The first time I ever visited Thailand, I was more scared than excited. I had spent weeks stuffing ready-to-eat snacks and dry fruits in my small carry-on and mentally prepared myself to survive on plain rice and fruits on my week-long excursion. The chatter around me hadn’t helped either; there were stories of people being served the wrong food, or of gross miscommunications due to a language barrier. It was all quite nerve-racking.
But as it turns out, my worries were a tad bit exaggerated. Since that first time, I have been to Thailand once more and then to Vietnam and Singapore. I am happy to report that I starved nowhere and have also loved the local cuisine and tried many new dishes.
Yes, the cuisine is meat and fish heavy. And while trial and error can sound scary to us vegetarians, there are many ways to experiment with the cuisine without compromising on your diet. The best thing, right now, is the wave of vegetarianism and veganism that is taking over the world. Wherever you go, there will always be small cafes and restaurants that serve some vegetarian food.
Even then, there are ways to make local food vegetarian. Keep pictures (of the food you wish to eat) and Google Translate ready. In Thailand and Singapore, most shopkeepers and servers use a translator to make things easier on both ends. In countries like these, tofu is your best friend. Restaurants are often open to switch the meat element with tofu. So it is easy to get a Thai curry with tofu instead of chicken.
And there are plenty you can try. For instance, In Vietnam, ask for the papaya salad without the fish sauce, or go for the vegetable spring rolls. You can also try the steamed buns (Bánh Bao Chay) or the rice paper rolls with tofu (Goi Cuon without shrimp or meat). Pho Chay is the vegan version of a Pho and you can use condiments like garlic sauce and chillies to enhance the flavour.
In Thailand, sticky rice with mango was something I gorged on every day. The country does plenty of stir-fry vegetables and fried tofu and they are quite delicious.
When in Southeast Asia, I always eat plenty of fruits. There are fruit-based everything--smoothies, salads, desserts. It is always fresh and the variety is never-ending. Breakfast spreads are a god-send (and a personal favourite no matter where I am travelling to). Most properties give you the option to personalise, and a heavy breakfast makes the rest of the day easier.
A good rule of thumb is to specify clearly what you can’t eat. I always make sure to mention no fish sauce, oyster sauce, shrimp paste or meat broth. It is possible to eat Pho and Pad Thai without these ingredients. You can also pick a whole bunch of side dishes to have a complete meal. In Thailand, I ate a lot of veggies with my rice. Morning glory, in particular, is amazing. In Vietnam, vegetable broth, spring rolls, and tofu curry were my top pick. Sometimes, they even switched the meat with potatoes and other vegetables.
Lastly, while it may not be an appealing idea to eat Indian food when you are travelling outside the country, there is no shame in scoping out restaurants and eateries that provide comfort food. You can also try Buddhist restaurants that are hundred percent vegan. The new textures and flavours can be daunting and it is good to take a break. If nothing else, there is always pizza.