Guest Post by: Jen Murray, Artist, Traveler, Blogger
I’m a girl who loves to eat. I’m also a vegetarian who’s allergic to dairy and gluten. Yes, I’m that girl.
So when I decided to take a year off to travel through Hong Kong and China, I knew eating wasn’t going to be as easy for me as it was at home. But I was determined to keep it as fun! These days, it’s nearly effortless to accommodate for most, if not all, food allergies. Not to mention the growing popularity of delicious vegetarian cuisine out there. But heading to the other side of the World is a different story…in a different book, in a different language. After one successful month here, I can honestly say these few simple steps have helped keep me strong and hopeful every day!
Research, research, research. Before you arrive at your destination, put in some time searching the web for recommended vegetarian restaurants and health food stores that carry organic, gluten, dairy and other allergy-friendly foods. Having this information right off the bat will help you get your footing when you arrive, so you can feel confident instead of hopeless. It will also help ease your worries if your friends and family have kept saying things like, “Vegetarian in Hong Kong? Good luck!” or “Are you sure you’ll even be able to eat anything there?” Well I’m here to confirm the answer is yes!
If you’re traveling through Hong Kong, here are a couple of websites I highly recommend:
Happy Cow – The Healthy Eating Guide
A comprehensive guide to vegetarian restaurants and health food stores with menu descriptions and customer reviews.
Hong Kong Expats guide to Gluten-Free Food Stops
A huge directory of where to go for all your gluten-free needs. Here you will find recommendations for different grocery and specialty stores, including a summary of what specific items you will find in each one. They also list bakeries (yum!) and restaurants that can happily accommodate a gluten-free menu. If some shops are far from you, check their website to see if they deliver, it’s very common in Hong Kong!
While it’s crucial to be prepared with a list of places you know you will for sure find food, it’s also important to be a curious wanderer. Many of my favourite shops and restaurants were found by chance when I took the time to stroll new streets and see what else is out there.
If it wasn’t for my curiosity, I never would have found fresh-baked gluten free bread (in cat-shaped slices- double bonus!) at the Great Food Hall in Pacific Place. Or Organics Plus in Soho, where I’m convinced is the only place with organic almond milk and gluten-free oats in all of Hong Kong. I have found local Indian and Thai restaurants that do vegetarian right, even a breakfast shop with gluten-free pancakes!
Wander your neighbourhood and you’re bound to eventually stumble across a local market. You can find all the farm-fresh produce you desire. Most markets will even have a tofu vendor. This person will become your best friend! Tofu in all different shapes, sizes, firmness, even bean curd wraps. It always amazes me how much you can get at the market for how little you pay. Even the biggest of bounties will still usually be under $15 Canadian, and the quality far surpasses what you will find in the grocery stores.
So be curious and have fun with it. Know you always have your guides and directories to fall back on, but explore your neighbourhood, support local, and see what hidden gems are out there. Everything you desire is waiting to be found and when you do, it will make your day
If you’re traveling abroad, you probably don’t have a fully-equipped kitchen like you may have at home. Most vegetarians are used to doing their own cooking, and if you’re gluten-free like me, your own baking too. While you may not have the luxury of a stove or oven, you can still be creative in the kitchen. First thing I did was find an electric, single-burner convection stove top. They are reasonably priced, easy to find, and will allow you to cook a decent meal at home.
Look up “No Bake” recipes. My personal favourite is No Bake Granola Bars. They are so simple and tasty, and take a mere 10 minutes to prepare. I keep a batch in my fridge at all times. While it’s not impossible to find pre-made, gluten-free granola bars, it’s not cheap either, costing up to $10 for 4 bars. One batch of these will yield at least 20 squares and works out to be no more than 50 cents a piece. You can also have some fun tailoring exactly what goes into them. Here’s a link to the full recipe on my blog http://antojenhk.weebly.com/blog/jens-nerdy-food-moment
For an easy savoury snack you can keep in the fridge, try cold rolls. Lightly soak rice paper, fill with your favourite market veggies (carrot, cucumber, lettuce, etc.), and roll. Dip with some Hoisin sauce and enjoy!
Being pushed to think outside the box will keep you versatile and inspire you to create amazing new things in the kitchen. Valuable skills you can bring home with you too!
This is an important step! I truly believe treating yourself is good for the soul. If eating abroad is already harder than you thought it would be, make sure you reward yourself along the way. You may feel far away from home and all the go-to treats you’re used to, but if you’re creative enough, you can still find plenty of awesome options.
My favourites are baked goods and french fries. If you’re traveling in Asia, you know that intoxicating aroma that escapes every bakery. Brimming with fresh baked buns, tarts, and everything delicious, it lures you in every time. Being gluten-free, this was torture for me. Until I decided to practice my curiosity and step inside. Am I ever glad I did! I discovered that most bakeries carry a selection of coconut-dipped rice flour balls. They are filled with various flavours such as red bean, black sesame, or my personal favourite- peanut! Sure, they may be the only thing in there that you can eat, but my goodness are they delicious. So when a friend stops to get a tart, which will happen often, you will have something to enjoy too!
While I have yet to see an old-fashioned chip truck in Hong Kong, I did discover my Asian equivalent to french fries. Steamed rice rolls sprinkled with sesame seeds, served with hoisin and peanut sauce. Yum-my! They are a great snack and just as satisfying to me as a plate of french fries.
It may take some time adjusting to new food options, but if you keep a curious, creative and open mind, you will find exciting alternatives to your favourite comfort and feel-good foods.
This one is easy. Literally trust your gut. If you’ve ordered something at a restaurant or Dim Sum that was listed as vegetarian but you have a funny feeling about it, don’t eat it. Ask a friend to try it first or take a closer look before you take the first bite. This has happened to me countless times, and if I didn’t trust my gut reaction, I would have ended up with a mouth full of pork in my vegetarian rolls, or shrimp in my fried turnip squares. In Asia, their idea of a vegetarian dish sometimes means simply that it has vegetables in it, not that it doesn’t have meat in it. And if you’re opting for a noodle soup, be aware that most broths are made from beef, fish, chicken or a variation of all three. Some restaurants have a bean curd broth that isn’t listed on the menu, so make sure to ask before you order.
Some days will be tough. You may be missing all the food options you had at home, or feeling totally discouraged looking at menu after menu and still nothing you can eat. But stay confident! Don’t let food fears over shadow the once in a lifetime experience you will have traveling the World. Each day will get easier and don’t forget to celebrate all of the little victories and good-food finds you’ve already had along the way.
No one said traveling with specific dietary restrictions would be easy, but if you keep exploring and practicing all the steps above, you will realize it’s not as hard as you once thought. My recommendations may be Hong Kong specific, but I have no doubt that these steps will translate well to those traveling abroad in other countries as well. The most important message is to stay positive, keep food fun, be versatile, be awesome, and remember a World of great food is out there waiting for you…at a table, across from new friends, just waiting to be shared.
Enjoy the journey!
Jen Murray is the creator of Be Awesome. Be Awesome is about supporting the creative adventures of people doing what they love. Working with and contributing to the show-and-tell community so that others may feel confident to share their awesome, whatever it may be. Oh, and button parties of course!