Vegan in Bhutan

Just before my pregnancy (my daughter is now 18 months old to give some perspective of how hairy life got!) we went on a 10 day trip to Bhutan to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Bhutan is India’s land locked neighbor and is supposed to be one of the happiest countries in the world – they actually have a “Gross National Happiness” measurement. Whether this is really true and practical is unknown to me, but the people we encountered in our travels were very friendly, unfailingly polite and smiling faces were aplenty. I had done my due diligence before heading over there and was really happy in terms of the foods we could eat.

Vegan Bhutan lunch at roadside restaurant

My lunch…the little flat bowl on the bottom right? Thats full of chillies! (Red Rice + Veg curry + dal + chillies)

We visited Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital city), Paro and Punakha (the cultural capital). The short duration of our visit did not allow us the luxury to visit the central highlands, which were very reportedly very beautiful.

road side veg momos

Veg momos at roadside Hotel Bhutia on the way to Bhutan

Bhutan is famous for being in the foothills of the Himalayas amidst lush green mountains and valleys. Further upland are gorgeous snow capped peaks, but they cannot usually be seen during summer or foggy days. Also well known are their red and white monasteries, easy to spot amidst verdant scenery, always evoking a sense of calm when you encounter a Buddhist monk. Until a few years back, Bhutan was closed off to foreign visitors and only recently opened up her gates. Indians however, have always been able to visit for free due to close trade relations between the two countries.

Amazing new restaurant at Paro

This amazing new restaurant at Paro on the main street made us fresh, to order veg food

Chili paste!

Thimphu Market

Grains at the Thimphu market

Thimphu market

Abundant fresh greens at the produce market in Thimphu

Cheese and chillies – Bhutanese people simply love these items. Their spice tolerance levels are insanely high, for how else would they be able to consume spicy whole chillies smothered in a cheesy sauce? This dish is called Ema Datsi, Bhutan’s national dish. I didnt get a chance to try this dish and did get to try a different chilli dish, but I doubt I would have been able to stand the heat.

Thanks to Bhutan’s proximity to India, vegetarian food is easily available – a standard plate would include Bhutanese Red Rice, Dal, Vegetables and chili-based-condiments. Bhutanese red rice has a nutty, chewy quality and is exotic in the rest of the world! Contrary to what one may think, Bhutanese people aren’t vegetarians despite the overwhelming Buddhist presence. I doubt anyone besides the monks are religiously obligated to eschew meat. Beef dishes were widely sold, but a vegetarian & vegan can eat pretty well.

At the point, I would be remiss if I didnt talk about momos. Momos are dumplings are a favorite snack in northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan – ask for the vegetarian version, its usually vegan too. We had the crazy idea to go on a bus from India to Bhutan – my husband loves land crossings! It was a hot and humid day and we were packed in a tiny bus with half the legroom of a US domestic flight! It felt like an endless journey in an oven while the driver finally stopped for a lunch break on the Indian side – they had clean restrooms, fresh water to splash on ourselves and amazing momo’s – we quickly packed away three plates!

We wanted to replicate this momo experience in Bhutan proper, so one evening in Thimphu we walked around the busy downtown area and finally spotted a small hole in the wall restaurant open and bustling with life. We walked in, unsure of what we’d find and a bit conscious of being the only tourists. They had community tables and were mostly full. While we looked lost, two locals enjoying momos warmly invited us to  share their table. They helped us order momos and we stuck up a conversation – one was an engineer and one was a football coach at a school. Over the next couple of days, they joined us for a mini sight seeing trip around Thimphu, gave us pointers on where to stay at Paro and Phuentsholing (border town with India) and took us to another hole in the wall favorite for more momos! Sadly, this time around I did not take notes on where we ate, but overall it was very accessible to find good veg food.

We absolutely loved our stay in Bhutan – our hike up the Tiger’s nest monastery was the highlight of our trip. So I leave you with this parting picture:

Tiger's nest monaster

My vegan pregnancy in India

I am a happy mom to a highly energetic 15 month old baby girl. After all our travels, we settled down and had a super cute cherub in 2015. I had a wonderful pregnancy in India filled with supportive family, friends, coworkers and bosses, for which I am eternally grateful.

I was vegan for my entire pregnancy and veganism is still pretty young in India. During my time there veganism got a lot more exciting in Bangalore, but that is a story for another day. Expectant mothers need a steady supply of nutrients and we tend to get serious about it especially when there is a little bub to consider.

How does a vegan pregnant woman in India get all her vitamins and minerals? Read on.

Finger Millet (Ragi)

Finger millet or Ragi is India’s blessing. Its abundantly available all over the South, is eaten almost daily in some form or the other in Karnatake state and is really cheap. Less than 50 cents for a kilo! Killer prices.

It makes up for the lack of availability of things like quinoa, steel cut or rolled oats (quick cooking oats is available aplenty). Its a rich source of calcium, protein, iron and many other things!

It does have an acquired taste. There are tons of ways to eat it – as rotis, dosai, idli, ragi balls or ragi mudde (not my favorite, but definitely a nutritional storehouse). I enjoy drinking it as a porridge with some soy milk and sweetener mixed in. I recently discovered that you can mix some ragi & water/milk in your rice cooker and set the timer (if available) to make it when you are ready. Cool isnt it?

100 grams of Ragi (about 3 ounces) has about 350 mg of calcium. Thats a little more than from a glass of milk. A tall glass of ragi porridge cooked with a bit of calcium fortified soy milk is a great way to start the day. I made it a point to have ragi in some for the other every day during my pregnancy. My weight gain was healthy, my doctor was not concerned and I had the energy to work until the day before I gave birth.

Amaranth

When Quinoa costs 500 rupees for 250 grams ($8 for 8 ounces), its time to look for alternatives. Amaranth seeds are a complete protein like Quinoa. Its being lauded here on Huffington post. The seeds are not easily available in India, but the flour is very easy to obtain on department store shelves.

Greens:

India has a phenomenal collection of cooking greens, each with distinctive tastes. All the leafy greens mentioned below are super high in Calcium and offer enough variety to keep the palette from getting bored. Agathi takes a bit getting used to, but remember that 100 grams of the food contains a whopping 1130 mg of Calcium. Its hard to eat 100 grams of the greens in a single sitting, but I’ve often had made into a soup with tomatoes, onions and some lentils. Delicious!

  • Moringa leaves (murungai keerai) – easily available in local produce stalls. I dont see it much in supermarkets though.
  • Agathi keerai – Not easy to obtain. However, every local market will have a greens seller who can easily get it during their next produce run when asked.
  • Fenugreek leaves – Easy to find and easier to grow! I am now growing fenugreek leaves in an old salad box filled with some soil and got a seedling in just 3 days!

Soy Milk

Soy milk is available in most established large chain supermarkets, even in suburbs of metros. They come in various flavors. Mango and pistachio are particularly flavorful. Typically the unsweetened version is not calcium fortified. However, the sweetened flavored versions in some brands were fortified with calcium. Soy milk brands in India to try are Staeta or Sofit.

Shelcal HD

Super cheap source of Calcium supplements easily available in even the smallest, most rural pharmacy. The HD variety also contains Vitamin D.

Vitamin B12

While there are many contradictory articles on this controversial topics, I strongly urge all vegan pregnant women to take a B12 supplement. In India, doctors prescribe a Iron, folic acid and b-complex supplement to all expectant mothers and this contains 5mcg of B-12. I often supplemented this by NUROKIND OD which contains 1500 mcg of Mecobalamin. Its incredibly cheap, Rs. 4 per tablet and need not be consumed every day. Its a sublingual tablet (place under your tongue until it dissolves) about every 3-4 days. Nurokind OD is an easily available Vitamin B-12 supplement across India.

DHA

In the US, DHA supplements are typically a part of the prenatal tablet. But they are usually not vegan. In the US, I have easy access to Deva’s DHA supplements, but this is not available in India. I hope this changes soon, since there are so many vegetarians in the country and this will definitely be popular. I took a DHA supplement that my doctor prescribed, knowing its not vegan. Not ideal, but not a risk I was willing to take.

I saw this vegan DHA tablet, but its pretty expensive!

I think I covered most things about a vegan pregnancy in India. I would still like to talk about some over the counter products that are accidentally vegan and easily available in most large cities.

Two layer vegan chocolate cake

Seriously delicious vegan two-layer chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. Recipe from Chloe Coscarelli’s Chloe’s Vegan Desserts. I followed the instructions to a T and the result was great. I have had consistently good luck with Chloe’s recipes. Go Chloe!

I probably added extra milk to my frosting then was called for. While it did come out well, it was far too spreadable. But I chalked it up to not knowing the exact consistency of frosting.

If the base pan looks like a pizza pan, that’s because it is. I love baking and own quite a few baking accessories, but I let most of them perform double duty as much as possible. This works as a decent cake plate.

Vegan food in Cuzco, Peru

Eating vegan in Cuzco is really easy. There are tons of tourists here, and therefore, many options. 

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Sesame bar for 1 sole.

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On the Cruz Del Sur bus from Lima to Cuzco, the vegetarian option was vegan and very tasty. Simply sautéed mushrooms and some vegetable rice.

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Vegan breakfast at El Encuentro, Cuzco

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At Prasada – a small hole in the wall spot (literally!) serving very simple, delicious veg fare. Anything can be made vegan. Just ask!

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My sandwich at Prasada’s

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Lentil burger at Prasada’s

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Veg offerings at the supermarket, for those with a kitchen

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Great breakfast drinks. Just mix hot water or soy milk. Tastes great with hot water!

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One of my favorite finds: at the Chinchero market, a few ladies sell lunch for other market vendors. They bring in their food in huge pots and sell them. This was a plate of simply cooked beans and broad beans, seasoned perhaps only with salt. They had some salsa picante for those who wanted it, and I wanted it the most. :) 

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Very nice juice shop in the plaza. But this picture is only to remind you that fresh fruit and fresh fruit juice is everywhere for the hungry, healthy vegan.

Vegan spots in Cuzco:

  • Maikhana indian restaurant, Av El Sol 106 2nd floor. At avenida el sol and the main square
  • El Encuentro: 6 sole dinners at Santa Catalina Ancho 384
  • Govinda – on Saphy street
  • Prasada – 152 Choquechacha (choquechacha also has a couple of other veggie spots)
  • Om Cusco, Calle Sapphy 661. Run by the folks at Maikhana. All proceeds go to charity to feed poor children. Pay whatever you want.

Vegan in Pedro Ruiz, Peru

Pedro Ruiz is a tiny one street town in Northern Peru. The only reason tourists go there is to get to Chachapoyas or on to Iquitos. I was prepared to not find veg food here, but ALL locals knew of this place as “restaurante vegetariano”. Seriously good plate of veg lomo saltado here. Very surprised and made our day!

No pictures of food, but I have the address and the name board. South America vegan traveler – go here!

Vegan Travel: Chachapoyas, Peru

From Vilcabamba, we made an incredibly long journey to Chachapoyas, Peru. It took us over 2 days to accomplish this journey and vegan food wasnt always easy to find during this journey. Our journey looked like this:

  • Vilcabamba to Zumba, Ecuador – overnight bus journey, overly delayed due to landslide blocked roads! 
  • Breakfast at Zumba. We hired a taxi at the bus station to drive us to the border with Peru. We also asked the taxi guy to take us to a restaurant that has food, coffee and clean restrooms. I had toast and coffee here. The Zumba bus station was brand new and didnt even have toilets open to the public.
  • The views from Zumba to La Balsa, the border are beautiful!
  • Once we cross the border, we took another collectivo (like a share-auto) to the city of San Ignacio. No food here as well. Another collectivo to Jaen. Jaen is a large city and we spent the night here. We did find one vegetarian restaurant, but it was closed. Unfortunately, I did not note down where it was. 
  • From Jaen, it was another collective to Bagua Grande and then another to Pedro Ruiz and then another to Chachapoyas. Phew. 

It was great to find three vegetarian restaurants in Chachapoyas. One was closed, sadly, but two are still open. In addition to that, the market is a block away from the main square is a lovely lovely place. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound here. Here is a quick photo tour:

This is the main market in chachapoyas. Its not this small and you can make in a maze as you go from this main corridor. You can find everything here. I often imagined myself living in this small lovely town and coming here on weekends for my fresh produce and grains!

So many juice stalls in the market. Do you see the juice with grains? Thats a quinoa drink. Quinoa, sugar, cinnamon, water. Yum!

Grains, pulses and beans.

Finally, a hearty vegan mixed vegetable rice dish at the El Eden vegetarian restaurant in Chachapoyas. Restaurants in this part of the world close early, open late and take breaks between lunch and dinner. So make sure you find out when they are open as you pass by and decide to come later for a meal. You might just find them closed. They have a set menu for lunch for about 4 soles which usually includes a drink, a salad from the salad bar, a soup and a main course plate. Thats less than $2!

Soy milk found at the local mini mart. Now I want to move to Chachapoyas. I even know a local who loves Hindi movies there. 😀

Vegan Food in Chachapoyas, Peru

A little map that I drew that indicates two vegetarian restaurants. There is another one that I forgot to mark here ..you go right on Ayacucho away from the plaza towards the market and there is a restaurant on your left hand side. It was closed and didnt seem operational, so I am not sure if its still around.

El Eden is on Amazonas ave, its the very popular and big veg place. You cannot miss it. But the one you should check out is the one thats hard to find. Go here because they have a set menu for lunch and dinner and very unpretentious. Its a house converted into a small restaurant. They have a small stall selling health food. And the best all, they seem to be open on most days. This is on Grau – keep walking down on Grau away from the plaza. Restaurant is on the left hand side.

In the market, you’ll find stalls where the vendors are mixing various spice pastes for you to take home. This is common even in Bolivia. Look at the little packets she has made here for sale. Each cost about 1.5 soles. Pick this up, some veggies and rice and cook it all in a pot and you’re good for dinner.

So many juice stalls selling all sorts of fruit and grain juices. Yes! Grain juices. Made with quinoa. Yum!

Vegan Travel: Vilcabamba, Ecuador (valley of longevity)

Vilcabamba is just awesome. Can I start my post in such a way? By the time we were done with Vilcabamba, husband and I decided that its the place to open a small, quirky Indian food cafe + B&B and settle down in our later years. Why do I say that? Because it looks like this:

and this:

Apparently the soil here is incredibly fertile and things just grow. Its way south in Ecuador, close to the border with Peru. Vilcabamba is a very popular retirement haven with middle-aged and older expatriates from English speaking countries. You’ll find them gathered around expatriate cafes discussing everything about the world. One such awesome place is Charlitos. A very unpretentious cafe with a simple international menu (mostly American) and a very friendly owner. The owner Charlie knows all his regulars and takes time to chat with the newcomers too. He told us that he’d never seen Indian backpackers before and recommended that we open an Indian restaurant there – I really warmed to the idea. :)

Anyway, he knows vegan and does a tempeh sandwich really well. Apparently, the tofu and tempeh is locally made. I was thrilled.

Tempeh sandwich with avocados from Charlitos:

Potato and pea soup:

Just uphill from the central plaza is Restaurant Katherine, another small hole in the wall cafe which is veg friendly. People are usually happy to put together something for me. In this case it was “arroz, verduras y lentejas” (rice, veggies and lentils).

Finally, after a long long time, I got to eat soy products in Vilcambamba. A tofu noodles dish from Resto. Terraza. Tofu isnt very easy to find in South America!

Tofu + vegetable noodles from Terraza:

Vegan friendly restaurants in Vilcabamba, Ecuador:

  1. Charlitos, on Diego Vaca De La Vega between Av. Eterna Juventud & Calle Sucre
  2. Restaurant Katherine; On calle sucre 12-54 & Fernando de la vega.
  3. Juice Factory, on Calle Sucre across from the park
  4. Terraza Restaurant – @ the corner across from the tourism office (oficina de turismo). Has tempeh and tofu dishes, rice and noodles.
  5. Hostal Izhcayluma just outside town has an extensive veg menu thats very popular with all types of tourists. We stayed there and had a lovely time.

Vegan Travel: Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is a beautiful, colonial town in southern Ecuador. Narrow cobblestoned lanes, shady streets flanked by colonial buildings, little shops that dot these streets, a church every few streets thats a few hundred years old. All these interesting streets will culminate in a central square/plaza/zocalo where the locals will hang out during the weekends, street carts will sell local snacks and kids will run around and play with pigeons. Its the kind of place where I’d like to go live for a year or 6 months.

Thankfully, Cuenca is big enough and touristy enough to have good vegetarian food. A quick search on google will lead to plenty of results, so its really a matter of choosing the ones most convenient to you. I usually make a list of the veggie places with their addresses and phone numbers and mark them on a map (available for free at a tourist office) and if we happen to be near one during meal time, we check it out.

We stayed at Hostal Hogar Cuencana and we checked out the little international cafe just outside the hostel the day we arrived.

Bread with peanut butter, jam and cute little banana slices. Washed down with fresh black coffee. It is so satisfying to eat a comforting food like this in a foreign land.

We spent only a couple of days in Cuenca and that too was spent in two day-trips, so our meals mostly comprised of fruits, snacks and other supermarket staples like bread. But we did go to the Govinda’s on Juan Jaramillo 7-27 y Borrero for a lovely Indian-inspired meal.

A vegetable curry with coconut milk:

Stir fried vegetables with rice:

A local sweet stall. They sell a variety of chocolate, fruit, milk and coconut based sweets. I spotted plenty of fruit based sweets. I didnt buy any as I was hungry for real food.

At one time, we were walking down on a busy street after a meal and I spotted a restaurant selling a “vegano almuerzo”. I was bummed to have missed it. I didnt get a picture, but I got their brochure and here is their address:

Vegan meal in Cuenca, Ecuador

Nectar Veg Cuisine tea house & gallery, Benigno Malo 10-42 between Gran Colombia and M. Lamar streets. Phone: 2844-118. Nectarcuisine@vegemail.com

Vegan Travel: Banos, Ecuador

Banos is one of our favorite destinations from South America. Just to give you an idea, its nestled in a beautiful green valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains, one of which happens to be an active volcano. Its also Ecuador’s adventure capital. The term Banos literally means baths – the town has a natural spring for that very purpose. Yes, the Banans (?) sure do like to live on the edge. If you take a bus ride into Banos from any nearby city/town, say Quito or Latacunga, you’ll feel like you have left something weighty behind you and something heavy was just lifted off your shoulders.

The small town is brimming with backpackers and friendly locals who work in the adventure industry (rafting, paragliding, ziplining, mountaineering, biking etc.) and is home to an expatriate population too. Needless to say, veg-friendliness abounds in this little green hippie town. Here is what Banos looks like:

Pretty awesome, isn’t it? Now that you are there, you can eat this:

or this, among other delicious goodies at Casa Hood, which is owned by an expatriate-local couple. There is a small library from where you can choose to read a book while you wait (I nearly finished a novel, I made that many trips here!). I chatted with a friendly staff member here and she said they were considering bringing in some vegan baked goodies at some point.

The other awesome place at Banos is El Paisano (Vieira near Martinez, Banos, Ecuador), which is run an incredibly friendly Ecuadorian gentleman who also happens to be an artist. You can see his colorful and vibrant artwork displayed on the walls of his restaurant, also for sale. He is very clear about dairy-free dishes and will plate you some really yummy goodness.

His dishes are rich in vegetables and lentils and minimum seasoning, so it feels really fresh and healthy. 

Last but definitely not the least is Meeting Point cafe. The owner German has traveled extensively (even to India) and returned home and opened a cafe. German has coffee, food, free wifi and is great company especially when he has time to chat. 

Vegan pasta made just for me. It looks very simple, but it had all the right things – some olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and mushrooms. 

Banos has many vegetarian friendly restaurants, thanks to its international crowd. At the same time, the prices arent backpacker friendly on a sustained basis. However, with a market like this, we chose to cook most of our meals in the hostel kitchen. 

Another little cafe that I spotted, but they were never open the time I was there. Just across the street from Casa Hood. Maybe they are open now?

Vegan granola!

Bolero, an instant barley drink, caffeine free and hermetically sealed. Didnt try this out, but this would be something I’d carry in my pack for instant nutrition.

The Produce of Ecuador

It is my firm belief that the best part of being vegan is the fresh produce we get to enjoy significantly more than non vegans. While travelling, especially backpacking, its very thrilling to be able to walk into the market on market day, pick up just the vegetables you need for just one meal and cook it into a delicious meal. I have noticed this time and again in hostels that the kitchen is the most crowded space. Many backpackers enjoy cooking a meal so its imperative that you know how to cook with just one pot or one pan and are able to clear the kitchen quickly enough. One of our favorites – stir fry fresh produce from market with minimal spices and eat it with bread, rice, noodles or just plain!

These pictures are from the amazing town of Banos in Ecuador. Its Ecuador’s adventure capital. The scenery is spectacular and the town has a very strong veg food scene – unfortunately, I still cant find my food pictures from here  I’ll be posting some food pictures and restaurant information in my next post.

Banos, Ecuador. You cant visit Ecuador and not go to Banos if you like the mountains.