As you might have noticed if you follow us on Instagram, I’ve been travelling in Japan for three weeks. As many people asked me before I left how I was going to eat there and this is a question we have generally been asked several times, I spontaneously had the idea to write a blog post on the topic of plant-based travelling. Japanese cuisine is not typically plant-based. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time in Japan and didn’t worry a lot about food, even though almost everything I ate was Japanese. It turned out pretty much as I had expected.
In this article I’ll also share with you our experiences with eating in Portugal. Prospi and I go to Portugal every summer. The typical Portuguese cuisine is clearly characterized by meat and fish. Meanwhile, it’s no longer an obstacle for us to live according to our personal ideals and at the same time enjoy our holidays and the time with family and friends to the fullest.
So here are 7 key points that help me when travelling as a plant-based eater:
1. Inform yourself:
In new countries you’re often confronted with food you’ve never seen before. If you are like me, you absolutely want to try everything – as long as it is of plant origin. It’s not always clearly visible if it is an animal product or not. This means that you have to inform yourself what foods you’ll find before you start your journey. For example, I’ve learnt that soba noodles and udon noodles usually are plant-based. However, the noodles in ramen often contain eggs. Soy sauce is also plant-based. But miso soup is made with fish stock. There are different kinds of onigiri of which most are stuffed with fish. However, some are also made with umeboshi (fermented plums), with black sesame and adzuki beans or plain. In Portugal, there are some traditional types of breads that are purely plant-based such as broa de milho (cornbread). The vegetable soups you can find in almost every restaurant never contains cream or dairy products. Only very rarely, there is a piece of meat or sausage swimming in the soup. For frying, the Portuguese use olive oil, not butter. Pastries and other sweets contain a lot of eggs and cream, but in almost every restaurant you can order a huge variety of fresh fruits or fruit salad as a dessert. You can not only collect information about local dishes, but also about the offer of certain restaurants. If the restaurant has a website, you’ll often find the menu. This is how I found out that the vegetable curry of a specific Japanese curry restaurant is made with coconut milk and which are the dishes without animal products that I could order in Kyoto’s traditional soba restaurant Owariya.
Soba noodles with mushrooms, nori, radish, soy sauce and wasabi in restaurant Owariya.
Onigiri with umeboshi.
2. Appreciate side dishes, snacks and drinks
As I said, the most famous main dishes and desserts in Portugal and Japan contain animal products. But even in countries where meat and fish apparently dominate, there are usually a large number of plant-based treats. Since these are rarely promoted, they are not so well-known. With a focus on side dishes and snacks you will certainly find some. In Portugal, there are, for example, the best boiled potatoes. The olive oil is very high quality. And in any restaurant, you can order green salad with really tasty tomatoes and onions (called salada mista). Once in a while, I love to have some boiled potatoes with good olive oil, a yummy salad and a vegetable soup. It’s a simple but tasty, healthy and satisfying meal. If there is also some rice, black beans, fresh corn bread, boiled vegetables and olives – even better. In Japan the food is usually served in many small pots. In the center, there is often a meat or fish dish and as a side there are rice, noodles, miso soup, fermented vegetables, seaweed, mushrooms, tofu, soy sauce, etc. I was travelling with my brother, who eats animal products. So it was of course very easy. I could give him the few pots containing animal products and got some more plant-based sides from him. With these versatile Japanese side dishes, I was very happy. Unlike main dishes, snacks are often plant-based. In Portugal you can order olives and tremoços (lupines) in every bar. In Japan I was excited about onigiri, roasted black beans, chestnuts and other delicious culinary discoveries. Local fruits are also interesting to try. Whether alcoholic or not, I enjoy different kinds of drinks. In Portugal, the freshly squeezed orange juice is just fantastic. A glass of good port wine can make me so happy. In Japan, there is the best green tea and sake (rice wine) which I’m definitely a fan of.
There is not only port wine, but also sangria in Portugal.
And also the very best (and cheapest) tomatoes.
Peaches straight from the tree in an idyllic courtyard in Porto.
3. Don’t be overly strict:
This is not a must, but in my opinion it is very helpful. There are a lot of dishes that are principally plant-based, but have come into contact with animal products. For example, in Portugal, we often order our beloved vegetable soup or caldo verde (cabbage soup). Once in a while, there is a piece of chorizo in the soup as it is traditionally served like this. I take out the chorizo and still eat the soup. In Japan, I wasn’t sure with every sauce if there was not a bit of dashi (fish stock) in there. But if it didn’t taste of fish, I usually ate the sauces. Regarding miso soup, that contains dashi, I ate the soup add-ins like mushrooms, veggies or tofu, but not the liquid part.
4. Look for alternative restaurants:
Discovering the scene of vegan, vegetarian and often also organic restaurants abroad can be fun. I like being with like-minded people. That inspires me and brings me further in life. One reason why I love traveling, is the encounter with other people and their philosophies and ways of life. People who are trying to lead a good life, to serve the Earth. Often they have other motivations and world views, but move in the same direction as I do. This is why I can learn from them. Moreover, I find it encouraging to know that far from where I live, other people are reflecting and working towards greater harmony. A very large and brilliant platform to find vegan and vegetarian restaurants is Happy Cow. Also with the help of Google one often finds such restaurants and other useful tips. And Youtube videos can be very helpful. In Japan, I made sure that I visited the vegan restaurants that offer local cuisine. For example, the traditional temple food is purely plant-based. In Tokyo I highly recommended the restaurant Brown Rice. Unfortunately, I have no photo from the food because my camera didn’t work on that day. In Kyoto the Biotei was a highlight. In Porto, you should visit Cultura dos Sabores. And in Lisbon Jardim dos Sentidos is really delicious and cozy.
Delicious and authentic food in Japan’s vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Now and then the plant-based dishes in a “normal” restaurant, now and then a mix of side dishes and occasionally restaurants with explicitly vegan offers is already a good diversity. Still, I recommend, if possible in your accommodation, to cook yourself sometimes. I love to browse for local products in markets and supermarkets and cook something out of it. Mostly, there are totally interesting vegetables in other countries. In Japan, I liked to buy noodles, pickled marinated legumes, special mushrooms, roasted nuts, traditional sauces and vegetables like mini eggplants and more to prepare a delicious meal with little effort. In Portugal, we love shopping for all the quality products, especially from organic farmer’s markets or health food stores, and then cook a dinner that we enjoy on the beach watching the sunset or on an intimate terrace with a glass of wine and good conversations.
This is how I cooked in Okinawa. There were always soba noodles or brown rice in the center of the meal. I added local veggies, mushrooms, seaweeds and sauces.
And here you see a little picnic in Portugal at the beach. Among others, we had a black-eye peas salad and green tomatoes.
6. Explain friendly and in advance:
This particularly applies to invitations. You are not always on your own, but it also happens that an indigenous person invites you for a meal. My experience is that it is worth explaining a few days (if possible) in advance that I don’t eat dairy products/meat/fish/eggs. I always say that the person doesn’t have to cook something totally special for and get stress about it, as I would be absolutely satisfied with a bit of salad and rice or potatoes. Of course, you should always explain it in a friendly tone without thinking you’re better than the other person. Why you eat like this should not become an issue, unless you’re explicitly asked. It has happened to me that the hostess decided to cook completely plant-based and was very happy to be able to try something new. At family gatherings in restaurants in Portugal, I express my desire often in the same way. I say what I do not eat and ask if they have something for me. The last time, Prospi and I got some rice with a delicious bean and vegetable stew. I was surprised that the waiter immediately said that it was extremely easy and had the idea with the stew. It’s definitely always worth to ask!
Fresh local fruits can always be served by your host.
7. Worst case snacks:
It is good to always carry some snacks with you, just to be sure. If in any occasion there’s really nothing plant-based, you’ll be glad. I like to have nuts, dried fruits, bars and crackers in my bag. This are foods that can be kept for very long without refrigerating. Most of the times, I don’t need these snacks and can easily bring them back home or eat them on the way home.
Oh and one more thing: If somebody makes a stupid joke, just laugh with him or her and stand above it – as always. 😉
I hope these tips were helpful for you. This is the way that works very well for me. I’m sure you’re going to find your way to absolutely enjoy travelling without worrying too much about food!
Whether you are on a plant-based diet or not, do you have other tips and ideas? Which are your experiences? Write a comment below. I’m looking forward to read it!!
Of course, I also answer your further questions on this topic with pleasure.