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A Little (Vegan) Taste of the World January 27, 2010

Eating out is one of the joys of life. No planning, shopping, cooking or cleaning required! And if you do it right, you can get amazing vegan food anywhere you go, just like I manage to do. A little thinking and investigating goes a long way when you want to dine heartily vegan style. Here are some of my secrets to making sure I eat well on the road like I always do.

* Plan your meal when you can. Look up menus online. See if there is a meal that is either already vegan or there is an entree that can be prepared vegan.

* Stay away from entrees altogether sometimes. Some of the best dishes in restaurants are actually the small dishes, the appetizers. Go for a few of these and make a meal of it. Appetizers tend to be lighter and smaller dishes that are often vegetable or mushroom based anyway.

* Do a search for vegan restaurants before you travel. Keep the list safe in your bag. Sites like happycow.net, supervegan.com, veganeatingout.com, vegguide.org, and friendsofanimals.org feature comprehensive vegan resources that you can use to plan your meals. I’ve been using these for many years when traveling around the country and abroad, and being prepared has enabled me to not only eat like a vegan queen in distant lands, but to travel off the beaten path to explore the less commercial points of cities, far away from any McDonalds or Pizza Huts.

When there’s no vegan restaurant in sight, you can still eat like royalty! My golden rule is, the more ethnic the restaurant, the better shot you have. As long as the staff speaks English or a language you do, that is. You don’t want to end up like I did, in downtown LA at 2 am in a Korean restaurant, where no one understood what I said. They kept coming back to my table with various animal products! Yuck! Well, that’s rare, so let’s break it down by ethnic food type and you’ll be sure to leave full.

* Italian. Ask if the pasta contains eggs. Fresh pasta usually does, so if you are fine dining, you might be more limited in options. If you can’t find vegan pasta, you can still make a dish out of vegetables, white beans, and bread with olive oil. You can also sneak in a little shaker of vegan parmesan if you need that sprinkle to enhance a pasta marinara or arrabiata. It’s not unheard of (to me, anyway!). Be sure to ask the server to prepare your food without any broth, and using only tomato, vegetables, mushrooms, beans, olive oil and optional wine as the base. You’re safe with salads without cheese or meat, or with sauteed spinach with garlic. I love to get the greens at Italian restaurants and some white beans on top. It’s a great way to boost the protein in your meal. You can’t be shy when you are ordering or you just won’t get what you want. Don’t worry about what the menu reads. Ask for EXACTLY what you want, how you want it. Make a point of saying that you CANNOT eat ANYTHING with ANY meat, chicken, broth, cheese, egg or fish in it. If you’re feeling especially frisky, give the waiter a list of ingredients you like and have the chef come up with something. This is really fun and I do it all the time. My list usually goes something like this: green olives, mushrooms, garlic, wine, tomatoes, broccoli, artichokes and spinach, spicy. I’ve had some amazing creations made for me this way! If you like pizza, you could go the route of a cheeseless veggie pizza sprinkled with your little shaker of cheese, but that doesn’t usually cut it for me.

* Indian. Another one of my all-time faves. There are many South Indian restaurants where you can get all vegetarian food, however, this isn’t really helpful when you want to eat vegan. So the vegetarian restaurants and those that serve meat are usually on the same footing for a vegan. You’ll have to ask for non-creamy dishes to be prepared without any cream or ghee (clarified butter). They will ALWAYS accommodate you. Now, I’m really lucky because I live near a South Indian restaurant that has buffets which are 95% vegan, as they cook with coconut oil rather than ghee, and only make about one creamy dish. ASK, ASK, ASK! Don’t ever take anything for granted! My favorite dish to have prepared especially for me is Saag Chana/Saag Chole, spinach with garbanzo beans, a very satisfying, iron and protein-packed dish. If you don’t like spicy food, ask for it extra mild, because without the dairy, it’ll be extra fiery. And ask them not to butter the bread too. Occasionally there will be milk in the Naan (oven-baked bread). You’re fine with any condiments as long as they don’t put yogurt in them. So with a few initial questions (hopefully it won’t come across to your server as interrogation!), you can eat at any Indian restaurant.

* Japanese & Chinese. If you don’t want MSG in your food, you better clear that up before you even sit down. Some places use it on everything, even in the miso soup. You can otherwise do fabulously in these kinds of Asian restaurants. So many of the dishes are vegetable and tofu based already. Just double check that there is no fish of any kind in the sauces. And mixed vegetable sushi is to die for. You can make a meal of just that! Tempura uses dairy and egg so stay away from that. You may once in a blue moon encounter a wild card like I did a long time ago, ending up with tofu wrapped in fish skin. Yikes, that’s something you want to catch before biting into it.

* Thai. Again, watch carefully for the fish sauce. Some places will list a dish that has fish sauce in it in their vegetarian menu (sigh). I have seen that many times. So make sure the chef will make you a dish special with no fish sauce. Say you’re allergic if you have to. Once you’ve cleared that up, you should be ok with green or red curry, pad thai with no egg or meat, made with tofu and vegetables and NO FISH SAUCE, or other noodle or vegetable dishes. You can even get lucky on a dessert once in a while, if they make something based on coconut cream with no dairy cream in it. And my favorite is to ask for Thai Iced Tea made with coconut milk rather than cream. You sure will get some strange looks, but it’ll be worth it, I promise.

* American. It cracks me up that our own country gives us vegans the hardest time. It’s rare that there is a vegan veggie burger on the menu unless you luck out with a vegan Boca burger like at Johnny Rockets. You could always eat a plain baked potato with ketchup and olive oil, salad and pickles on the side. Always ask for some type of protein, in the rare instance there are beans somewhere in the kitchen that are not cooked with meat. If you’re super desperate you could scan the kids’ menu for PB&J or pasta marinara (again, keep your vegan parmesan handy). If you like vegetables, you can ask to have a plate made, with portobellos if you’re lucky, and a good marinade, like olive oil, lemon and herbs, with NO BROTH. Definitely first scan the appetizers because you could get lucky with something like hummus on the menu that you could double to make an entree portion.

* Mexican. Ole, this is my favorite. So many burrito joints are popping up left and right. The key is to make sure that there is no lard in the beans or the tortillas, and no chicken broth in the rice. The chips are always fried in oil. Then you can load up with guac, veggies and salsa. If you’re bold, you can bring your own shredded vegan cheese and even ask the burrito roller to throw it in there. But if not, you can have a perfectly filling, protein-packed, well-rounded burrito without any cheese at all.

If you like extra-exotic, go for an African restaurant like Ethiopian, which has a huge number of vegan vegetable and legume dishes. Vegan heaven! And don’t even bother with French restaurants in the US, unless you just want to eat plain bread! I think this is funny because when I was in France, they prepared the best vegan pasta dishes for me, better than I got in Italy.

If you can’t find a restaurant that suits you, you can always eat straight from a health food store. Often they will heat up a frozen meal for you in their microwave. If you can’t even get to a health food store, they definitely use one of my main traveling tips: Always carry peanut butter, cashew butter, almond butter, sunflower butter, or soy nut butter with you at all times. This way, all you need to make a filling meal is some local bread and vegetables,fruits, etc. Nut/seed butters travel really well and will really fill you up with good proteins and fats if you’re in a jam!

Bon Voyage!!

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