Apr 29, 2011 5:21:41 AM
Meat-free travel: vegetarian hits and misses
Here’s our pick of the perfect destinations for the best food without a face – and three for vegetarians to avoid…
From hectic hawkers’ markets to sophisticated specialist restaurants, the Southeast Asian island state harbours a huge number of vegetarian eateries – well over 100, according to www.happycow.net. In Singapore you’ll munch on the best of Asia’s great cuisines – Malaysian, South Indian, the varied flavours of China – and specifically that blissful blend of Nyonya (or Peranakan) cooking, rich with lemongrass, tamarind, galangal and coconut milk. Though the cuisine isn’t specifically vegie, meat-free mains are nigh unbeatable – order a vegie laksa lemak (spicy coconut noodle soup) to reach Nyonya nirvana.
Two words: thali and dosa – South India’s great gifts to the world. The first is an ubiquitous all-you-can-eat feast: a thali can range from a few simple of curry, dhal (lentils) and rice on a banana leaf to a half-dozen-plus chilli-tinged treats in special dimpled trays. The dosa is the king of southern snacks, a rice-flour-and-lentil pancake that comes in countless varieties: paper-thin and crispy, laced with onion, packed with spiced veg and dipped in soupy lentil sambar. In South India, carnivores are the weirdos.
San Francisco: heaven
This is the city that has hosted the World Vegetarian Festival each year for over a decade, a fantastic destination for discerning vegetarians. Partly it’s the result of the embedded counterculture ethos that’s simmered here for years, and partly the efforts of gastronomic pioneers such as Alice Waters in promoting respect for fresh produce. What it means for vegies is that you can tuck into anything from a vast Mission burrito to a five-course vegan ‘Aphrodisiac Dinner’ at stylish, inventive Millennium – all without a whiff of meat.
Wander the narrow alleys of any souk and you’ll realise why Moroccan food is so tongue-tingling: the carefully shaped, rainbow-hued piles of spices are dazzling. Be warned, however: not all ‘vegetable’ dishes are necessarily meat-free, and the occasional bland number crops up, but when it hits the mark dishes such as vegie tajine (fruit-sweetened stew slow-baked in a conical earthenware pot) or couscous can be sensational. Add spicy harira soup for kick, olives to snack on and hummus to dip, and you’re almost there. The test of a destination’s culinary credentials is bread – and in Morocco, khubz is king.
Sure, it’s the spiritual home of pizza and pasta, but to discover Italy’s true culinary genius plan a picnic. First, pick up bread – soft focaccia or thin, crispy Sardinian pane fresa. Market-stall-hop for antipasto: olives, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes and peppers. Add a lump of pecorino, taleggio or dolcelatte cheese, toss in a bottle of local red, and away you go. And the best bit? Each region boasts divine local specialities – try truffles (black in Umbria, white in Piedmont), asparagus from the Veneto and Sicilian capers.
Mezze magic! Why be limited to only one or two dishes when you can load a table with scores of finger-food portions? This admirable philosophy reaches its apotheosis in Lebanon. Dips, grains, marinated and cooked vegetables, stuffed leaves, fried pastries and salads…grab some flat bread and start dunking and scooping. Our pick is baba ghanoush, humble eggplant roasted and miraculously transformed with tahini, garlic and olive oil – voila: dipping delight.
Like San Francisco, Thailand has a vegetarian festival. Unlike San Francisco, during the vegetarian festival on Phuket – here called Kin Jay – devotees stick sharp spikes through their cheeks. Quite what that has to do with vegetarianism is debatable, but the festival is also a chance for ethnic Chinese Thais (and lucky visitors) to munch a dizzying array of faux-meat dishes. The rest of the year, specifying that you’d like your meal jay (vegan) or mangasawirat (vegetarian) gets you your favourite pad thai noodles, red curry or spicy papaya salad sans animal.
Central Asia: hell
This little-travelled region may represent the global nadir for herbivores. As a rule, dishes on the Asian steppes and mountains feature mutton or horse. You might happen on Kazakh manti (steamed dumplings filled with meat), Kyrgyz besh barmak (boiled horsemeat with noodles), lagman (noodles cooked in meat broth) or regional favourite plov (mutton, horsemeat or beef fried with rice and carrots – in fat). If you’re vegan, forget it – chances are if it’s not meat, it’s dairy. Is it worth it? Explore ancient Silk Road cities, roam vast steppes, trace the Pamir Highway, then make up your own mind.
Meat rules across South America, so picking the least veg-friendly country is tricky. Argentina gets the nod partly because of its prodigious meat consumption – a whopping 70kg per person each year. In Buenos Aires and larger cities you can dodge the ubiquitous parrillas (grill houses) and unearth some excellent vegetarian restaurants. But if you want to fall off the wagon, this is the place for it. Pick a sharp knife, douse your carne de vaca (beef) with chimichurri (olive oil with parsley and garlic) and get stuck in.
Eating flesh-free in Europe is easy…in theory. In practice, you’ll need to stay sharp; many chefs still seem to believe that chicken and ham sprout in vegetable patches. But it really pays to be alert in Germany. Yes, Berlin boasts a wide selection of excellent vegetarian options in a range of international cuisines, but all too often that pink dumpling in your soup is, yes, bacon. Conversely, Teutonic food doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves, and for carnivores it’s a treat. Wurst isn’t just sausage – it’s 1500 sausages, an almost infinite variety.
Every vegetarian traveller has a horror story to tell – what’s yours? Or do you belong in the ‘if it moves, eat it’ category, whereby overseas travel frequently involves sampling extreme cuisine? Go on, spill the beans (or should that be brains?)…
Further reading: Chef Alice Waters’ culinary tour of California