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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Vegetarians are saving the world. Why aren't they better catered for when they travel it?

The travel media company Lonely Planet announced this week that vegetarian and vegan travel will be a major trend in 2018. It's not a moment too soon, says The National's travel editor

A vegetarian main course at Brown's Hotel in London. Brown's Hotel
A vegetarian main course at Brown's Hotel in London. Brown's Hotel

As an ex-vegetarian, I understand more than most how hit-and-miss life on the road can be. Too often, meat is the default option with vegetarian offerings being dull, overpriced and unhealthy.

Probably the most desperate days were in the 1980s, when my parents insisted on taking us on holiday to Paris, then one of the worst places in the world for vegetarians. We spent hours scouring the streets for overpriced, under-tasting macrobiotic restaurants and overdosed on baked goods. On one school trip I remember being served an entire plate of overcooked peppers. But probably my worst ever holiday as a vegetarian was to Argentina, accompanied by a steak-lusting Australian friend who constantly told me how much I was missing. Two weeks were spent eating overpriced salad, fries and pasta with tomato sauce.

Partly in the interests of research, I abandoned the habit of a lifetime a decade ago on a remote island in Cambodia, when I was faced with the choice of freshly barbecued barracuda or a bread roll. The following month, in Laos, I saw nothing wrong in sampling an organic, free-range chicken curry, and in Hong Kong, I fell in love with sushi. In China proper, the wheels really fell off, although the vegetarian dishes served in rural villages were the best I’ve ever had.

Though a lot has changed since those days, vegetarians, or better still, vegans, who are saving the world through their lifestyle choices, are still badly served, most notably in airports, service stations and on flights. This is pure laziness on the part of providers, as vegetarian food can be much better and cheaper than meat if effort and imagination is applied. Take the Emirates flight I took from Dubai to Seattle earlier this year. The route is so popular with Indian travellers that whole chunks of the menu are given over to Indian food, including a sensational-looking breakfast that was sadly, by the time they got to me, sold out.

But pre-booking a vegetarian meal can be a gamble. Too often, “vegetarian” is interpreted as “vegan”, or a strict vegetarian is bombarded with eggs. On an Emirates flight from Addis Ababa to Dubai this week, Veathika Jain, The National’s social media editor, said that while she was pleased to be given a tasty vegetable curry instead of the usual lentil salad, she was given “crackers but no cheese. Why would they do that?”

Jain also said she was sick of the paneer wrap being unavailable on FlyDubai flights and having to pay for pot noodles instead, adding that restaurants in Dubai were also charging far too much for vegetarian options. “A quinoa salad is Dh80,” she said. “I can make a kilo of it at home for that and it would be better. And then at brunches and iftars, I have to pay Dh500 but sometimes I can only have pasta and pizza.”

Surprisingly, eastern Europe has been leading the vanguard in terms of quality vegetarian restaurants. Prague, Belgrade and Tallin are all safe bets. And recently in London, I was impressed by the separate vegetarian menu offered at Brown’s hotel in Mayfair: a full vegetarian English breakfast, and fresh, appealing main course options for less than their meat rivals.

According to the travel media company Lonely Planet, “vegetarian and vegan travel” is going to be a top trend for 2018. Perhaps finally, the world’s fastest-growing food movement will finally take off.

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