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Don't eat the fruit bat!

Going meatless in Asia is a challenge, but savvy vegetarians usually can find something to eat, if they know what to ask for and how to say it.

By ARIN GREENWOOD
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


For vegetarians, finding no-meat meals can be problematic in places as familiar as some American restaurant chains. Imagine the challenge when traveling in a country where dog, rat, or eyeball soup may be on the menu -- especially when that menu is in Sanskrit or Chinese.

What follows is a brief guide to what can be expected and a little of what vegetarians can eat in a few of Asia's "meatier" countries. Excluded here are hotel restaurants, on the optimistic presumption that such places are usually available to most Western travelers.

Japan

The Japanese diet is traditionally fish-based, so much so that Dominic Al-Badri, editor of Kansai Time Out, says he lost 14 pounds in his first year living as a strict vegetarian in the Japanese countryside.

Not eating any meat at all is hard in Japan, as fish broth and meat broth are used in just about everything, including tofu dishes at macrobiotic restaurants.

"The tastiest noodles, ramen, are always cooked in pork broth," said Al-Badri. "The one time I had tasty veggie ramen was in, uh, London."

He added: "The Japanese word for meat (niku) literally refers to beef. So if you ask for 'no niku,' don't be surprised if you find chicken or bacon in your food.

"The concept of meat, meaning animal flesh, does not exist in Japanese. So you have to ask, 'Is there any meat, any chicken (tori), fish (sakana) or pork (buta niku) in that dish?'

"This question usually results in an 'Eh?' reply."

There are a few reliably vegetarian dishes, including cucumber sushi, pickle sushi and avocado sushi. Onigiri -- rice balls with morsels such as pickled plums or adzuki beans in the center -- is another vegetarian option. Vegetarian tempura is a nicely fried meal of egg-battered vegetables.

China

China's diverse cuisine can encompass everything from vegetarian faux meat in the country's Buddhist regions to anything on four legs in Cantonese areas.

But even in the most remote regions, says freelance writer Roxanne Nelson, "nearly every restaurant will have some sort of noodle and vegetable dish. Fancier places will probably have more elaborate dishes or tofu or a meatless soup."

"However," cautioned Nelson, "the caveat is that soups will probably be made from some type of meat broth, and stir fries will use lard or some other animal fat."

Indonesia

Typically Western restaurants' versions of Indonesian food are heavily meat, chicken and fish-based. But the true Indonesian cuisine, according to chef Marc Miron, is "vegetarian paradise."

Vegetarians can find from each region a simple vegetable dish such as gado gado (boiled vegetables with peanut sauce), he says, and by adding Indonesia's hot spices, the dish might even be "interesting." Miron is head chef at the Four Seasons Resort in Bali.

Though there is no word in Indonesian for vegetarian, saying the phrase "Saya tidak makan daging" ("I don't eat meat") should get you a range of noodle and pasta dishes.

Philippines

Vegetarian travel in the Philippines is easy, according to Karen Klaver, a lawyer and vegetarian who has visited the Philippines nine times.

While the Filipino diet is heavily meat-based (and at times even meat-o-philes are better off not asking what animal the meat used to be), there are a lot of rice and noodle dishes that taste just as fine with the meat left out.

Additionally, the Philippines has the world's third-largest English-speaking population and thus asking for dishes to be made vegetarian is significantly less difficult than in other Asian nations.

Cambodia

In Cambodia, a friend of mine who teaches English used to buy live fruit bats and turtles at the local market and then keep them as pets, although they had been sold with the intention of their becoming his food. But he is no vegetarian.

His students came up with the game of "What will teacher eat?," a daily parade of things intended both to introduce him to local cuisine and to test his stomach. And so he tasted snake, tarantulas stuffed with nuts, dog, toasted grasshoppers (he claims they were enjoyably crispy) and more.

Bugs aside, what is there for vegetarian visitors to Cambodia?

A lot of misery, according to Henk de Jogn, who has been teaching in Phnom Penh for a year.

"Vegetarianism is not understood here," said de Jogn. "My Khmer friends eat meat or fish three times a day. If you restrict yourself to Khmer cuisine, you'll have to do with fried rice and veggies, maybe with a fried egg thrown in."

He said that breakfast is the most convenient meal for vegetarians in Cambodia: They can get meatless fried noodles from a market or from street vendors. The noodles are usually put in rice soup, which does have meat, "but you can order the noodles as a separate dish, sprinkled with ground peanuts and a bit of lime."

Mongolia

The Mongolian barbecue, as any vegetarian unlucky enough to have been dragged to such a place by acquaintances knows, is nothing if not fleshy. Typically there is nothing to eat but spicy meat and bread.

Evidently, this cuisine is not typical of the food actually found in Mongolia. True Mongolian food is incredibly bland -- dumplings, soups, breads, stews and noodles. These are invariably made with mutton or, sometimes, beef.

Nonetheless, Melanie Wilson, a vegetarian who lives in the capital of Ulan Bator, says she eats really well. Wilson edits and publishes Vegetarian Baby and Child Magazine and the Web site vegetarianteen.com. Though in the provinces vegetarians might find their diets restricted to potatoes, cabbage, and white rice with ketchup, Wilson said, in the capital vegetarians have it good.

"Tofu is available in several forms -- regular blocks, fairly firm, and smoked, which is like nothing I've had before. The smoked tofu is like a thin roll and is very chewy. It's unbelievably delicious."

Fresh vegetables and fruits also are available in the capital, except during winter.

A few solutions

Here are some tips for vegetarian travelers while overseas:

Visit places that are more likely to have food that really is vegetarian (that is, no meat or fish in its bits and pieces, in broth, or in the cooking grease).

Alternatively, visit countries with populations bound by a religion that mandates meatless eating. For example, three Asian religions have such edicts: Hinduism, Taoism and Jainism. All are practiced in India. Buddhism, which is practiced in several Southeast Asian countries, does not ban meat-eating but many Buddhists voluntarily give it up.

For those globetrotting veggies who lack language skills, a set of Vegetarian Travel Cards is probably a sound investment. Each set has cards in 20 languages describing the various minutiae of the vegetarian diet. A diner smiles and hands the appropriate card to a waiter. You can buy the cards and other helpful doodads from vegetarian travel agency Green Earth Travel, at www.vegtravel.com. Another excellent resource is the International Vegetarian Union's Web site (www.ivu.org/phrases/easia.html), which has sections devoted to vegetarian phrases in various languages, including Mongolian, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai and Japanese. The novice's pronunciation of any of these languages is probably no more embarrassing than handing a card to a waiter.

-- Arin Greenwood lives in the Mariana Islands.

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