Tales of a Wandering Veggie: Going Vegetarian in Southeast Asia
There are very few foods I dislike. Cheese so smelly it hurts your eyes? Bring it on. Chopped chicken liver at Chrismukkah? Don’t you dare forget it. With the exception of what I refer to as “The Devil’s Vegetables” (raw green peppers, cilantro, celery and iceberg lettuce), I will eat nearly anything. Or so I thought.
While leisurely drifting through the markets of Southeast Asia, I have noticed that seeing food in its REAL raw form, and not the nice, clean grocery store raw form, really does a number on me. Seeing frogs still hopping in the basket, seeing carcasses with their faces still on, smelling the intense odor of fish sauce by the barrel…it’s all just a little too much for me.
I only compounded this problem when I decided to do a little research about traditional foods of the group I’d be living with. Snake. Monkey. Bat. Bat?! Who looks at a bat and thinks it’s meaty?! They have such bony, finger-like wings. I get a little nervous seeing them fly, much less on a plate. Commence the distress. Can I bring myself to eat bat?
Seeing frogs still hopping in the basket, seeing carcasses with their faces still on, smelling the intensive odor of fish sauce by the barrel…it’s all just a little too much for me.
This presented me with a conundrum. As a volunteer, I get my meals included for me. The last thing I would ever want to do is to be offensive, or somehow derogatory toward my hosts. This will be even more true when I get to the Burmese border, where resources are limited. How could I, in good conscience, refuse food offered to me as a guest? I couldn’t. And that is precisely how I used travel to kickstart my vegetarianism.
Somewhere like Thailand, being a vegetarian is easy. Certain types of Buddhism encourage vegetarianism, and therefore, no one even bats an eye when I say “kin jay,” my very broken Thai way of saying I am a vegetarian. Moreover, locals check to see if I’m okay with eggs, and warn me when my papaya salad is made with fish sauce. Once I simply announced that I was vegetarian, that was it–it was accepted as fact.
This response is quire different from what I’ve seen and heard in the past when people announce their veggie-loving ways. “I’m a vegetarian.” “What?! Why?!?!!? Meat is SOOOOOO delicious! Don’t you miss barbecue?!” By removing myself from my usual circle of friends and regular circumstances, I didn’t get any of that. For all these guys know, I’ve been a veggie for 20 years.
The life of a traveling vegetarian has done exactly what I’ve hoped for. It’s allowed me to eat a different cuisine without the concern that I am going to seriously offend my hosts. It has given me the opportunity to try things as and when I want. There is nothing stopping me from privately having a bite of something meaty if the mood strikes, but I’m not obligated.
Finally, it has allowed me to look at eating meat in another way. Seeing how people actually make use of meat here has been really interesting and a necessary step back. In this part of the world, the whole animal gets used. Brains, hooves, entrails, you name it (no, seriously, because I can’t, I’ve never heard of some of these things!), it’s on the table. Even if I don’t want to eat it, I can certainly say I find it impressive and admirable how much less meat is wasted just because it’s “weird.”
The food, by the way, has been great. I don’t feel like I’m missing out at all. Something I do wish I hadn’t eaten though, is the durian. Called the “king of fruits,” it has a strong odor and is banned from many public places. I swear to you this is true: in the Bangkok domestic airport, you are allowed to check in your guns, GUNS, but not durian. Let me reiterate: the stinky fruit is more cause for concern than guns. That’s how hardcore this fruit is.
There is nothing stopping me from privately having a bite of something meaty if the mood strikes, but I’m not obligated.
It is covered in spikes and smells like rotting garbage. I cannot imagine being the first person who thought, “Yeah, this seems inviting, let’s eat this.” I have to say that curiosity did get the better of me (it tasted like Chinese food and foot sweat), but if you try it, don’t say you weren’t warned.
I highly suggest going vegetarian on your travels, if you’re feeling a little food shy. I plan to keep the habit when I get back to the US, though a little Chrismukkah exception may be in order. Happy travels, and happy eating!
Photo credit: Christopher Rose