By Alexandra Burguieres
Last weekend was the 16th annual Barbecue Battle in Washington, D.C., and just standing at the gates gave me a flashback to a few years ago, when I arrived to visit a friend in the Czech Republic.
She greeted me at the airport with the following question: “Are you still vegetarian?” Her face turned to worry as I answered, suspiciously, in the affirmative. Her host family had planned a Sunday outing in which we would all travel to the Czech countryside and enjoy a traditional zabijacka (slaughter), courtesy of the family’s sacrificial sow. I immediately had an image of myself as Fern Arable, begging the Czech people to let this “terrific” pig live. They wouldn’t understand English but they’d probably get my point.
In recent years, vegetarian and vegan travel has gotten easier, thanks to a growing awareness of the environmental benefits of veganism and an increasing general friendliness toward the meat-free lifestyle. While I personally think there are limitless virtues to not eating meat, I’ll admit it’s tough to feel like you’re getting an authentic travel experience in, say, Brazil, when you’re living on bananas and rice. I once ate an entire bloom of little bananas while floating on a boat down the Amazon. Not good.
So I thought I’d share a small sampling of restaurants that allow travelers to indulge in the authentic tastes and textures of a culture’s signature (sometimes meat-laden) dish while staying vegetarian or vegan. I’ve found that it’s often the spices, grains, and fresh produce that lend local dishes their character and charm, and that it’s easy to experience culinary customs without sacrificing your values—or any innocent Wilburs, for that matter.
My three favorite in the UK are:
Maggie May’s Belfast Café (50 Botanic Avenue; +1 44 028 9032 2662) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Maggie May’s happily offers a veggie version of the (in)famous Ulster Fry, Northern Ireland’s quintessential breakfast of fried things on a plate. Diners get fried potato bread, fried hashbrowns, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, a fried pancake, fried eggs (substitutable for vegans), and fried soda bread. With such an elaborate spread, if anyone asks whether you had an authentic Ulster Fry on your trip to Northern Ireland, you can tell them yes, and confidently bond over how there’s no better cure for a hangover.
Baked Potato Shop (56 Cockburn Street; +1 44 131 225 7572) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The small shop offers completely vegetarian take-away, and travelers can get baked tatties (potatoes) with conventionally Scottish fillings. You can even get your “jacket potato” loaded with vegetarian haggis. Just don’t go home saying you ate a haggis—the Scots love to convince visitors that haggis are animals and there is such a thing as “a” haggis. There isn’t. Travelers can bring the very popular vegetarian haggis by Macsween’s home with them. Traditional haggis calls for ingredients like sheep lungs, oats, and suet, all cooked in the sheep’s stomach. It’s a sure bet that although there’s no haggis animal to speak of, sheep appreciate the veggie alternative.
Eat and Two Veg (50 Marylebone High Street; 020 7258 8595) in London, England, has an admirable array of fake-meat options. Die-hard anglophiles can chow down on soy-protein bangers and mash, which is the very British dish of sausage piled atop mashed potatoes and coated in gravy. For anyone who thought the Ulster Fry above sounded good, EatV also serves a traditional English breakfast, which is like the Irish but includes beans and, in this case, veggie sausages.
In Western Europe:
Il Gelatone (Via dei Serpenti 28) in Rome lets you do as the Romans do without eating dairy. Some people would be more appalled to hear that you went to Rome without eating gelato than if you went and didn’t see the Trevi Fountain. The gelaterie has 14 varieties of soy-based gelato and is one of the most popular spots in the city for locals and tourists alike to get their daily (not dairy) fix.
Le Grenier de Notre Dame (18 Rue de la Bûcherie, 0143299829) in Paris serves traditional, all-vegetarian French peasant food. Aside from the fresh produce and tasty sauces, their organic wines provide an eco-friendly way to enjoy the evening like a true Parisian.
And, last but not least ….
Country Life (Melantrichova 15; 224 213 366) in Prague, Czech Republic, is one of the several vegetarian restaurants in Prague that offer authentic food but manage to skip the Sunday zabijacka. The all-vegan cafeteria and health food shop serves veggie goulash in its scenic courtyard, meaning you don’t have to eat pork to get a real taste of Czech life.
If you’ve traveled in search of authentic vegetarian/vegan grub, share your thoughts below. And if you’ve found a favorite vegetarian/vegan version of a destination’s signature dish, leave a comment about when and where. A vegan alternative to Brazilian barbecue would be especially appreciated.