As a pescatarian (someone who eats no meat other than fish), I was counting on losing a lot of weight while living in Scotland for a year. Haggis isn’t exactly a vegetarian-friendly dish. But when my friends and family welcome me home next week, they won’t be greeting the frail figure they might expect I have become after a year of exclusively eating side dishes. In fact, if anything, I’ve become a little plumper thanks to my favorite vegan meal in Europe, beer.
But it’s not just the booze that has given my belly a little more jiggle than it used to have. Over the course of my travels through 14 different countries this year, I learned the best and the worst of vegetarian eating, and since I’m writing for Berkeley, the capital of organic, vegan, gluten-free, grass-fed, local, seasonal, etc. food, I want to share what I’ve learned.
The British Isles
You’ll find that in this part of the world the vegetarian option is often some variation of cheese and mayonnaise, occasionally with some onion or tomato mixed in. People who buy into the advertisement that the “Heinz Baked Beanz” can is one of your five a day aren’t exactly experts when it comes to integrating veggies into their cuisine. Eating vegetarian in the U.K. and Ireland isn’t ideal for a particularly health-conscious vegetarian, but it’s do-able, and it’s actually getting better. Grocery stores like Tesco have really bomb hummus and a reasonable selection of soy meats and tofu. For eating out one of the best sources of vegetarian food is the large number of curry restaurants and kebab shops, especially if falafel is more your thing. But if you really came to the U.K. and Ireland to experience the local cuisine, well first of all, you’re delusional, and second, there are options other than resorting to ethnic food. The ever-accommodating Scottish people have created a vegetarian version of haggis, and you can even eat a vegetarian version of the traditional full Scottish breakfast. After a year of living in Edinburgh, I personally have some specific recommendations: to experience a delicious and quite filling veggie breakfast, go to the City Cafe in Old Town, and for some of the best salads and gourmet hot veggie dishes go to Henderson’s vegetarian restaurant in New Town.
Germany and Austria
When I arrived in Austria, my hosts, a couple friends from high school, insisted that they take me straight to the oldest Wiener Wurstl stand in Vienna. You can imagine their reaction when I declined their gracious hospitality to get a falafel sandwich at a kebab place. But quite frankly, the immigrant population is again your best option. Particularly since Germany and Austria have a larger Turkish population than most other places in Europe, you can get some really great falafel. In Vienna I recommend checking out some of the delis and kebab stands in Naschmarkt, and in Berlin the best meal I had was called turkische pizza mit salat — try it. And of course there’s always beer!
Remember the scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the main character tells her family that her fiance is a vegetarian and they respond “Okay, we’ll make him lamb”? That actually happened to me. Well I didn’t get engaged to a Greek woman who’s family had some misconceptions about what vegetarians eat, but this was an actual conversation I had with a hostess at a restaurant as she explained the menu:
Me: I don’t eat meat.
Hostess: Okay, well we have salad, and eggplant salad, and olives, and moussaka.
Me: What’s moussaka?
Hostess: Well it has eggplant, and minced meat, and …
Me: Right, I don’t eat meat.
Hostess: But it’s minced …
You get the idea. Greece was probably one of the more difficult places to go without meat, but you can get by with generous and delicious helpings of feta cheese and Spanakopita (spinach filo pastrý).
Might be tricky if you’re a vegan, but this is where I gained most of the extra weight this year. I averaged eating gelato twice a day, and the pasta is a bit expensive, but for five euros (less in Naples where the pizza is by far the best you will get anywhere other than Cheeseboard) you can get an entire Margherita pizza to yourself.
Ever since I first visited Brussels when I was 14, I have felt that Belgium doesn’t get anywhere near the kind of hype it should. But to be fair my feelings are probably strongly influenced by the fact that the foods it is known for are indulgent, vegetarian, and just delicious. If I had stayed for longer than a day when I revisited Brussels this year, I would seriously be at risk for some weight-related diseases. The waffles truly are the best in the world and they are sold in stands with toppings like chocolate, ice cream, and fruit. French fries are actually not French but a Belgian invention and delicious. To top off all these quite healthy snacks, drink some Belgian beer, in my opinion the best in the world.
These are just a few of the most memorable of my veggie adventures throughout Europe; you’ll have to explore the other countries for yourself. Happy traveling vegheads!
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