OVER THE COURSE of the last ten months or so, I’ve been living the life of a digital nomad – traveling with a redhead and running a business or three out of a suitcase. This has necessitated something of a change in my eating habits, as recounted in these posts (part one, part two and part three). When you’re on the road, your diet is affected by where you are and what’s available, but as a perambulating vegan, I’ve tried hard to stick to the no meat, no dairy, no eggs lifestyle.
The language barrier is obviously a problem, and in many cases, we’ve had to just trust that what we were being told, or that what we thought we were being told was true. Then out of the blue, this comment appeared on the site in reply to my vegan travel in Bali post:
“Ash, sorry to spoil the party. What do you think they fry all the vegan food in? In most cases it is lard which is basically pig fat”.
This thought had occurred to me. I’d asked at a few places in Bali and Taipei but getting an answer when we couldn’t even properly convey the concept of “vegetarian” had proven to be tough. We were in the USA when the comment hit the site, so I didn’t really have to deal with it at that stage, but by mid January, we were strolling the streets of Bangkok, looking for vegan meals. Hello language barrier, we didn’t miss you at all.
Websites like Happy Cow aren’t great at pointing out local or street food that’s vegan, and we love eating the way the locals eat – it’s tastier and cheaper than the restaurants aimed at tourists. We could have Happy Cow’d our way through Bangkok all we liked but we’d have missed out on some amazing food.
Every time we ordered a meal, I tried to be quite clear as to what I wanted, and much of the time, I was pretty confident that I was being understood. If there was no way to be sure, then we moved on but sometimes, I just had an eerie feeling that something had been lost in translation. This feeling got a lot worse when we arrived in Bang Tao Beach, Phuket for our three month stay.
We’d get assured that the food was vegan but every time there was a slight glitch in communication, I felt uneasy. After a few weeks, I decided to make a big call and eat only at the few local restaurants that seemed to totally get what we wanted.
This caused a touch of friction because in a little village like Bang Tao, there wasn’t a horde of English speakers queuing up to cook us a vegan Pad Thai or to leave the crab, shrimp and fish sauce out of the papaya salad. Sarah felt that I was limiting our options in a big way, and that I was being a little too extreme. She’s a vegetarian who’s about 99 percent vegan thanks to hanging out with me.
She was right to an extent. When you pop into a restaurant in Seattle or Auckland, you’ve got zero guarantee that your vegan or vegetarian meal hasn’t been contaminated by some kind of meaty product. In many cases, you can be sure that it has – eat a vegetarian sushi meal and you’d better believe that they prepared your avo roll on the same surface and using the same implements that were used for the salmon and chicken rolls.
The only way to totally avoid this possibility is to only eat in vegan restaurants. Or to frequent vegetarian eateries if you aren’t averse to a bit of egg or dairy ending up in your meal. But there’s a hassle with that approach – your choices narrow very quickly. Back in the day, I dated a Jewish girl who would only eat at fully Kosher restaurants. At that point, there were four or five in Johannesburg as far as I recall, so we ate at the same places all the time, which was a source of frustration to me. And here I was doing the same thing to Sarah – we had only a few options:
1. Mr. Vegetarian (an actual vegetarian restaurant up in Chern Thaley about 10 minutes away by bike – not open at night)
2. Green Pad Thai (about five minutes away by bike and only open 25 percent of the time)
3. JaJa’s (just round the corner and also open erratically)
4. The beach papaya salad couple (about five minutes away and only there from 1PM to 5PM four days a week – no place to sit down)
5. Market papaya salad lady (about seven minutes away and only there Mondays and Thursdays from 2PM till about 8PM – no place to sit down)
I can eat the same food over and over until the cows come home and go back out again, so this didn’t bug me much. But Sarah likes a bit of variety. We weren’t totally reliant on these places because of course we cooked at home too, but when your home made meal costs the same or more than a meal out at a restaurant, or when you have family in town, then it’s nice to be able to pop out to more than two or three places to eat.
But it didn’t take long for us to slip into a new routine. Sarah still picked up the occasional pancake from one of the roadside vendors but generally, we bought food from the restaurants listed above and started to get creative at home.
My trusty rice cooker was being used every day – I was hitting the gym 20 times a month and riding my bike a lot (when everything you eat or buy, and most everywhere you go is either done by walking or pedaling, you’re pretty active). So I’d burn through a kilo of jasmine rice every second day. On top of this, we started making some amazing black bean patties to get extra protein, and I perfected a recipe for savory pancakes. With the addition of a kilo or so of vegan choc chips from Makro in Thalang, Sarah created no-bake choc-oat cookies, which were to die for. Let’s not mention my choc pancakes okay?
I also started eating a huge amount of fruit – more than I ever have before. The fruit in Thailand is amazing, the bananas all taste far better than anything I’ve eaten in NZ or the USA. The mangos are incredible, and once I discovered pomelo, I was lost.
It didn’t take long for the new regimen to become the norm. Now when we move around, we don’t eat out unless we’re quite sure that we’re being clearly understood. We’re in Chiang Mai now, and it’s much easier to get vegan food. There are so many Buddhist temples around, which translates into vegetarian restaurants and cooks who’re familiar with the concept of vegan eating. Now that we’ve learned to recognise the Thai symbols for “Jae” or vegetarian, we’re home free.
Hardening the line and trying to be less compromised about what I/we ate turned out to be easy. It certainly gave me more peace of mind – I’m not extreme enough to insist on eating only in vegan restaurants – that’d cramp our traveling style too much but I’ve found it rewarding to try make sure I’m not eating a plate of noodles that have been fried in anything but oil, or rice loaded with oyster sauce. That’s the least I can do. ASHLEY KRAMER