If you’re a vegetarian, eating in Southeast Asia can be frustrating to say the least. In Vietnam, I can’t even convey how many times I repeated the phrase “no fish sauce” just to smell the overwhelming aroma of nước mắm (fermented fish sauce) wafting from my bowl of vegetarian phở (Vietnamese noodle soup). In Thailand my requests for “no meat” were usually met with bewildered stares, followed by a bountiful plate of noodles (or rice) which were almost always peppered with some sort of meat.
As a seasoned traveler, I’m accustomed to the difficulties that come with being a vegetarian. If I’m served a delicious-looking bowl of Tofu Coconut Curry and it’s loaded with shrimp paste, I don’t complain about it – I simply don’t eat it. I mean, it’s not the cook’s fault I have such strict and foreign eating habits! And if there are chunks of meat in my vegetable fried rice, I just pick them out. It took me years to be comfortable with this idea and even now it kind of skeeves me out. But in my experience, sending food back usually results in the kitchen staff rooting through your meal and picking out the bits of meat with their bare hands. (Yes, this happened to me during my trip to Vietnam.) I suppose I’d rather fish out the meat chunks with my own hands.
But what are you going to do? These are the challenges that come with traveling. And it definitely comes with the territory of being a vegetarian on the road. I spent a total of seven months traveling through Southeast Asia, traversing the region all the way from Laos to Indonesia. Along the way, I tasted some of the best dishes of my life but also experienced countless frustrations when it came to finding meat-free meals (hello Philippines!). By the time I arrived in Indonesia, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Per usual, the guidebook warned me that finding decent vegetarian food would be a “challenge.” So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that one of Indonesia’s national dishes, gado-gado, is actually vegetarian!
Gado-gado is technically a salad, though it differs from the traditional Western concept of salad. It is typically comprised of a variety of boiled or steamed vegetables – usually cabbage, carrots, gourd, and string beans – slices of tofu and/or tempeh, hunks of cold cucumber, and a hard-boiled egg. The ingredients are mixed together, drenched in a rich and tangy peanut sauce, and sprinkled with savory slivers of fried shallots. An oversized, deep-fried cracker called krupuk is often served on the side. It might sound like a random combination of ingredients, but it’s pretty damn good. And another perk for vegetarians is that it’s a great source of protein, something that’s hard to come by when traveling in Southeast Asia.
So if you’ve been traveling in Indonesia and your diet consists of eggs in the morning, nasi goreng (fried rice) at lunch and pizza for dinner, gado-gado will offer a welcome, tasty and healthy change of pace.
A WORD OF WARNING TO VEGETARIANS/VEGANS: Krupuk can be flavored with anything from onion to prawn, so these crispy crackers might not be suitable for non-pescetarians. Also, the peanut sauce served with gado-gado is sometimes prepared with trace amounts of terasi (shrimp paste). However, I never encountered this during my two months in Indonesia.
Have you ever tried gado-gado? Have you ever sampled any other vegetarian dishes while traveling in Indonesia? I’d love to hear about them!