How (not) to be an annoying vegan abroad

Before anyone gets up in my meat-free grill on the ethics, benefits or ins and outs of veganism or vegetarianism, this article is not going to contain any moral or personal views on the subject.

Studying abroad in France and Russia has presented more than its fair share of challenges. As someone who prefers not to eat meat, literally cannot eat dairy products and is gradually phasing out all animal products, perhaps my choice of countries was not the smartest for a long term stay; France, the Brie and saucisson capital of the world, and Russia, with its stroganoffs and lack of general understanding of dietary requirements. But against all odds, it is possible to eat tasty and varied food.

This attractive photo was taken to provide an example of poor Russian service times – taken 30 minutes after we had ordered and 10 minutes after his had arrived – but is also a pretty accurate representation of eating out in Russia.

Most of the menu is meat in some form of sauce with a liberal dollop of smetana – Russian sour cream. After four months, my Russian was eventually good enough to explain the concept of an allergy to our well-meaning waiters, but I’m not entirely sure the message ever got through.

My higher level of French and a higher level of awareness surrounding dietary requirements has meant that in France there is a better chance they will get what I’m on about. One waiter in Lyon managed to buck the trend however; after I asked which dishes on the menu contained no dairy, he happily reeled off a list and recommended one which came out with a huge, creamy pile of dauphinoise potatoes. Well, I tried.

“Being abroad has made me somewhat more resourceful and adventurous as a cook”

When one finds themselves in a country with unwelcoming attitudes towards food, there are two things to do. The first, is cook for yourself. Being abroad has made me somewhat more resourceful and adventurous as a cook.

For the entire time I was in Russia I failed to find a dairy-free alternative to butter. Not only was this a tragic loss to my sandwiches, it also made baking impossible. This wouldn’t be too bad, if it weren’t for the total lack of dairy-free puddings, cakes, biscuits, ice cream… All the things that make my life worth living. In the end, I managed to make a crumble with oil instead of butter and banana pancakes that were good enough to get me through until Christmas.

In Paris, the availability of dairy free options is actually better than parts of the UK and I have thoroughly enjoyed tasting and trying some of the things on offer here. The rest of France is less helpful and the availability of options will drop dramatically the further you get from the resident British and American expats.

“You may have to accept a few ‘carbs with a side of carbs’ meals but sometimes those are necessary (and delicious)”

Eating out is much, much more problematic. I know eating out is a luxury and it’s not a daily crisis if I can’t find a restaurant, but it is often unavoidable or much more convenient to buy something from a supermarket than eat out with friends. Not only are many countries aside from the UK woefully lacking in meal deals, they will put cheese on anything you can buy, preferably melted in some way so you can’t pick it off.

In Europe you can find a few good specifically vegetarian and/or vegan restaurants (including the iconic and highly recommended Vegan Folie’s in Paris) but in smaller cities or Eastern Europe, those may be few and far between. A good option is often Asian places – dairy is very rare and it’s quite easy to find meat free options. Italian is always good because if worst comes to worst there are always veggie pizzas without cheese. You may have to accept a few ‘carbs with a side of carbs’ meals but sometimes those are necessary (and delicious).

To all you fellow dietarily restricted travellers, take heart. Varied, tasty dishes can be yours on the continent no matter how far you are from an M&S (there are a few in Paris) – it just might take a little research, effort and compromise!

Here’s a few good resources and sites to help you out:

  • Happy Cow – one stop shop for vegan and veggie spots across the world. They have an app and everything.
  • Vegan Travel Blogs – who likes blogging more than foodies and travel buffs? Combine the two and you have ready made guides to certain cities.
  • Foursquare – and other such apps. Learn from people who’ve been there before!
  • Local sites – the more veganism, vegetarianism and awareness of “unconventional diets” – as one Russian disparagingly put it – spreads across Europe, the more local places will talk about it. Have a cheeky Google to see if any non-specific sites have local recommendations.
  • Ask – ask fourth years, group chats, mentors, lecturers (also useful for getting the right way to explain it to people), people who have lived there… Even if they aren’t vegan they will probably know someone who was, or have suggestions for stuff in general. Smart.

Katrina Eastgate

Featured image courtesy of ‘Helen Alfvegren’ via Flickr. License here.

Article images courtesy of Katrina Eastgate.

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