, serves traditional Mexican food from Chiapas and Oaxaca; or a Chinese restaurant serves food that I’ve had millions of times cooked by my dad and mom at home in Changchun, China. For restaurants other than Chinese, Japanese and Mexican, I usually have some people from that region to determine its authenticity: I would rate an Indian restaurant 5 star only after several Indian friends said so, or a soul food restaurant 5 star when my African American friend said, “this is so good, I’ll take my parents here next time.”

4 Star

Everything is great – food, atmosphere, service and price, but lacks authenticity. A Chinese restaurant with 4 star is still a great Chinese restaurant, and most people who are not from China probably give it 5 stars, but to me, there is always something missing. For example, a Lanzhou restaurant may have a Cantonese chef making hand pulled noodles – and it serves really great noodles, but with braised beef slices and beef broth, where all the Lanzhou hand pulled noodles I had in China were served in clear noodle soup with diced beef.

3 Star

A OK – decent food and service, but nothing stands out.

2 Star

Food was below average, and I’ve had much better ones else where.

1 Star

Something about this place is seriously wrong, sloppy food, dirty plates, very long waiting time, rude staff, or even put additional charges on my credit card. These places are disasters, avoid at all cost!

On eating out

I eat out everyday.

I eat out seven days a week.

I don’t know how to cook and refuse to learn. There are so many great restaurants out there, why limit yourself eating only what you can cook everyday?

I call myself a “professional restaurants goer” because I take photos of my food and upload them to Yelp, and sometimes also write reviews of restaurants. I’m serious about Yelping. I spend several hours every week trying to find new restaurants to eat for the coming week. I look at food pictures and read restaurant reviews, vote for food pictures and reviews, and bookmark restaurants for my next week’s adventure. I started Yelping in September 2012, and in one year, I uploaded more than 330 food photos and had more than 500 checkins – I guess that made me a Yelp Elite :)

I don’t order take out, almost never order food delivery. I not only love food, but also love “uncovering a restaurant, its interior decoration, its food and service” this whole experience. If I order delivery I can’t experience the atmosphere inside a restaurant, this does not make me happy.

People always ask me when I’ll learn cooking, I always say “Never”. To me, different people have different expertise, and we shouldn’t try doing things we are not trained to do, sometimes it could be dangerous. Some people went to dental schools to become dentists, and when you go to your dentist, you probably will look at his/her certificate to make sure your dentist got proper training before he/she start drilling your teeth. The same thing with cooking – some people went to culinary school and got degrees to cook my food, and I studied Information Technology at school, not cooking, so I should just be a good programmer — let people who learned cooking do their job and I enjoy the food they made, instead of trying to cook for myself. After all, you probably never drilled your own teeth or fixed your own transmission ;)

Daniel on Yelp: dannizhao.yelp.com

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(photo: Enchiladas de carne, from Tequila River Taqueria)