I recently visited Mexico on a whirlwind 10 day trip. Given its such a big country with so many wonderful things to see and do, we – my husband and I, decided 10 days can only take us to a couple of places. This trip took us to Mexico City, Oaxaca and Taxco. This was my first international trip as a vegan and I was determined to stick to my lifestyle choice as much as possible. I had researched quite a bit and went armed with the knowledge of some vegetarian restaurants and with a few words in spanish to indicate milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables. I’d like to think I was largely successful, though its possible that I muddled up my Spanish somewhere and communicated the wrong things – but instead of getting overwrought about it, I’ll chalk it down as a learning experience.
I also took photographs of nearly everything I ate and kept track of places I ate them in, so that I can share them here for future vegan travelers to Mexico – I’ll provide more details in a future post. This is more a summary of my veganism in Mexico, so please bear with me while I indulge in some prose.
It is no surprise that Mexico is a largely meat-based culture, which makes it a challenge even for vegetarians, much less vegans. Add to this their love of cheese (queso) and milk products (leche) and milkshakes (licuados), it appears a vegan will have a difficult time. Don’t let this stop you from visiting this wonderful country – with some planning and forbearance, its possible to be vegan. There will be times when it feels highly frustrating when you have been walking all day and an empty stomach is surely a recipe for disaster; and all you can see around you are food carts serving huge quantities of meat fried in large oil-filled pans, which you have no intention of going near.
Here is how you can be a vegan in Mexico:
Fruits are your friends – cut fruits, fruit juices and fruit sorbets
Fruits are everywhere in Mexico. While its not the primary component of a meal and not the protein giver, its an incredibly easy way to keep you satisfied until you can find proper lunch or dinner. Street carts and just-off-the-road stalls that sell cut fruits, fruit juices, fruit ices abound all around Mexico. Grab some fruits whenever you come across them; or buy some apples from the market (which is very likely a walking distance from the hostel). Bananas are great too, but tend to get mushy over the course of the day. So apples are best for storing. Alternatively, freshly made fruit juices are also easily available. Fruit juice without any added water or sugar is called “jugo” and with added water is called “agua”. Agua is unlimited in some of the buffet restaurants I went to.
Quesadillas/Enchilladas need not always have cheese
While its true cheese is a primary component, I have had both these dishes without cheese. When street stalls or market stalls are the only options, I tend to look for places that pre-prepared stuffed tortillas just waiting to warmed up when buying. I found a lady selling an enchillada that only had mushrooms (champinones) stuffed in it, among other things. She had all these other stuffed items too, like parathas, but in various shapes and sizes. Some had cheese and some had meat. My enchillada was deep fried and not healthy at all, but it tasted good with the hot sauce she gave me and I was set for the night, food wise. Which is what really matters, as we had an overnight bus journey ahead of us. And it only cost 12 pesos ($1.03).
Street food is really really easy to find and can be an ally!
Our days were packed with checking out the sights, so we usually had one good meal a day in a restaurant and depended on street food, fruits, snacks etc. for the rest of the day. It sort of worked out well. Some street food to try:
- corn – roasted or boiled, served with salsa picante
- fruits – see above
- any food stall that doesnt look too meaty (you’ll know it when you see it) – if your spanish is good, they might make you a taco with nopal (cactus) or flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). Ask if the beans is cooked with lard (mantequilla de cerde). If in a market, keep walking around until you find a stall that looks good. There are so many different types.
- potato chips – yes! they sell potato chips in tiny plastic baggies and add a generous amount of salsa picante to it. I loved this.
- nieves (ice lollies) – They are like sorbets or fruit ice. Ask for “sin leche” (without milk). I tried mango, mamey, tamarind, tuna (prickly pear) and loved them all.
Create a vegan spanish cheat-sheet
If there is one thing that can help beyond anything else, its to know spanish. My spanish was limited to very few words, and I never regretted it more, despite carrying a phrasebook. If I go back tomorrow, I’d go armed with a cheat-sheet specifically created keeping my dietary concerns in mind. People are friendly and often willing to help, if only we can communicate our needs clearly. Some phrases I’d be sure to learn for a future visit:
- how is this cooked? (this is tricky – easy question to ask, but I am sure I wont understand the answer…)
- what are the ingredients?
- Is this made with oil? or lard? or butter?
- does this contain… (cheese, milk, eggs, butter, lard, chicken stock…)?
- can you please make this without…. (milk, cheese, butter…)
- what vegetables do you have?
- I dont eat …. (milk, cheese, eggs….)
- create a list of ingredients that cannot be eaten
- also very useful – create a list of fruits/vegetables commonly eaten at the destination
Research Veg Friendly restaurants
Happycow and VegGuide are good starting points to make a handy list of veg friendly restaurants. I created a PDF of restaurants from these sites and other sites and uploaded them on the Kindle, making it easy to refer while walking down. It also helps to know approximately which area they are located in. Its not always practical to go to these restaurants, especially when they are not close to sightseeing spots. On the other hand, you may just be walking down a totally random street and recognize two restaurants from your prepared list (Iike I did in Oaxaca!). Mexico has vegetarian and vegetarian friendly restaurants, at least in the cities, we just had to research them a bit.