Eating Vegetarian in Ethnic Restaurants Part 1 – Overview

I’ve been a vegetarian for 22 years, and I’ve always enjoyed eating foods from around the world. America is a country of immigrants, and virtually every group that has come here has opened restaurants. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. In the 1970s the only ethnic foods we knew about were Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. (Side note: "ethnic" sounds silly. Everyone has an ethnicity right? Someone please clue me in to a more accurate term that means "not your run of the mill American food"). Now when I go back to visit Louisville I’m thrilled by the terrific Vietnamese and Middle Eastern restaurants. I’ve lived all over the country and wherever I go there has been a tremendous growth in the number, diversity, quality and authenticity of these restaurants.

I think a lot of vegetarians are skeptical about eating cuisines they aren’t familiar with because they aren’t sure whether there are safe options for them. That is a real shame because they can all be accessible and offer a variety of amazing flavors, often at ultra-reasonable prices. So I thought it would be useful to walk through some of these cuisines. I’ll point out places where animal products are likely to be hiding and which dishes are generally vegetarian. And I’ll mention some of the classic foods from each country that you should try if it is your first time.

First some caveats. I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian (which means I eat dairy products and eggs). So I don’t feel qualified to comment on what dishes are vegan.

Also, conditions may vary in different parts of the country. A taqueria in East LA serving mainly a neighborhood clientele is more likely to have the traditional lard in their refried beans than one in Berkeley! And of course the food may be dramatically different when you travel to other parts of the world, especially the home country of a given cuisine. American restaurants of a given culture tend to all serve the same core of dishes which in turn becomes our stereotyped expectation. Traveling, whether it is to Rome, the Yucatan, or Delhi will show you a much more nuanced and regionally specific repertoire, and you will have the pleasurable opportunity to re-examine your knowledge.

Also, there is a wide variation in what people who describe themselves as vegetarians will eat. Some won’t eat a french fry if it is possible that a piece of breaded fish was fried in the same oil, or would avoid a red dye not because of the health danger but because it might be made from cochineal. Other folks have more of a "don’t ask, don’t tell" approach to the whole issue. And for some it basically means nothing more than that they don’t eat beef. I tend towards the more serious end, but I do make an exception for rennet used to make cheese. In practice most rennet these days is made from a vegetarian microbial culture, but it is impractical to find out what is used in a particular cheese at a restaurant. I’d suggest that if this is truly upsetting to you, you probably have to go vegan.

In all cases, what I can tell you is only a guideline based on my experience. The very best thing to do is go and try to find someone who speaks English (or even better, bring a friend who is a native speaker), and ask lots of questions!

That’s it for the introduction, next time we’ll start with a look at Thai food.

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, July 26th, 2007 in Restaurants.

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