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Sep 10, 2012 05:42 PM

Eating Out - Vegan

Aside from Japanese restaurants, what else can be options for dining out?

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  1. We have vegan options at many local resturants including chinese, natural foods, sandwich shops.

    1. Mediterranean
      Chinese (watch out for eggs though)
      Indian (watch out for yogurt, butter or ghee)
      Thai (for curried vegetables and tofu)

      2 Replies
      1. re: Scott_C

        "Thai (for curried vegetables and tofu)"

        Watch out for fish sauce. It is often added into vegetable dishes.

        1. re: AntarcticWidow

          A LOT of Thai curries add shrimp paste.

      2. Not to be a killjoy, but Japanese places are actually usually not great options, because fish is so ubiquitous. Katsuo (bonito) based dashi, or other fish derived seasonoings are in almost everything -- even table sauces, dipping sauces that you might assume are just plain soy sauce. Miso soup might occasionally be made without, but will almost always contain fish. Also, unlike Asian countries with a larger Chinese population, or India, contemporary Japanese Buddhist monastics and lay people generally do not follow a vegetarian diet even at certain times of the year or month, so I think it's even less in the culture than in many other Asian countries (Japan does have a great tradition of vegetarian temple cooking, but these days, even shojin places often use some fish-based seasonings). Macrobiotic places are usually a good bet, but not many of them in the US, and they tend to be expensive. While tempura batter traditionally is often eggless, most places that serve tempura will use egg in the batter. If you do eat at Japanese restaurants, izakaya type places are often good bets, but you will need to ask a lot of questions. Japanese food is great (I've been there once when I was a kid, and once post-vegtetarianism), but it's really not very veg-friendly.

        Agree with the notes above about watching out for *both* fish sauce and shrimp paste in Thai food. Even if you ask, it may be hard to get a reliable answer sometimes, and it's often already mixed into the curry paste rather than added at the time of cooking. Non-curry dishes (pad kee mow, pad see ew, pad kra pow tofu, etc.) will usually have something too, but can typically be made to order without. I don't know if it's as ubiquitous as in Chinese cooking, but watch out for chicken base / chicken flavored MSG (as opposed to the "regular" kind of MSG) as well (this is also true in Mexican food, even for things like salsas).

        Some Chinese cuisines have good vegetarian options. In addition to chicken base / chicken MSG ("ji jing"), which is really ubiquitous, and often, though not always, contains animal ingredients, as well as actual chicken or meat stocks, oyster sauce is another concern (many Cantonese seem to consider oysters "vegetarian" anyway). One other point is that strict Buddhist vegetarians won't eat pungent foods like leek, garlic, onion, garlic chives, and shallot (the 5 pungent spices), and so if you order a vegetarian meal at a Chinese place, it may be a little on the bland side.

        All of that said, Asian food in general does have a lot to offer vegetarians. Depending on the place, some other kinds of SE Asian food (though not Filipino) can have some good vegetarian options, again, watching out for fish sauce and shrimp paste. Many areas have Buddhist vegetarian restaurants (generally Chinese or Vietnamese; sometimes Thai). While often not strictly vegan (even if they're labeled as such), these are probably a safer bet if you don't want to ask a lot of questions. The main thing to watch out for (for vegans) are small amounts of egg, and for the fake meats (which often contain dairy products or egg whites; some of the manufactured ones have even been found to have non-vegetarian ingredients in some cases).

        As a more general answer to your question, what veg*n options exist really depend on where you live. In large cities and coastal areas, your options are often better than in areas with fewer vegetarians. Most high-end restaurants I've been to will accommodate vegetarians with advance notice, and this is really the best way to get an amazing meal. I think it's polite to call ahead of time and check if they can accommodate you, rather than just showing up.

        3 Replies
        1. re: will47

          I concur with will47 in the flags s/he raises. In addition, many if not most Chinese restaurant dishes are wok fried, and the oil in a vegetable dish has likely been previously used for stir fries which may very well have included animal proteins.

          Restaurant sauces are also apt to include stocks which include animal protein-based stocks and ingredients, whether or not specified on the menu.

          Tempura is deep fried and the same caveats apply- it is very likely that vegetable tempura has been fried in the same oil as (perhaps along with) shrimp or fish tempura, and the traditional tempura dipping sauce includes bonito flakes(shaved dried fish) as an ingredient. Bonito is also a traditional ingredient of miso soup.

          This is not to imply that restaurants are being duplicitous. The concept of vegetarian is quite mutable and this mutability is not limited to Asian restaurants. My comments (and I'm sure will47's, if I may so presume) are not meant as a criticism of any restaurant not specifically dedicated to vegetarian or vegan cuisine, nor of their patrons seeking a vegan or vegetarian meal.

          Accurate information is non-judgmental.

          1. re: mrsdebdav

            For stir-frying, restaurants will use fresh oil for each thing cooked in it (that is, oil will not remain from the last thing the cook made), and you generally will see wok cooks use hot water and / or a brush (and a lot of heat) on the wok in between everything they cook, but of course, the wok will be well "seasoned" (lard is a traditional fat, often used for seasoning, though don't know how many restaurants still use it), and will certainly have had contact with animal products at some point, unless it's a purely vegetarian restaurant. I would worry more about deep-frying oil than wok-frying oil, but this is a concern for any deep-fried food at most restaurants, not just at Asian restaurants.

            As you say, I'm definitely not trying to criticize (or single out) Asian restaurants, and many Asian cuisines do have a lot of naturally vegan (or very close to it) dishes.

            I think the vital thing is to know what to ask for, but of course, at some point, you can only do so much, so, if you want to eat at non-vegetarian restaurants, it makes sense to make your best effort without driving the staff completely insane. Even PETA advises against quizzing restaurants about tiny amounts of animal ingredients in, say, hamburger buns.

            BTW, this NYT article today (also spawned a segment on a local radio program) is, I think, somewhat relevant to this thread. Here in Southern California, there's definitely a slow shift towards restaurants having more vegetarian and vegan options. It also mentions n/naka, a local kaiseki style restaurant which is known for having great veg*n options (I have eaten there multiple times, and can attest to the fact that the food is fantastic, and that they are quite accommodating of dietary restrictions)

            1. re: will47

              "I think the vital thing is to know what to ask for, but of course, at some point, you can only do so much, so, if you want to eat at non-vegetarian restaurants, it makes sense to make your best effort without driving the staff completely insane."

              Completely agree with this. As we are "vegan" eaters more for health reasons than ethical ones we won't avoid Vietnamese food or Thai (which often features small amounts of fish sauce), and I'll even go so far as to eat vegetarian pho with broth.

              I wish there was a label for this, because it's a real pain. I typically just say that I'm vegan, since I won't eat any flesh foods, eggs, or dairy. There's no name for that, though.

        2. Do you know about Happy Cow? They have listings for vegan, vegetarian, and veg-friendly restaurants all over the world.