Tuesday, 16 September 2008

am vegan, will travel, will blog for peanuts (or peanut sauce).

I travel a fair amount. And when I travel, people invariably say "Gee, it must be hard to travel as a vegan." The last person who said this to me looked at me with pity as I danced gleefully in the rain atop a munro in the Scottish highlands during a lunch break. Yup, I'm sure my giggling, dancing chocolate-eating self was the very picture of hardship and deprivation. I handed out apples, nuts and chocolate to the two people who had come without a lunch. I made friends and had lots of fun. I've never had any problems traveling "as a vegan". It just takes some minimum amount of preparation. Like, really minimum, and then you can be happy and ungrumpy and show people how very easy vegan is. Here's what I do:

1. TAKE FOOD. I have a little red bag that is my "travel food" bag. In it are: individual instant miso soups with little packages of seaweed taped to them, a small pack of crispbreads (6), mixed nuts, dried fruit, roasted dried chickpeas, a small tin of vegan spread such as tartex and a small bar of ridiculously good chocolate. Sometimes some tofu jerky as well, depending on how long the trip is and how far from civilization I'm going to be. This is pretty much always packed, so I just grab it when I"m off on a trip. The key here is that even if there is nearly nothing for me to eat on the train/plane/research station, I can make at least 3 full meals for myself. Also, I can make a feast out of a plate of plain iceberg lettuce by adding nuts, and have something to spread on plain bread/baked potatoes/pasta. I take this when I go on work trips that last a few days where I may get somewhere late and then not have any time to do shopping while I'm there and where there isn't likely to be any real choice of restaurants (ie- I have to rely on cafeterias). Basically, I find that you can always get simple salads and plain starches, so I bring along stuff to dress these things up. If you are going on a plane, put this in your checked baggage so it doesn't get confiscated. Just bring a sandwich and apple or something on the actual plane.

2. TELL PEOPLE YOU ARE VEGAN WELL IN ADVANCE. Be very clear. I always send an email saying "By the way, I am vegan. This means that I don't eat any animal products such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or honey. Please let me know if you will be unable to accomodate this so that I can bring extra food along with me." Generally, people have been very good about arranging to go to restaurants with vegan options and/or providing vegan food for me at work. However, most omnis won't know what to feed you, and with the best of intentions, may just give you a salad. This is fine, but I find that I often don't get *enough* food, which is where the little red bag from 1. comes in handy.

Also, it helps to give concrete ideas of what you DO eat. If you have some idea of what is easily available where you're going, don't be shy about giving suggestions. For example, on a recent trip, I had the bright idea to point out that baked potatoes and beans were vegan, which saved me from a week of uninterrupted iceberg lettuce and nut salads. Working in Italy (where I usually have no time to shop during the work, and we eat at restos/cafeterias twice a day), I bring some food, but pointed out to my hosts that pasta and pizza crust are both vegan, which they didn't think of. They were stressed over finding a "special" restaurant for me, which is unneccesary. I was there to work, not for a free tour of veg*n restaurants (though there is the most adorable vegan bakery in Florence. OH YUM). I'd much rather they stressed out about lab space and such. People often confuse vegan with gluten-free, wheat-free, etc. diets. The more specific you can be with your suggestions, the more likely you are to get something other than iceberg lettuce. The less people have to worry about feeding you, the more you can get on with the point of your visit (unless you're on a food-based visit...).

3. SHOP WHEN YOU GET THERE. You need fresh vegetables. Stop at the first grocery store you see and buy stuff that doesn't need refrigerating: carrots, brocolli and apples are my staples. Also, most supermarkets (or even tiny markets here in the UK) sell bags of precut, prewashed mixed veg. You can keep these in your hotel room/dorm/backpack for several days and they'll be fine. Farmer's markets etc. are also fun if you can find them. Do not buy bananas. They squish.

4. BRING IMPLEMENTS. Bring a pocketknife, a spoon and a corkscrew. I find that a reusable container also comes in handy in case you want to make sandwiches or something. You will also impress people with your boyscout-like readyness.

5. SHARE. If you're going to a place where you're going to be eating with people, bring extra dessert (chocolate in my case). Don't go out into the world and give people the impression that vegans are all a bunch of deprived martyrs who have to pass on dessert while everybody else eats cake. Also, I find that if you're generous with others, they will be generous with you. If you're whiney and demanding, people won't particularly care about feeding you. If you're happy and generous, you may find that they end up doing all sorts of things that are suddenly "no trouble" to make your life easier.

6.OFFER TO COOK. If you're staying in someone's home, offer to make them dinner. Ask what they like, and make a vegan version of it.

7. SAY THANK YOU. This is the MOST IMPORTANT TRAVEL TIP. Whenever somebody makes sure that you have vegan food, thank them, no matter what the food was. This includes restaurant staff who have modified menu items for you, colleagues who have phoned ahead to restaurants, field station students who have left the cheese off the communal pasta dinner, or the organizer who brought you a pb&j sandwich from their home at the last minute when they realized that the cafeteria didn't have anything vegan. Even if it's iceberg lettuce.

Other minor things are: learn how to identify "eggs, dairy etc." in whatever language you need to. Learn how to explain what you will and will not eat. It is often more helpful to say "I don't eat any animal product...including...(insert list here)", than to say "I"m vegan". Most people don't konw what vegan means, or don't get it, in that they won't give you big chunks of meat, but often think "a little egg" is okay. Generally speaking, I prefer to shop in the produce aisle or go to the market for fresh veg and bread etc. than to eat out.

For dinner tonight, at home: roasted veg with peanut sauce. For the peanut sauce: Take 2 heaping tbs each of grated (ground, pureed, superfinely chopped...whatever) garlic and ginger. Fry up in a smidge of sesame oil and a larger-than smidge of peanut oil. Add about 2c water and 1/4c soy sauce, some sugar and chilis. Bring to a boil. Add 1/4c or more peanut butter (I use crunchy natural...no ingredients other than roasted peanuts). Simmer until thick. Turn off the heat and add lime juice (from 1 lime) and a drizzle of sesame oil. Taste and adjust salt/sugar/chilis. Smother veg. Top with toasted crushed sesame seeds. So easy to make. Eat. We had this on roasted spuds, carrots, kale, celery and tofu.


medici said...

I like this list of suggestions, especially the advice to have always on hand a packed travel bag ready to go AND most importantly the reminder to be courteous by thanking those who have gone out of their way (even if only slightly) to accommodate a vegan request. I have seen you (KitchenDancer) graciously and happily offer fine chocolate around a resto table --- and the results are always delightful. So, I have done this myself a few times. It's a wonderful way to relax at a table, and I feel happy when I do it.

Also, it's startling what gets confiscated at airport security these days. My 150-ml tub of hummous was taken from me last week. It would have been okay if it had been 100 ml of hummous. (...insert eyeroll here...) So I plan on sticking to fruit, whole veggies, nuts, sandwiches, and the like in the future. I got through with these items last week, and people stared on the plane as I dug merrily into my avocado! Yum. I like reminding people by example that tasty food is easy, simple, and often uncooked. And cheap!!! I bought my avocado at the greengrocer's place for less than the cost of a bag of potato chips!

Yes, I am also thrilled by cheapness. Right down to my very tiptoes.

Thank you for posting such practical, specific, and effective tips. Specificity rocks.

sinead said...

confession: I also travel with my own little tiny stovetop espresso maker. But that's not a vegan thing per se. That's my secret weapon for making friends at conferences that start far too early in the morning where we're all invariably staying in hostels or university dorms. But life is just better if you start the day out with good breakfast. Sometimes I bring oatmeal and dates as well....

vegandwhatnot said...

I'll definately be referring to this list when I go travelling this summer. I'm a little nervous, because I'm going on a volunteer trip, and I'm not sure what types of protein substitutes will be offered in these foreign, often poverty-stricken countries (haven't chosen my volunteering location yet). However, you can find nuts almost anywhere, right? The rest of my food should be fine, since veg, fruit, and grains can be found in most countries. Has anyone else been in a similar situation before, and what did you do about protien?

sinead said...

Pretty much everywhere has beans. If you're really concerned (and you'll be somewhere with a kitchen), bring a bag of lentils or something. You can also bring bags of prepared tofu (from an asian supermarket), and/or powdered soy milk. But seriously dude, I don't worry about protein, because everywhere has BEANS. Learn how to ask for plain, boiled beans, and bring a bag of spice mix with you.

I've never had a problem finding protein while traveling. I find it much harder to get my hands on enough fresh veg, especially in places where you can't drink the water.

medici said...

Yes, Red lentils - not only are they pretty, but they are also fastest-cooking of the lentils. Red lentils need no soaking! Cook them in the same pot as rice and add caramelized onions with olive oil and lots of salt and pepper for the tastiest simple meal ever. Eat with a green salad and lots of tomatoes with pomegranate-olive oil-lemon dressing. Yum. Or with okra. I love okra.

Jake said...

Those are some excellent tips, thank you. I need to better get in the habit of carrying nuts and stuff. I also like roasted soy beans.

So, that peanut sauce, about how many people would you say it serves? If I were having a small dinner for, say, four people, and that peanut sauce was going to feature prominently, would you recommend doubling it? More?

sinead said...

For us, that fed 3 people, and there were minimal leftovers, but nobody really went to town with the sauce. I'd say double it (or nearly) for 4 people if you want to have lots. You'll probably have leftovers, but it tastes even better the next day, so that's a good thing. Go easy on the soy sauce at first. You can always add more later, but some sauces are really really salty.

Jake said...

Thank you!