It was National Vegetarian Week recently, which got me thinking about some of the terrible vegetarian meals I’ve had while travelling – from a couple of sad veggies minus the meat (plain boiled beans and potatoes – yum yum), to pizzas so laden with cheap and nasty cheese that they formed their own oil slick, to ‘vegetarian’ soups that were definitely based on a meat stock.
If you’re a vegetarian, I suspect my experiences ring a bell. What might surprise you, though, is the solution I’ve found. Those dire dishes, instead of putting me off eating abroad, have actually spurred me on to becoming more adventurous with food when I travel.
That’s because I’ve discovered that there’s a lot to be gained from ditching the usual suspects – like boring old pasta napolitana in Italy or potato tortilla in Spain – and seeking out the tastiest traditional meatless dishes from my destination. I do just a little research before I go, and make sure I’m equipped with a good phrase book so I can order the local specialities with confidence.
Now, instead of inspiring pity among my travel companions, my meals earn their envy. Here are three of my favourites:
Soupe au pistou in Nice –
This is the first dish featured in the great Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food, and it truly deserves pride of place. David, one of England’s best-loved food writers, points out that while soupe au pistou is Genoese in origin, it has become “naturalized in Nice”. The soup is traditionally stockless (making it a safe bet for vegetarians) and packed with fresh vegetables, beans and pasta (a bit like minestrone). It’s a balanced meal and also mouth-wateringly good, being topped with a fragrant pesto-like blend of basil and olive oil. Have it served without cheese (it’s optional, anyway) and it will be vegan, too.
Gnocchi alla romana in Rome –
Vegetarians in Italy sometimes find themselves getting confused looks from the waiter when they order sparingly at lunch, which is the most lavish meal of the day for locals. Just explain that you’ll be ordering only a primo piatto (first course) and not a secondo piatto (second course). In Italy, meat and fish is the focus of the second course, while all sorts of vegetarian delights come as a primo piatto. That includes the Roman speciality gnocchi alla romana, an oven-baked treat that you’ll love if you’re yearning for homely comfort foods like mac and cheese. It’s made from semolina, rather than the potatoes you’ll find in boiled gnocchi, and enriched with lashings of parmesan cheese, butter, eggs and milk. Pair it with some vegetables from among the contorni (side dishes) and you’ll not only feel more virtuous but you’ll keep your waiter sweet, too.
Gazpacho in Málaga –
Another good choice for vegans, this Andalusian peasant dish sits somewhere between a salad and a soup. Gazpacho – a tasty mix of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, bread, garlic and olive oil – may be liquidised, but it’s also served refreshingly cold and topped with crunchy garnishes. And in Málaga, where you can be sure that the tomatoes used will be beautifully sun-kissed ones, the flavour of gazpacho is pure summer, just like a crisp salad. You can actually get gazpacho all over southern Spain and in Portugal, too (where it’s called gaspacho). Vegetarians should check that no ham’s been added (this is more likely to happen in Cordoba than in Málaga).
Which are some of the best vegetarian or vegan meals you’ve had abroad? Share you favourites in the comments below.