Whether you’re backpacking for a few months, going on a short vacation or driving from city to city on a road trip, chances are you’ll be eating at least some of your meals at restaurants. I’m also willing to bet not all of the restaurants you choose will be strictly vegan or even vegetarian. It would be great if every city had a veggie restaurant but that’s not how things are today. Even if there’s a veg-friendly restaurant in the city you’re visiting, it may not be nearby when hunger strikes. So the question is: how do you order food at a restaurant that doesn’t cater to vegans and may not understand your preferences.
Five Tips for Ordering Vegan Food
1. Choose the Restaurant Wisely
If there’s more than one restaurant to choose from, don’t pick the steakhouse or any shop displaying dead animals in the window. A no-brainier, right? Try to find a restaurant serving food that’s known for being vegan friendly. Here are some examples of vegan dishes that can be prepared at restaurants specializing in international cuisine.
Vegetable curry, samosas, pakoras, dhal and papadums
Specify no butter or ghee (traditional Indian clarified butter)
Vegetable sushi rolls (cucumber, avocado, tofu, etc.), inari, wakame salad, miso soup (without bonito fish flakes), vegetable tempura, and edamame
Specify no fish sauce, roe (fish eggs), and no egg in tempura batter
Pad Thai without egg and shrimp, coconut curry, rice wraps, and sticky rice with mango
Specify no fish or oyster sauce
Stir fried vegetables, noodle dishes, fried tofu, and vegetable soups
Specify no meat or fish in the sauces and stock
Pasta with tomato sauce or pizza without cheese
Specify no egg in the pasta
Falafel, couscous, and tabbouleh salad
Specify no dairy or yogurt sauce
Injera bread with bean and vegetable toppings
Specify no meat or egg
Bean burritos, fajitas, and corn chips & salsa
Specify no cheese, beans cooked with meat, guacamole made with sour cream, or tortillas made with animal products
Almost Any Restaurant
Salad without meat or cheese, sandwich with vegetables, soup with vegetable stock, and vegetables and rice (not cooked with meat stock)
2. Look for Accidentally Vegan / Easy to Veganize Options
Take a look at the menu. Does anything look like it might be vegan?
salad with seasonal vegetables and house sauce … penne pasta with mushrooms, bell peppers and zucchini … vegetable stir fry and rice noodles …
What about easy to veganize?
cucumber, avocado and tofu maki with cream cheese … pizza with grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, green olives and mozzarella … fried rice with vegetables and egg
Pick a dish that could be made vegan with a few adjustments.
3. Ask Questions
Ask questions before ordering. Here is a list of questions you may want to ask:
- Is the soup made with meat, chicken or vegetable stock?
- Are the beans cooked with pork or another kind of meat?
- What kind of oil is used for frying?
- What kind of bread do you use? Does it contain milk? Has it been glazed with egg?
- Is the pasta made here? Does it contain egg?
- Is there a sauce? What kind of sauce?
- Is butter used?
- What’s in the salad dressing?
- Is the dish prepared fresh?
- What brand of veggie burgers do you use? Do they contain egg?
Depending on the answers, let the server know if it’s a good thing (e.g. vegetable stock) or won’t work for you (e.g. chicken stock). After this, you can start getting more specific about what you can and can’t eat.
4. Be Clear & Polite
If the menu reads grilled eggplant, red pepper and zucchini sandwich with feta cheese, don’t just ask for the sandwich without cheese. There could be surprise spreads. The vegetables could be cooked with butter. The bread could be glazed with egg.
Once, I ordered a vegetable and cheese sandwich and asked for no cheese. The waitress said “no problem.” My sandwich arrived without any cheese but turned out to be an omelet between two pieces of bread. Funny, the menu didn’t mention egg. This is why it’s important to list all of the items you can’t have. Assume nothing.
Now that you have an idea about what you want to order, and some information about what’s in or not in the dish, tell your server what you can’t eat.
Be polite. Smile.
You don’t want to overwhelm them with a long list of ingredients but it’s a good idea to mention the major items. Make it clear that you can’t have meat (nope, not even chicken!), fish, milk, eggs, cream, cheese, butter and honey.
Don’t say “I’m vegan. What can you feed me?” Most people won’t understand. You can try saying you’re vegetarian, but don’t eat milk products, eggs, fish or chicken. It’s worth a try.
5. Be Grateful
Even if you’re served a giant pile of white rice, or miniature potatoes with oil and dry herbs, be grateful. If it’s anything more, tip. If you like what they came up with, be sure to express your thanks and make it clear how much you appreciate the effort. If the owner is around, thank them. Promise to come back for more and tell all your friends. Mean it. Good customer services deserves to be rewarded.
These can be a problem. If you’re traveling somewhere and don’t speak the local language, carry a Vegan Passport, dine with friends who can translate or learn a few basic phrases to help you order. Unless the restaurant staff speaks English, you won’t get very far without knowing how to communicate your preferences.
Hunger can cloud your judgment. Try to stay fueled up with snacks and eat a healthy meal before you get to the point where you’re starting not to care what shows up on your plate. Breathe. Try to relax. List your restrictions. Place your order. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s a matter of choosing between picking off a few pieces of cheese or going hungry. Heck, don’t even ask about the bread. It’s just one meal.
If you’re asked about allergies, you may want to consider nodding. If you’re really hungry and running out of restaurant options, it may not be the best time to start explaining why you’re vegan. Depending on where you are, and the local culture, you may confuse or offend people by talking about veganisim. However, some restaurants may be worried about cross contamination and refuse to serve you if you insist you’re allergic to all animal products.
This is the Worst Case Scenario
This isn’t what being vegan is about. These tips are for a bad day, when you’re really stuck. All of this thinking isn’t usually required. If you plan ahead and follow my five tips for vegan travel, you’ll be prepared and hopefully enjoying some of the best vegan food you’ve ever had.