This article was written by my friend Jyoti Mehta. It summaries many things that vegans and vegetarians needs to be aware of.
Eating out is a pleasure that is not denied to vegans. There are many sources you can turn to for ideas of vegan restaurants. However, when not organising the meal or when going out with non-vegans, it may be harder to go to a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Here are some rough tips on eating out, broken down by cuisine:
Chinese: Most Chinese people are lactose-intolerant, so the good news is that there is hardly any dairy used in their cuisine. There are also many Chinese restaurants run by Buddhists, which are entirely vegan and often so not even include onion and garlic. In conventional Chinese restaurants, be weary of noodles that often contain eggs. From experience, udon noodles are usually rice-based. When ordering rice be clear about ordering boiled rice only as their rice is often egg-fried by default. If ordering deep fried food, just check that it is not contaminated by being fried with non-vegan food.
Thai: Thai food also rarely uses dairy. The biggest thing to be weary about in Thai food is fish/shrimp paste, which is often the base of their curry pastes. Be clear that you do not want any fish or shrimp derivatives as they sometimes consider seafood to be suitable for vegetarians.
Mexican: True Mexican food would not include cheese, but the American version is often defined by copious amounts of cheese! You can ask for Mexican food without cheese. Mexican food might also be served with sour cream so you can request not to have that either. Guacamole (avocado dip) is traditionally made without dairy, though some people do add yoghurt or sour cream so ask the waiter for advice on this.
Italian: Italian food is often the least suitable for vegans. Traditional pasta is commonly made using egg, so go for the durum wheat pasta option instead. There is a lot of cheese involved in Western interpretations of Italian food, so you can always request food without the cheese. White pasta sauce is usually made from milk and butter so this is one to avoid. In Italy itself, there are naturally vegan pizza options in their cuisine which do not include cheese in the topping!
Bear in mind that not all pizza bases are suitable for vegans. Here is a breakdown of some of the main pizza chains:
Pizza Express – base and tomato sauce both vegan.
ASK – Normal bases and tomato sauce both vegan.
Dominos Pizza – will advise on which pizzas can be veganised.
Pizza Hut – Caution! Their bases contain dairy produce.
Papa John’s – Bases and tomato sauce are vegan.
Zizzi – Bases are vegan.
Middle Eastern: Although Middle Eastern cuisine often includes dairy produce, it is usually served on the side rather than cooked with it. For this reason, by asking for vegetarian food without the yoghurt on the side, you will find that much of the food becomes suitable for vegans. Hummous is traditionally made without dairy, although some people choose to add some yoghurt so seek advice on this before eating if you are concerned. Most of their food is cooked in oil rather than butter. If you are lucky, you might even stumble upon vegan-friendly Middle Eastern sweets, particulary those based on dried fruits. There are even some vegan-friendly Baklava, which is made without adding a honey glaze and using vegetable ghee instead of butter ghee.
African: Although a lot of African food will be meat-based, the vegetarian options will rarely include dairy (as most Africans are also lactose intolerant). Look out for Ethiopian fermented bread called ‘injera’ because that is usually vegan. You will find a lot of maize and bean products in African food. Be warned that in South African food there is often condensed milk which might not be easy to spot! North African food is sometimes similar to Middle Eastern, as far as vegans are concerned.
Indian: Indian food has a colourful history of vegetarian cuisine so you will find lots of inventive and nutritious vegetarian food with no difficulty whatsoever. Some things for vegans to watch out for:
Ghee – butter ghee is often used instead of oil in cooking. From experience, this is more true of richer and fancier food. It is expensive so the cheaper places where locals might eat usually use oil or alternatives such as ‘dalda’. There does seem to be a shift away from butter ghee, though
Punjabi cuisine still appears to be holding on to the ghee! When ordering chappatis these may come with ghee by default so specify that you want it unbuttered. Although South Indian ‘dhosas’ are most commonly made without dairy, there are some people who cook them with a few drops of ghee. Watch out for dishes such as Khichadi which may have a spoon of ghee stirred in at the end.
Bread – amazing as it may sound, bread in India often contains milk, and has also been known to contain eggs. Carefully read the ingredients of bread before buying.
Eggs – the good news is that Indian food which is labelled as ‘suitable for vegetarians’ in India means that it does not contain eggs. This is largely the case in Indian cuisine elsewhere as well. The ‘suitable for vegetarians’ sign in India is a green dot in a green square.
Hidden dairy – Indian food can sometimes disguise dairy fairly well, particularly Gujarati food. Food that may contain yogurt include: Dhokla, Ondavo, Vara, Khandavi, Kadhi, Idli, Chakri (the savoury snack).
Naan – naan is rarely suitable for vegans, often containing milk derivatives or even egg. Pitta bread is a much safer option.
European: European food often is also meat-heavy. Some things to consider:
Stock – stock is often added to a lot of European food, soups for an example. Ensure it is not chicken, fish or meat stock.
Frying – vegan and non-vegan food might be fried together. Particularly be careful with chips.
Glazes – food is sometimes given an egg or honey glaze. More true for baked goods.
Hidden produce – For no apparent reason, junk food like crisps often have added milk powder. Read the ingredients!