I often make the mistake of not specifying a vegetarian meal when booking flights. There was one time when I meekly asked a flight stewardess on a plane bound for Hong Kong for a vegetarian alternative to the usual “Beef or Chicken?” options. She said they had nothing, so all I was given were I think crackers and a drink.
It was by a lucky coincidence that the woman sitting right next to me was actually a Filipina stewardess on vacation who worked for the same airline, and she told me that there are always vegetarian choices on board! She then kindly proceeded to ask the cabin crew to give me something, so I happily got a selection of fresh fruits (it was my first time to taste non-preserved plums that day, oh yeah!). Bless that woman!
I have since then become more assertive about my food requirements as a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (I still eat eggs and dairy products, but no, I don’t eat even fish or seafood). I now will usually insist on getting the meat-free version of a dish in a restaurant (“Waiter, can you please replace the wonton toppings with more vegetables?). But any vegetarian or vegan laments the fact that lack of vegetarian options anywhere we go is still the greatest challenge that we face.
Vegans have it much worse, as they don’t eat even eggs or dairy. A big reason why I haven’t yet made the successful transition to veganism is the difficulty in finding 100% animal-free food. Heck, even the ubiquitous Magic Sarap food flavouring lists chicken fat as one of the ingredients. Food with animal traces in them is just almost unavoidable.
So what does a vegetarian like me eat when we go out? Here’s a list of my most commonly ordered food items in non-vegetarian restaurants.
1. Vegetable Staples
Surprise! The Number 1 on the list of vegetarian food are vegetables! Kidding aside, finding a restaurant with even a single vegetable dish can often prove to be a challenge. Dear restaurant owners: beef & broccoli, beef ampalaya, spinach lechon kawali, or eggplant stuffed with pork, are not vegetarian dishes. *Sigh*
So I end up ordering pinakbet (vegetable stew) or lumpiang gulay (spring rolls) to eat with my rice, but both dishes often still have bits of meat in them. All I can do is meticulously remove those bits before I eat my lunch. My mom refers to the process as panghihinguto, an allusion to its similarity to picking kuto (lice) from someone’s head (eww).
Unlike what many non-vegetarians think, I don’t eat green salad as a main dish. Vegetarians are stereotyped as salad-munchers, but the fact is, I rarely eat fresh salad. But thank you for placing that on the menu as an afterthought, and please hold the bacon bits.
2. Noodles (including Pasta)
Oh yes, whether it’s stir-fried or in soup, noodles are often my go-to order, because there just usually is no other choice. As mentioned, many restaurants here in the Philippines will have no vegetable dish on the menu, but few will not have at least one noodle item on offer. However, it often has some meat or seafood bits mixed in it (think pancit canton or wonton noodle soup), so if I can’t order it meat-free, I just practice panghihinguto before I eat it.
Meat-free pasta is hard to find, but Sbarro’s saves the day with their baked ziti, which can be topped with a choice of meat-free tomato or Alfredo sauces. I count myself lucky when marinara, pesto, or aglio e olio pasta are on offer in Italian-themed restaurants, but usually they are not.
3. Vegetarian or Cheese Pizza
Meat-free pizzas can be usually had from any self-respecting pizza place. Papa John’s is a winner, and I am in love with their garden special pizza. I hope they open up a branch here in Cavite province (please make it Dasma or Gen. Trias, please…).
We need more Subway branches in this country! I don’t particularly like fresh salad, but I love salad sandwiches. Luckily, there’s this sandwich place that recently opened in Dasma, the one with the hexagonal bread, what’s it called again? Please comment below if you know what I’m talking about. In any case, they have a tofu steak sandwich, which weirdly enough was probably the very first of its kind that I have ever eaten. I enjoyed it, although I think the tofu slice was just a tad too thick. I just have not had many chances when it comes to trying out new restaurants, and I am probably missing out on all the nice sandwich places out there.
Which brings me to the next food item…
God bless the person who invented tofu, as this is practically the only accessible meat analogue (although strictly speaking, it’s not really an imitation of any kind of meat) here in the country. This is the reason why, given a choice of fast food restaurants, I always go to Chowking, because they have plain tofu on the menu.
Tokyo Tokyo in SM City Dasmariñas has always been nice for always accommodating my special request of replacing the sauce on their tofu steak donburi with a meat-free version. Other Japanese-themed restos will also typically have tofu furai (tofu fry or fried tofu), like what they have in Karate Kid. But for the ultimate tofu experience, Max’s sizzling tofu is still unbeatable for me.
6. Side Dishes
The only things most other fast food restaurants have that I can consume are the side dishes. This is where vegetarians can be creative, as pairing two or more side dishes can make a complete meal. I am particularly thankful to KFC for having coleslaw, which I order large and pair with a large serving of French fries. I also would like to thank Kenny Rogers for their side sampler. Wendy’s is also great for their baked potatoes.
I think I am officially craving for a tasty meal right now. Vegetarian choices in Philippine restaurants may still have a long way to go before becoming comparable to what meat-eaters have, but they are definitely out there! Being a vegetarian in a mostly-omnivore world has its challenges, but these are small problems compared to the countless good things that a vegetarian lifestyle does to ourselves, the animals, and the planet. Go green!