By far one of the questions I get asked the most is “you must really struggle eating out – what do you order at restaurants?” My answer of course is always a variant of “No, not at all. I can hardly think of a restaurant that has zero vegan options – I always find something to eat”. Funnily enough, my SO gets this question almost as much as I do. Friends and acquaintances are seemingly baffled to hear that we are able to eat out on a regular basis somewhere like Bahrain that isn’t exactly silly with vegan dining establishments.
As you may know already I am the master of inventive ordering after years of having to exercise creativity and caution when picking up any restaurant menu. It can be daunting for the newly vegan to fathom eating out when they’re unsure of what lies ahead, especially at a large outing where they have no control over restaurant choice (think birthdays and family gatherings). I am happy to report that over the years I have picked up a few key tips that make this ordeal far less intimidating and stressful than it needs to be.
1. Know your cuisines – anything Asian, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern is usually a safe bet.
Generally speaking, any Japanese, Chinese, Thai or Indian restaurant will have vegan options. Going a step further most South Indian restaurants are exclusively vegetarian which means a much wider variety of vegan fare. It should almost go without saying that any Arabic/Lebanese/Middle Eastern style restaurant is also super vegan friendly. Here is a quick run down of what I typically order when at a restaurant of the aforementioned cuisines.
- Japanese – vegetarian maki with raw vegetables and avocado (almost any restaurant that serves sushi will make this, even if it’s not on the menu), miso soup, edamame, tofu steak, seaweed salad
- Chinese – Vegetarian stir fry with tofu, vegetarian spring rolls, sweetcorn soup
- Thai – Vegetarian green curry with tofu (depending on availability), fresh rice paper spring rolls, pad thai without egg and with tofu
- Indian – Chana Masala,Veg curry Dal Tadka, Pappadoms with chutney, steamed rice or pilav
- Arabic/Middle Eastern – Fattoush, tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, lentil soup, foul mudammas, spinach saj (pastries)
2. Be conscious of hidden extras
When ordering vegan you can almost never just rely on what’s written in the menu, and yes as a result you may need to ask your server a few more questions than they’re used to, which is fine – that’s what they’re there for. Don’t assume that just because you’re ordering a dish that appears to be vegan on the menu that it might not show up with an extra serving of egg or cheese sprinkled on top – exercise your best judgement. For example when dining at an Indian restaurant I’m vigilant to say no ghee, no butter. When ordering pasta dishes, I ensure to stipulate no cheese as this can be customarily sprinkled on as garnish. When I order a soup I first and foremost inquire if it’s made using cream, and if not I make sure to say no additional cream on top, please (again usually a garnish).
3. Read the entire menu, back to front.
The reason I say this is you never know what vegan item might be lurking in a non-vegan dish. You might discover lentils served with a meat dish, avocado on a shrimp salad, quinoa with a chicken dish etc. Spotting these key items is crucial to franken-ordering and supplementing a seemingly lackluster dish like a green salad with tasty add-ons.
Story time: As a young girl I had a large affinity for books and reading, so much so that I was nicknamed Matilda by my cousins in Egypt who became accustomed to seeing a book permanently attached to me during our summer visits. I loved reading so much that I often read things cover to cover just for the hell of it – including menus at restaurants. My family would often make fun of me for doing so even after I’d decided on my order, but as it turns out this particular habit has paid off.
4. Call ahead.
This may seem laughably on-the-nose but it’s a tip that has saved me much anxiety time and time again, especially when dining at restaurants that are less than vegan-friendly (read: Italian or French). A quick call to the chef or restaurant manager to inquire about the veg options on the menu allows you to be fully prepared. Even better, do a quick google search and see if you can pull up their menu online to help you survey it in advance.
5. Don’t be difficult – go with the flow.
There will be times where you are unable to order any more than a green salad and some soup, and you know what that’s okay, especially if as previously mentioned, you’re dining at an unknown restaurant with a large group of people. My philosophy when put in such situations is that I’m joining my friends/family for their company and possibly to celebrate an occasion – it’s not always about me, and not every dish I order has to end up on Instagram. Penne Arabiatta isn’t my favourite dish by a long shot – but I’ll suck it up and have some quietly when need be. I’m also thankful that I was able to find a vegan option at all no matter how seemingly banal it may be.
Eating out as a vegan isn’t as difficult as most people think and this post is proof that you can still enjoy delicious plant-based meals even if you don’t live in a metropolitan vegan-haven type city a la NYC or London.
What are your experiences eating out as a vegetarian/vegan/person with special dietary needs?
What’s your go-t0 vegan meal to order out?