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Gozlemes in Turkey, zucchini flowers in Mexico
A food blogger shares her vegetarian adventures in six continents.
You can travel to almost any corner of the world and find some vegetarian delight. And if there is nothing else, there is always the dessert. Having travelled to over 40 countries in six continents, I never fail to be awed by the amazing variety of vegetarian friendly foods that exist around the world. I am often asked how I manage to travel despite being a vegetarian. But the truth is that with the exception of a few places, it has been easy. Do your research and be open to trying different foods. Here are some incredible vegetarian foods I've had around the world:
When I left for Israel last year, I had no idea I would return so in love with the cuisine of the country. The fresh fruits and vegetables, the amazing range of grains, the huge markets - it is a vegetarian paradise. Hassan's Pitot bakery in Jerusalem is a little, unassuming store front where he dishes out fluffy, yet chewy pita bread dusted with zaatar, a spice mix of sesame, sumac and hyssop. His charcoal ovens, where he bakes bread, are round and cavernous. "Like a mother's womb", Hassan explained. Interestingly, they call these ovens 'tannoor', similar to 'tandoor' !
I asked Hassan the trick to making this superb bread. He said it was his 'old' starter dough. He calls his dough 'old' because the very first dough was made in 1985. Since then, every day, Hassan saves a piece of the previous day's dough and kneads it into to the next day's dough. This way, he explains, the dough has been 'continuous' for 27 years. The very first dough he made had some yeast in it. But since then he has never used yeast in his daily dough. Yet, his breads have a mild yeasted quality thanks to his trick.
Another memorable bread I had was in Cape Town at Africa Cafê. It was one of the most memorable flat breads I've ever had. Made from cassava, a common tropical tuber, and cheese, this bread was chewy and rich. Along with Congolese spinach and brown lentils, it was the perfect meal.
The gozlemes of Turkey are another favourite. Street vendors all over Istanbul sell this flaky bread, stuffed with spinach, goats cheese and other fillings.
SALADS AND SUCH
Not all vegetarian foods I've eaten around the world are carb-based. In Morocco, I had a light, but delicious salad. The riad (a traditional house converted into a hotel ) we were staying in prepared it as part of our vegetarian meal. The salad itself was a simple assembly of tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce. But the luscious chermoula sauce of coriander leaves, spices and preserved lemons that went over it elevated the salad from simple to superb. As if the wonderful vegetarian food I found in Marrakech wasn't enough, I was pleasantly surprised by the delicious vegetable tagine I was served by our camel man while camping in the middle of the Sahara desert. A tagine is an earthenware pot with a tall conical lid. The dish that is cooked in it is also called tagine.
I want to make a special mention here of tempeh (fermented soybean cake) satays skewered on lemon grass stalks in Jakarta;and stuffed giant zucchini flowers in Mexico.
While I enjoy having vegetable and grain based meals the most, I will never pass up an opportunity to try mock meats. Buddhist vegetarian cuisine has the best faux meats - usually made from wheat (called Seitan) and/or soy. These days you can find mock meats in many vegetarian restaurants across Asia and the West. The best dishes I've had are a slow braised mock chicken in Malaysia, dishes cooked with soy chunks in Thailand and delicious faux meat dishes in Hong Kong. Some inventive chefs even use jackfruit and mushrooms to imitate meat. I've also had one hell of an ingenious 'monkey head' curry made out of monkey head mushroom (because the dried mushroom looks a lot like a monkey's head!) and jackfruit in Singapore.
Vegetarian food around the world is not austere or boring like many think, because there is always dessert! The helados of Argentina and pastries of Portugal were very memorable. Helados are a silky, creamy Argentinian icecream in the most interesting flavours - mascarpone berry, lemon mousse, dulce de leche (caramelised milk) and so on.
Portuguese Pastel de nata or Pastel de belem or custard tarts are an absolute must eat if you are in Portugal. Nuns at the Jeronimos monastery created these amazing, creamy tarts about 200 years ago. The nuns used a lot of egg whites to starch their clothes and to clarify their wine. So they had a lot of left-over yolks. What better way to use up egg yolks than add sugar, cream and spices to the egg yolks and bake them in tart shells? That's how these incredible custard tarts were born. The cafê pasties de belemclose still serves the original monastery recipe, over 10, 000 tarts a day. I can see why. We ate several and they were the best we had had in Portugal (and trust me, we had plenty!). You'll never eat just one.
Often, you don't have to travel far to discover new and interesting foods. As I found out during my cross country road trip across America, there are plenty of great vegetarian dishes. While driving through South Dakota, I discovered Native American fry bread. Introduced to Native Americans by European settlers, it is now a common food. Fry bread is basically flour, baking powder and salt kneaded together with water. The dough is then rolled out and deep fried into soft, golden pillows. It is served taco style, topped with beans, lettuce, sour cream and cheese
The more I travel the more I realise how food brings people together. Like Hassan the bread baker, or Laila the Palestinian grandmother who taught me her family recipes, people say their stories through food.
Sala is a software services entrepreneur by day and a hobby cook and food blogger (www. veggiebelly. com) by night
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