Feast in the East
Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia.
Maintaining a vegetarian diet while exploring the far flung countries of the East can be a challenging experience, both physically and mentally, as travel writer Jan Trewartha discovered.
Two weeks of fried rice and my guts had seized up. A real surprise in Indonesia where a bout of Asian 'Delhi Belly' is a must on every traveller's 'been there, done that' checklist. But roaming the Far East on a vegetarian diet seems to result in these odd side effects. Next time I'll pack the Ex-Lax. The world is shrinking and where we were once happy With an annual fortnight in Margate, the exotic now entices. The Far East is no longer so far: Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore are easily reached and even Indonesia, from beneath its third world cloak, beckons us to its most commercial island, Bali. But is it possible for vegetarians to travel there and keep their health and sanity? In such places where the treatment of animals excites the angst of animal welfare groups, what chance does the vegetarian have.
The good news is that in most of the touristy areas there is very little problem. Many travellers adopt a non-meat diet when in Asia, often for health reasons but occasionally out of disgust at the condition of the animals. The main cities and beauty spots, perhaps in response to that demand, offer quite good choice for vegetarians; both local and
western-style food. The setbacks, once off the beaten track are either the challenge of communication or the lack of alternatives to meat. Hence my fortnight of enforced fried rice consumption in the eastern islands of Indonesia; I was never so glad to see 'civilisation'. But that is a fair price to pay for the joy of deviating from the well-Reeboked track.
Persistence and tact are often needed in such uncommercial spots; if you want to eat well, it is no use being shy. In, for example, those Indonesian backwoods, the main problem is the lack of fresh vegetables to add to the
inevitable nasi goreng mie moreng (fried rice/noodles). Then dinner becomes a matter of sweet talking one's way into steamy kitchens to hunt down a stray tin of mushrooms or corn and then standing over the wok - smiling placatingly - to supervise the cooking. All without offending the chef. Much praise of the meal and plentiful 'thank yous' are then vital, especially if you hope to eat there again.
The attitude with which such fussiness is greeted varies from country to country, as does comprehension of the vegetarian ethic. Religion will often play a part; devout Buddhists and Hindus will understand and respect your
wishes. Most people, however, are fairly helpful. If you try to speak the language, and remember to smile, they will not let you go hungry.
Preparation before you leave England is useful. Get to grips with a phrasebook - not so easy in, say, Thai with its alien alphabet - or pop into the local restaurant and beg for help to translate and pronounce a few phrases. I followed the advice of a traveller who headed into China without phrase-book or map, simply "I am vegan" written on his arm in Chinese by helpful Buddhist monks. "I was constantly lost", he said, "and I couldn't wash my arm, but I ate like a king." I opted for a notebook instead of skin..and still took my phrasebooks.
Naturally, many travellers take a package tour and stick to the well charted areas. Then, notifying the tour operator and double checking with the hotel chef on arrival should ensure you a decent diet. Presuming that you will have to track down at least one meal a day from local sources, it is worth knowing a bit about the various countries.
Let's start with Hong Kong. Raw on my first trip outside Europe I expected the place to be much more British than it actually is. Hong Kong teems with Chinese. The streets are packed with people and merchandise. Food is for
sale on every corner. The Chinese seem to go by the precept "if it moves, eat it" and some of the snacks for sale are unrecognisable to Westerners. Bamboo-caged chickens are displayed alive to ensure freshness in the stifling heat; startled squawks followed by strangled silence are common punctuations to the eternal hubbub of the city. I saw young boys on a beach skewering baby crabs live and leaving them thus in rock pools until enough had been collected for dinner.
It is difficult to ignore the attitude here and the excuse that Hong Kong is overcrowded with too many mouths to feed to allow for a conscience towards animals is still hard to swallow.
But there is another aspect to this society: Buddhism. The religion has a healthy foothold here and the result is a fair number of vegetarian restaurants: main street for the ex-patriots and businessmen, back street hideaways for the general populace. Finding such an oasis once, a fellow traveller and I stepped in. The noise stopped immediately as all eyes focused on us through steam wafted over the rice pots. An anxious waitress almost ran to us, making 'shooing' motions. "No meat, no meat,n she cried. "Yes, vegetarian," we nodded, desperately using sign language to explain. At last she threw her hands heavenwards in amazement and the radiant approving smile she bestowed on us was copied by the diners. We were led to a large round table to eat with the locals - the best of compliments.
The alternatives to meat in Hong Kong are many. Tofu, gluten, seaweeds and taro root form the basis of delicious dishes. Limitless vegetables, silken fungi and a glut of exotic fruit make this country a good destination for vegetarians. The large ex-pat contingent has also led to everything from Weetabix to baked beans finding its way into the supermarkets. You will not starve.
In Thailand the recognition of vegetarian needs seems to be more as a concession to tourism than by religion although this is a strongly Buddhist country. I found one pure 'health' cafe in the capital, serving brown rice,
a rarity in Asia and nectar to displaced veggie. There are other vegetarian restaurants to be found but even in the ordinary eating houses there's no problem. Excessive commercialism ensures a wide variety of foods so whether
you want eggs on toast or coconut vegetable curry, it's available.
The main attractions of Thailand lie away from the city. Most people get out as soon as possible and head either for the many isolated islands or for the North to jungle trek. Many firms organising these treks through the bush to
visit the hill tribes, to ride elephants or to battle the rivers on rickety, wooden rafts will undertake to provide vegetarian food if pre-warned. On islands, even the least developed, there are invariably piles of luscious fruit, fresh salads and aromatic vegetable dishes to choose from. Thailand is a pleasant surprise for non-meat eaters, as far as diet is concerned at least. As in other parts of this continent, the constant sight of starving dogs and cats begging at tables can dull tastebuds.
Moving south, Malaysia has a large Chinese population, along with the native Malay people and a smaller number of Indians. It is the Indians and the vegetarian Chinese who are the life-savers here. The latter have perfected the art of simulating meat both soya and gluten substitutes. The result is convincingly meat-like but 100 per cent vegetarian. I found it almost too realistic to touch; after so many years of avoiding meat it was a strange experience to have a plate of 'pork' and 'crackling' in front of me. But it makes a pleasant change even if it is served with the inevitable rice. The whole concept seems to be aimed at Chinese who are non-meat eating by religion but who perhaps miss the taste; it had my omnivorous travel companion almost fooled
The Indian restaurants are a delight. They are either pure veggie or serve all kinds of food. The most original dinner is the 'banana leaf'. A section of real banana leaf serves as a plate on to which is casually dolloped rice, curry, dahl and spiced vegetables with a crowning popadom. Eating with the fingers is the local way, but you can order a fork.
Heading away from the mainstream in Malaysia, for example to the magnificent National Parks, does mean less choice of food. This is when you will be glad of any emergency rations in your luggage.
Singapore, just over the bridge from Malaysia, is another world. Where Malaysia is a riot of colour and variety, Singapore is sleeker and wealthier. Renowned for its quality hotels, flush with international restaurants and abounding with fruits and vegetables, Singapore poses little problem for non-meat eaters.
As in Malaysia, the Indian contingent provides superb eating places and, although it means hunting through the back streets of the atmospheric Indian Quarter, you will find many a vegetarian 'banana leaf' lurking there.
A hop and skip over the water from Singapore lies the archipelago of Indonesia; some 13,000 islands in all. Of these a dozen or so are commonly visited by Westerners. In Jakarta, the capital, Yogyakarta, site of the
Borobodur temple, Kuta Beach in Bali and other highly commercialised spots the vegetarian is more likely to die of delight than an empty stomach. Seas of guacamole, mountains of corn chips, deep fried tofu, tempeh 'burgers' and exotic fruit salads are everywhere. In Kuta, Mecca of the Australian package tourist, there is even a Mexican restaurant - what else?
Heading out of town in Indonesia, you take your chances and your emergency supplies. A few nuts and dried fruit go a long way. Occasionally you will be very lucky. Arriving in a tiny hamlet in the centre of Lombock Island, a
group of us waited for the next battered 'bambo' (mini-van) to take us on into the mountains. Food? Yes, a stone building, 12' by 8', with wooden table and upturned crates; two large, smoke blackened pots bubbling. I peered into the pots apprehensively, expecting God-knows-what. One contained rice - surprise! The other nursed a rich dark black bean soup. Such discoveries exorcise the ghost of fried rice.
Generally, such small food stalls offer the best of Asian food, no matter where you are. It is possible to find vegetable dishes being conjured up but usually the chef specialises in a traditional meat or fish dish and is
unwilling to alter his routine. But in Indonesia a 'gado gado' merchant will serve you this delicious combination of steamed bean sprouts, vegetables and spicy peanut sauce. In Thailand you may persuade a stir fry chef to do the
vegetables without meat - especially if you offer to pay as much as the complete dish. In Malaysia the 'Roti' cooks will make a spicy Indian flatbread with various fillings for just a few pence.
It has to be accepted that imposing limitations on our diet as we do, we all find ourselves sometime, somewhere without food. Travelling in these countries it make sense to carry spare food, and even vitamin supplements. Go prepared in other ways; take a guide book that lists the vegetarian possibilities - the Lonely Planet series is good in this respect. The Vegetarian Society's Travel Guide also covers food outlets and accommodation the world over.
Above all be patient. These people are usually gentle, unused to the rush of Western life. A display of impatience or frustration is a loss of face and bad manners. They might laugh at your attempt at the language, or be amazed
by your strange requests but they will try to help. And don't forget the smile!