As part of Try Vegan Week this year I volunteered to mentor someone who was new to being vegan. I’ve been vegan for a few years now and hoped that maybe I could offer some insight to another person. One of the questions my mentee has asked me was what to do when you have to dine out.
This is really a great question and one that I think all vegans face. It is not always possible to make all your meals yourself and there are lots of occasions when dining out is part of a social activities. So how do you stick with a commitment to compassionate eating when you’re not in control of the kitchen?
I’m really fortunate in a couple of ways when it comes to addressing this question. I’ve always been a more adventurous eater, meaning that I’m more than willing to try new cuisines. I also live in Portland, Oregon, where opportunities for vegan food abound.
The big thing – know your cuisines! There are all kinds of cuisines that feature dishes that are vegan or can easily be made vegan. Dining out at various ethnic restaurants gives you the chance to explore the varied vegan dishes that many cultures enjoy as part of daily life. Some of my favorites:
African – There are truly amazing lentil, split pea, and stewed veggie dishes that are almost always vegan to be found in Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants. Usually served with injera, an amazing fermented crepe-like bread that uses teff flour and is most usually vegan. There are some Moroccan dishes the feature chickpeas and can easily be made vegan. I dined at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday where they carefully cut the buttered top off of some bread so that I could enjoy it.
SE Asian – I adore both Thai and Vietnamese dishes. I love all the crisp veggies and rich flavors of Thai cuisine. In Vietnamese dishes I am a huge fan of the many dishes that feature fresh herbs and veggies! Always check about fish sauce being used, many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants may still use fish sauce even in dishes listed as “vegetarian”. Several Thai dishes are often served with egg on top, but restaurants are usually quite happy to leave it off.
Middle Eastern/Mediterranean – This is a huge category that covers Lebanese, Greek, Persian, and Israeli dishes (and more). Pick from falafel sandwiches, hummus, baba ganoush, mjadarra, stuffed grape leaves, spinach pies, lentil soups, bread with zaatar, and many more tasty items. Each region has a different interpretation on these classic dishes and it is fun to explore the subtle differences between the falafel made at the place run by a Lebanese family versus those made by the restaurant with the Syrian chef versus those at a little place operated by an Israeli family. Check to make sure that dairy isn’t used since it is a common ingredient as well.
Central/South American – Nearly all of the restaurants I’ve been to featuring Central and South American (e.g., Mexican, Brazilian, Peruvian, Salvadorean, etc.) dishes are happy to make up a special order that leaves off the dairy products. Check to make sure the beans aren’t made with lard, which is common, but otherwise a big plate of beans, tortillas (or perhaps potatoes, quinoa, or plantains – depending upon some major differences in various cultures) and some veggies makes for a great meal. Every once in a while I’m lucky enough to catch a lady near our neighborhood who sells homemade tamales, including spicy vegan ones (shredded broccoli & jalapeno – yum), out of a rolling cooler. I say lucky because they have been the best tamales I’ve ever had anywhere!
Caribbean – There are some great dishes that prominently feature beans, rice and lots of great flavor. Cuban restaurants may have some great selections easily made vegan. I’m also grouping Ital restaurants here, which feature cuisine important to many Rastafari. Ital dishes are most often entirely vegan and are delicious!
Indian – Oh how I adore Indian food! From Punjabi (Northern India) specialties like aloo gobi (cauliflower with potatoes – the dish that made me love cooked cauliflower again) to Southern Indian favorites like masala dosa (a vegan crepe stuffed with spiced potatoes). Vegetarian cooking is a huge part of Indian cuisine and many dishes are vegan already. Some dishes merely need to have yogurt dressings or ghee (clarified butter) left off. If a dish is listed as a “korma” it usually has a yogurt or cream base. Dishes that feature paneer, an Indian style cheese, are also not vegan. Naan, a lovely flat bread, is sometimes made with yogurt, sometimes vegan, so be sure to check. Sadly, most Indian sweets use milk but once in a while you can find vegan ones. Vegans aren’t unheard of in India, they are often considered to be practicing a very devout diet, and I’ve always found that Indian restaurants are more than happy to modify or suggest vegan dishes.
What if you don’t have one of these obvious choices? What if you’re stuck at a team meeting being held at a steakhouse in Denver (true story)? Grab your server, even if you have to get up from the table and corner them, and ask for them to come up with something. Some chefs will take this as an unexpected and welcome challenge; you’ll end up pleasantly surprised. Some chefs will resent it and you might end up with a lackluster plate of grilled veggies. You might end up having a lot of salads. Bring snacks, like raw walnuts, when you are faced with situations like this so you can supplement that big salad with some more protein.
Yes, sometimes this is irritating and frustrating. Remember, you’re choosing compassion for yourself, other sentient beings, and the planet. Those things are all bigger than being irritated at having another salad or uninspired hummus plate.