It’s now been a week since I arrived in Ecuador. Though I’m still dipping my toes into the culture here (culinary and otherwise), I can already tell that life as a vegan or vegetarian here is tough. Or, at least, it can be.
On the surface, it shouldn’t be that hard. I mean, we’re in a country that produces massive amounts of fresh and high-quality plant foods, and a society that consumes plenty of potatoes, rice, and sugar. Should be a dream for those of us who get our kicks on a high-carb, plant-based diet. And the truth is that it can be that simple.
However, if you’re looking to truly indulge in the standard Ecuadorian fare, a few problems can arise.
In Ecuador, mealtimes vary a little from what us “gringos” typically practice. Breakfast is easy enough, as you’ll easily find fresh fruit stands selling fruit salads (just beware their tendancy to douse it in yogurt) and fresh juice (try some jugo de mora) or ladies wandering around wth 1-lb bags of strawberries for 1 USD.
Lunch is typically a set meal (almuerzos), consisting of a soup starter, and then some form of meat, rice, and veg as the main course. Generally, you can’t trust any of this as a vegan, as the soup normally contains some sort of animal-protein broth or cheese. This is a sad fact, because these set meals often come with fresh juice included, all for around 2-3 USD.
In Ecuador, lunch is the largest meal of the day. Your evening meal is usually some kind of snack, like an empanada or humita, with a coffee or hot chocolate. Of course, the empanadas are filled with cheese or chicken, and the humitas are made with butter and probably cheese as well.
So, what is there for a vegan or vegetarian to subsist on?
If you’re a vegetarian that consumes eggs and/or cheese, things might not be so bad. You probably won’t be able to take advantage of cheap almuerzos, but you will be able to enjoy things like tortillas de verde con huevos (plantains mashed with spices and fried, served with fried eggs) for breakfast, locro de papa (potato soup with cheese and avocado) for lunch, and empanadas de queso (cheese empanadas) for your evening snack. Of course, there are also plenty of bakeries selling bread, croissants, pastries, along with fruit stands and street vendors here and there selling french fries.
If you’re a vegan, well, admittedly I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Prepare to indulge in plenty of high-quality fruits (which takes some getting used to but actually can be a lovely way to live), and eat roasted corn and plantains whenever you can find them. Rice and potatoes are readily available, but you’ll have to specify adamantly that you want them “sin carne.”
Luckily, if you’re on the gringo trail or just in a larger city, there are vegetarian restaurants. Just today, in Latacunga, Tim and I happened across one such establishment serving soy burgers and vegetarian almuerzos.
(Forgive the terrible photo! I’d left my camera behind and was forced to use my iPhone 4 to take the photo—scratched up lens and all.)
This lunch started with a soup of potatoes and quinoa, along with some mixed veg. The meal itself is as seen above: rice, red cabbage and tomato salad, legumes, some kind of fritter, and a potato + soy meat stew. With a soy burger, make sure to ask for it “sin mayonesa” (without mayo, which is also a helpful phrase when you’re asking for fries from a street vendor).
It may be tough to keep to a plant-based diet in countries where the idea simply isn’t understood, but it is definitely possible. You may be forced to get creative, to cook for yourself in your hostel, or to rely on pretty repetitive meals. Luckily, you can take solace in the knowledge that you are helping to create a demand for plant-based meals and spreading the idea of vegetarianism and veganism around the world as you travel. So, maybe someday, someone else might have it a little easier.
What are your tips for dealing with dietary restrictions in different countries?
(I’d greatly appreciate any that are particularly relevant—still somewhat struggling here!)