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Culinary Wanderings #2: Traveling While Vegan

Welcome to the second edition of Culinary Wanderings!

To give me a way to share a bit about my culinary adventures, and to learn from all of yours, I’ll be writing a post on the last Tuesday of each month to share any new recipes, ingredients, or other discoveries I’ve made in the kitchen. I would love for you to join by sharing your favorite or most recent food-related post from the month. You’re welcome to focus on one recipe, one ingredient, one new kitchen gadget, one new cooking or meal-planning technique, or to write about your entire month in food as I’ll be doing. Anything food-related that you want to share is appropriate. It’s all up to you!

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Vegan graffiti spotted in Rome.

This month, I don’t have a single recipe to share because I haven’t tried any new recipes. We’ve been traveling in Italy for three weeks now, and were rather busy with the preparations in the week before that, so any cooking I have done has been quick and easy. I’m usually pretty easy to please while away from home, but being pregnant and nursing, I was a little nervous, as it really is important that I eat a balanced, nutrient rich diet right now. That was all for nothing, however. I have eaten, and eaten well.

The funny thing about vegan peeps is that, while many who love meat and dairy think of us as self-righteous, gluttons for punishment, or both, most of us really are passionate about food, and we love vegan food. Those vegans who feel like they’re missing out are, in my opinion, the same ones who break down over a particularly tasty looking bacon cheeseburger and decide that veganism never really was for them. They eventually find what works for them, and that’s cool, but most of us who are in it for the long haul don’t feel like we’re missing a thing. Meat and dairy don’t appeal to me, like at all.

I won’t lie, cake appeals to me, and sometimes I see a delicious looking cake that’s not vegan, but that usually just starts my wheels turning as I ask myself, how can I veganize that? I’ll also often say that food others are eating looks good, and what that really means is that I like the idea of the dish itself, and would totally make myself a vegan version. It definitely doesn’t mean, “I wish I could eat that.” As I often say, I can eat whatever I want. I just choose not to eat certain things.

I think the reason most vegans are so very passionate about food and about eating, is twofold. First, unless we live in some sort of vegan paradise,1 when we’re away from our own well-stocked vegan pantries, just about any well prepared meal or treat can be a delicacy. While your average person could decide they’d like a slice of cake and walk into any old supermarket or restaurant to pick one up, a dedicated vegan has to make their own, or know just the right place and hope to catch them in their operating hours. Otherwise, they’ll keep on craving. Because so many things are rare for us, they’re that much more exciting2

Soy gelato, which I walked 20 or so blocks out of my way for, and devoured in Rome. Definitely a delicacy. Especially the pistachio...

The second part has to do with creativity. Most of us have grown up in a culture where meat and dairy are central, and not only our knowledge of cooking, but also our gustatory memories come from within that culture. Learning to cook vegan food is new for most of us when we decide to “go” vegan. It requires creativity in finding just the right ingredients  to create the flavors and textures we want, and combining them in the perfect way. There’s no perfect one-to-one substitute for eggs, for example. When making food that traditionally contains egg, you have to think about what the egg does in the recipe: does it lend the dish it’s texture, make it rise, or act as a binder? A binding powder, like Ener-g Egg Replacer might do the trick, but you might be better off using some banana, applesauce, or tofu puree. In some cases, a combination of ingredients will be necessary to give you what you’re looking for. As with anything that inspires creativity and makes you think more than you typically would, vegan cooking can actually be really fun and interesting.

All that said, vegan foodie travel is rather different from, but at least as passionate as, your typical omnivore’s foodie travel. My first exciting find while in Italy was some amazing new-to-me protein sources that were available in a little health food store in the city where we spent most of our time. There was olive tofu and basil tofu, tofu cutlets, and then there were the most amazing tempeh burgers and even seitan “gyro meat”. I was thilled! These certainly weren’t Italian specialties, but for me they were rare finds and I’ll always associate these delicious discoveries with my wonderful memories of Italy. When in my excitement, I posted about my finds on facebook, a friend teased me by commenting with, “Exactly what I’d be eating if I were in Italy. They’re so famous for their tempeh burgers and tofu and….oh wait…nope!” I had to laugh, as it pointed out the huge difference between traveling, and traveling while vegan.

Another way to appreciate vegetables. Edible vegan sculpture on the streets of Rome!

While your run of the mill traveler will seek out all of the things a region is most famous for, we vegan travelers are excited to partake of the local delicacies that happen to be vegan, but we’re also on the lookout for anything new or hard to find and vegan. For us, there could be delicacies anywhere, even places that aren’t known for anything at all food-wise, and all of it broadens our horizons and inspires us for future culinary adventures. For me, meals in Italy definitely centered, quite appropriately, around pasta and bread. Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar featured heavily, and I partook of the bounty of vegetables that Italians cook so well, like eggplant, tomatoes, and radicchio. I even managed to track down soy gelato in Rome. It was excellent, but it was not all.

The vegan traveler’s best friend is a wonderful site called HappyCow, a place where people like me list all of the places in the world that one can find delicious vegan food: restaurants, grocery stores, and soy gelaterias alike. I never travel to a new city or country without checking HappyCow to see if there’s a new vegan spot I can check out while I’m there. It was thanks to their site that I not only scored that amazing soy gelato, but I also ate at a wonderful vegetarian ayurvedic cafe that managed to prepare Indian cuisine with a bit of an Italian flare. I found a cafe that had great vegan chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, and another where I had a soy capuccino and a tofu scramble for breakfast on my way to the train station. Can I eat those things in plenty of places besides Italy? Sure! (Well, aside from the gelato anyway. Have I mentioned the gelato?) But that’s not the point. The point is that I ate them while in Italy, and that they were delicious.

While I may not eat exclusively the local cuisine while traveling, I still enjoy a good culinary adventure. When I walk twenty blocks out of my way to try a new restaurant, it may not be one you’d put on your list, but I can almost guarantee it will be delicious all the same, and I definitely won’t feel like I’ve missed a thing!

What has your family eaten this month, or what have you discovered about food? Share your tips, recipes, photos, or whatever has inspired you in the kitchen!

  1. Like Seattle, Washington, home of Mighty-O Vegan Donuts
  2. Which is why I still haven’t stopped talking about the deadbeat who stole my bag of vegan marshmallows, even though he wasn’t vegan, 6 years ago! There’s no excuse!

12 Responses to Culinary Wanderings #2: Traveling While Vegan

  • Emily says:

    I’m with you! There is nothing I love more than finding the farmers markets while traveling as well as the local health food stores. It’s actually a wonderful way to get a real feel for the country you are in, allowing a peek into real life and not the touristy beaten path. In Greece many of the health food stores are stocked with German products so while here I’ve learned things like that millet (my absolute favorite whole grain) is called Kerxri in Greek, and is Hirse in German.

    Thank you for reminding me about Happy Cow, I haven’t used it in years but I will definitely add some of my sources I’ve found in various places for good healthy food!

    • melissa says:

      I’m glad you understand! You make such a good point, too – there’s so much more to how a culture really eats than what their reputation tells you. Checking farmers markets seems like a great way to really see food and culture intersect – I have never thought to go to one while traveling, but I’ll have to give it a try!

  • Amy says:

    Interesting ideas! I’m just a vegetarian- very easy compared to veganism, but I also loved tracking down vegetarian places when traveling (although many cultures primary foods are meatless). It’s super fun to try to find little places that might be off the beaten path. And, I’m jealous of gelato!

    • melissa says:

      I’m jealous of the people who can eat gelato regularly. I suppose it’s probably better that I can’t, though ;)

      There’s definitely something special about a vegetarian restaurant, even if there’s plenty of food you can eat elsewhere. I think it’s just nice to know, when your values surrounding food are so important to you, that they’re respected, perhaps even shared by the people who run a restaurant.

  • Rach says:

    Oh yes, you can buy that tofu here too. They also have a smoked version and a red pepper version. It is really delicious isn’t it, and just around the corner from me….ahhh. See, another reason to come to the UK ;-)
    Safe trip home.

    • melissa says:

      Oh, I’m jealous! Those other types sound amazing! I will definitely track them down if we do end up in the UK ;)

  • Sierra says:

    Hi Melissa! That is cool you guys got to visit Italy. Looks like it was a fun trip. Hey, in this post you said that you needed to eat well while on your trip because you are pregnant and nursing. I have heard that you can’t get pregnant while you are nursing. Have you ever heard that or do you know anything about it? I want to see more pictures with you in them!

    • melissa says:

      Hey, Sier! We had tons of fun in Italy, for sure.

      As for nursing/pregnacy, in theory, nursing does prevent women from ovulating and hence getting pregnant, but that’s typically just in the first 6 months or so when a baby is only on breastmilk, depending on the woman. Once babies are sleeping all night and giving the mother’s body that long break between nursing sessions, or are eating a lot of other foods, trusting nursing as birth control (called lactational amenhorrhoea, if you’re interested enough to want to read about it) is definitely iffy. For some women, and babies who love their milk, it can keep ovulation at bay longer. It all depends on the nursing relationship and the individual woman’s body. Personally, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to conceive until after Annabelle’s first birthday.

  • Sierra says:

    Ohhh, I see. Thanks for the info. Do you know where you guys are moving next and when?

    • melissa says:

      No idea where we’re moving next, unfortunately. Theoretically it will be either England, Wasington DC, Colorado Springs, or Tampa, FL but with as long as they’re waiting to notify us, I have a feeling it’s going to be totally different. Hopefully we find out soon, because the move is three months away! You’re staying put in SF for now?

  • Sierra says:

    I am, I am. Still truckin through school. Wow, those are all vary different places that you might be moving to. Three months away!? They better tell you soon! When is your baby due?

    • Melissa says:

      Good deal. I’m hoping I can actually see you in person one day in the not-too-distant future, so I’m glad to know we’ll likely be on the same continent before long anyway. A start.

      As for the move, I know! I’m really on the edge of my seat at the moment, and hoping they hurry up. Baby could come anytime from mid-July to early/mid August, so hopefully we have a chance to settle in before his or her arrival!

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