I get asked a lot about how to eat vegan when I go to a restaurant. More often than not I suspect that being intimidated and simply not knowing what to ask keeps people from trying to make their diet more vegan-friendly for themselves. There is a fair amount of helpful advice out there so I am going to break this up into a few posts.
Some places now will clearly mark on menus what is vegan and what is not. However, that is not as commonplace as this girl right here would dream. Be that as it may, you can generally find at least one or two things on nearly every menu that can be made vegan. Not all places necessarily have something, but a lot of them do.
*photo credit unknown but obviously someone awesome
Truth be told, the best way to eat vegan (besides going somewhere you already know is vegan-accessible) is simply to go to small, local businesses. This tends to up your chances significantly for not only vegan food but also fresh food. An added advantage to altering things on the menu is that you will often get something made-to-order, not something that has been cooked since the early hours of the day. You may have to pay a little more for it (not always) but I generally think that is worth it.
Keep in my mind this by no means covers all the things that can make your choice veg-friendly, but my goal here is to help you get a little closer to vegan. And likely healthy too (except the donuts) (well, they are cholesterol free… so, that’s something)
The very first thing I am going to say (because I know this is something people ask A LOT and why people are often nervous about speaking up) is about the server and not wanting to be a pain in the ass. Fair enough.
Here’s the deal: I have never had a server be rude to me about my dietary requests. In fact, it is my estimation that if a server has been rude to me about anything (I can’t really think of too many examples here) I have not been rude back. That’s because I worked in customer service for a very long time and have strict rules about always being the best customer I can be, regardless. If someone is being rude it’s likely they had someone be awful to them, and being a dick is just going to compound the problem. A simple smile and thank you can change the entire dynamic of a situation… including your dietary requests. Now, servers don’t always know and most will go and check with the chef for you, often coming back with definitive answers. If they can’t give you one, it’s your decision whether or not to go forward. The only time I would suggest not taking chances is if you have an undoubtable allergy. Servers, like anyone, generally want to do the best job they can. And simple rules apply here: Don’t. Be. A. Creep.
Now to the food!
We can start with something that seems like it’s an obvious vegan choice but actually often is not: SALADS!
Don’t be fooled by the idea of nothing but colorful veggies. Unless labeled, most salads in restaurants are not vegan. A lot of them are not even vegetarian. The first reason why is obvious: Many salads are topped with meat or cheese. Some are topped with eggs.
Other reasons include: Dressing having dairy in it, and croutons being made with butter and/or cheese.
It’s generally easy to ask for these things to be left off or substituted. A vinegar and oil dressing is almost always available and the croutons might have been made with oil. If they are made with margarine, that one is up to you. A lot of butter substitutes contain whey, which is a dairy derivative. You can’t always know if whey is in something and neither can a sever. The choice is your discretion.
-Salad from the magnificent salad bar at Q Cumbers-
Next up: ASIAN FOOD such as Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean
Eating in Asian places, it is my experience that you can usually easily find something to eat but here are things to be aware of:
There is a cultural difference that seafood and seafood derived ingredients are vegetarian. Being vegan means that this is not the same belief.
Sometimes vegetarian stir-fries are cooked with fish sauce or oyster sauce. They can usually be substituted with something animal-free. If that is not the case, as sometimes things are made in advance, I have had a dish made especially for me. A meat-free diet is not so uncommon in Asia that this is an unusual request.
Fried rice almost always has egg in it unless otherwise specified, and Korean street food style dishes tend to be topped wth fried eggs as well.
If you’re not familiar with a place, or it’s not marked, simply asking if the vegetarian dishes are cooked with fish sauce or oyster sauce will generally solve most of the problems. Stir-fries that are served with chicken or beef can be made veg by asking for tofu or mock duck instead.
Awesome places like Evergreen Chinese have a lot of fun meat subs that I love (Lemongrass mock beef, Pepper fried mock pork - YUM). They also serve Buddhist vegetarian dishes, and those are completely free of animal products.
-Buddhist Veggies and Three-Cup Tofu from Evergreen Chinese-
Thai curries can contain shrimp paste - another thing that is usually easily subbed with coconut milk.
Bubble tea can also be vegan but make sure to ask for a milk-free one.
Japanese food is a bit tougher at times. You would want things that don’t contain fish flakes (it is referred to as Bonito flakes), and you will want to ask if the miso soup is veggie, as the Dashi used to make it might not be animal-free. Tempura can be a good bet, but again just ask if the batter is vegan.
I LOVE potstickers, dumplings, spring rolls, pretty much anything I can eat with my hands like a little kid and dip in something. I would suggest that, unless it is clearly marked, asking if the item in question is veggie-only and if the dipping sauce is vegan. On occasion, peanut sauces and the like have had animal-derived sauce mixed into them. When this has happened it has been quite simple to get something else to replace it. It’s one of the great things about Asian food: all the fabulous sauces.
The potstickers, dumplings, etc… may have a mixture that contains pork or something such as that. It never hurts to check.
-Tofu Spring Rolls and Peanut Sauce from Jasmine Deli-
OK! This is a good amount of ground covered in this first post. I’ll be back soon going over ideas for ordering Indian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Italian and who knows what else because I love to eat out.