I am a ‘Vegetarian’, and a ‘Punjabi’. Yes, this combination exists, period. While Punjabi is self-explanatory, the modern-day complexity around the term Vegetarianism warrants a detailed definition for the sake of clear understanding. The category of vegetarianism you may relate to can be broadly classified as a vegetarian, a pure vegetarian, the purest vegetarian and the PETA vegetarian (Vegan). Frankly, the PETA vegetarian is like a UFO to me. I have heard about it, but haven’t seen or met one. Based on the principle of elimination, for a vegetarian, eggs and fish are excluded from the realm of vegetarian food but indirect consumption of egg through cakes, pastries, sauces etc. is included. Some would like to call that a pseudo vegetarian, but I’ll stick to the former. The Pure vegetarians avoid indirect consumption of eggs too. Finally, the ‘purest’ of vegetarians are the ones who exclude onion and garlic as well. For the sake of this article, any other food consumption habit is non-vegetarian. Yes, ‘we only eat curry from the chicken curry‘ habit included. Although this article is written from a vegetarian perspective, it will still help you get mentally prepared even if you relate to the other categories.
My first and only travel outside India was last year courtesy a student exchange program with a French University. I stayed in Lille, a small city in north of France. The adventures lasted about 80 days and I travelled to 10 other countries including Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Czech Republic. The subsequent information is based on both personal experience, and the wisdom shared by fellow travellers. To a great extent, the quest for vegetarian food in Europe depends upon mainly three factors. First, the particular country you are in. Second, how often do you want variety in your food and third and the most important, the price you are willing to pay for your food.
Ready to Eat
As far as the ready to eat food goes, the utopian option available to you across countries is Subway. Just walk in and you are in safe territory. The half-sub will cost around 4-5 euros. McDonald’s (McD) is another trustworthy option. The Veg. burger in McD is available in most countries but there are exceptions like France. The burger will cost around 2 euros and is highly economical if you are a student trying to save money. Another easily available option is Tomato/cheese Mozzarella. It’s a bread bun filled with lettuce, cheese and a couple of tomato slices. It would usually cost around 3-4 euros. Apart from these, the king of all options available to you is ‘Falafel‘. This word is a colloquial term used for vegetarian food across Europe. ‘Falafel’ is a not only a bun filled with tikkis, sauces and raw vegetables, it’s a way of life for a vegetarian anywhere in Europe. Falafel also has a variant to its credit, the bun is replaced with a wrap which is more like Mexican Tortilla. This variation is loosely called a ‘Doner Wrap‘. The price for falafel can range between 3 to 10 euros depending upon the place you are in. Switzerland and Scandinavian countries are the obvious high cost locations for falafel and any sort of food in general (If repeated use of the word ‘falafel’ caught your attention, consider yourself well prepared!)
Eastern Europe definitely has more availability and variety of ready to eat vegetarian food when compared to other parts of Europe. Vegetarian pizzas are in abundance. The normal pizza size is usually 3-4 times the size of a pizza in India. One or two slices can suffice for one-time meal. Mushroom cheese, tomato onion, spinach etc. are some of the options in pizza. The cost per slice is about 2-3 euros. Pizza Hut and other pizza chains also have an option or two in veg. pizza like cheese pizza. The taste and the quality of the bread is nothing compared to what you get at local shops though. An important thing to note is that, the green square with a green dot, usually used to indicate vegetarian, does not guarantee pure vegetarian food. Pizza Hut is one example (If you noticed repeated use of the word ‘pizza’, you are a very quick learner). Based on my experience, Austria and Italy are the hubs in terms of vegetarian food availability. There are a lot of Indian restaurants in Vienna where a meal would cost you upwards of 12-15 euros. Italy is a paradise, both for its beauty and food. The Indian/Pakistani restaurants in Milan offer you a buffet of Indian food for 6 euros. The buffet usually includes some starters, Daal, 2-3 different curries, tandoori Rotis and sweets. In Florence, I was lucky to find even Samosas, Biryani and Chana Bhatura. So overall, Italy is the country where availability, variety and price fall in place together.
I had access to a microwave oven and a French Top Burner in my kitchen at Lille. Therefore, I got plenty of opportunities to cook. ‘My experiments with Cooking’ could be another complete article, but I’ll save it for another time. My roommates were kind enough not to complain often, we all survived though! The availability of options in raw or uncooked food is significantly better than ready to eat food. You can get almost anything ranging from White Chana, Black Chana, Rajmah (Kidney Beans), Yellow, Green and Brown lentils, Rongi/Lobia (Black Eyed Peas), Soya etc. Tofu is a readily available alternate to Paneer, at least in France (Did you read No Paneer?). All standard vegetables and fruits are also easily available at nominal prices. 5Kg potatoes will cost 2-2.5 euros (That’s cheap, stop converting). RICE was our lifeline at home in Lille, a kilo gram of basmati rice would cost around 2.5-3 euros. Cheaper variants are also available though. The supermarket retailers such as Carrefour, Lidl and the likes are ideal destinations for pocket friendly grocery shopping.
Pre-Preparation: Good to carry Items
- Paranthas, you can freeze them and use as per need. My mom was kind enough to make about 70 paranthas for me. That made my breakfasts and travel days easier.
- MTR Ready to eat (all that you can carry), the curries were very handy with rice!
- Oats/Corn flakes/Muesli (You can get these at nominal prices in Europe too)
- All Desi Masalas (Thanks to my roommate, I had these in plenty)
Some bitter pills to Swallow:
The bitterness of the below facts is directly proportional to the Sensitivity of your Vegetarian Sentiments (SVS):
- The shops as a practice use same oil for frying ‘Falafel’ (Rings a bell?) and chicken/ham Tikkis.
- Mayonnaise sauce which is one the most prevalent sauce across dishes, has egg as an integral component (A ‘pure’ vegetarian variant also exists)
- Samurai sauce is a close relative of Mayonnaise sauce
- Many shops use beef oil for cooking Belgian Frites (French fries) and pizza.
- Waffles are also known to contain egg, it’s always better to check before you eat.
Most of the recommendations are no-brainers, still, a list is handy:
- Belgian Frites, in Belgium of course
- Dark Chocolate, Belgium
- Waffles with cream and fruits, in Belgium if possible
- Cheese Mushroom pizza, in Berlin
- Hot chocolate, in Switzerland
- Indian food buffet, in Milan, Italy
- Mushroom Pasta and Thin crust pizza, in Italy
- Gelato, Italy and all other countries
- Breads and Cheese, in France
*SVS factor to be considered
I had an absolutely thrilling time in Europe. Keeping the taste considerations aside, finding vegetarian food was never a big challenge. Many a times the train journeys would be in excess of 6-7 hours considering you will travel across countries. It’s smart to carry enough snacks during those journeys to avoid hunger pangs. Importantly, do not fail to experiment. The more you tickle your taste buds, the more likely you are to find something just right for you. Bon Appétit.
PS: Admittedly, this article is by no means a complete guide. I have tried my best to include whatever I thought could be useful for the first time vegetarian travellers. In case you have any other or related queries, you can write to me or leave a comment. Europe is a traveller’s paradise, I hope you will have a great experience there. Cheers!