Worst countries for vegetarians?
January 10, 2013 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I have a long wish-list of holiday destinations, and I would like to edit it down a bit. Which countries are difficult or impossible for vegetarian/vegan travellers? And which ones are terribly hard but worth making an exception for?
posted by dontjumplarry to Travel & Transportation (53 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
In Russia (and many former Soviet countries bordering on Russia) it is very, very difficult to get a meal that does not have meat in it. Basically, a meal is considered incomplete without some meat (or fish, etc.) somewhere, and a piece of bread. Even something simple as a salad will have slices of salami in it. Vegan food is a complete non-starter because there is sour cream, mayo or butter in everything.
posted by griphus at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Japan. Not insurmountable. Made much easier by either money (to eat in non-Japanese restaurants) or knowledge of Japanese. Identifying food that is not liable to have stray fishiness is hard (or requires much greater knowledge of Japanese food than I have--I accepted I was probably going to eat a fish product despite my best efforts).

I actually didn't find Spain too bad, but was mostly eating food I prepared. I think France would be hard for a vegan--the refuges I stayed in while hiking could do vegetarian food if you asked, but it was invariably an omelet. I think brains would have exploded if one tried to explain one didn't eat eggs.

Falafel can act as a failsafe option in many European cities.
posted by hoyland at 12:54 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mongolia would be nigh-impossible, I imagine.

In many places, you may need a handle on the language to even order veg-friendly food (or determine if food is veg-friendly). You can avoid visible fish in Japan, but that won't take the dashi out of your food, and I found lard to be a very common ingredient in Central America. Even the concept of 'vegetarianism' is a foreign one in a number of places, so even using a phrasebook, you may still end up eating animal products.

On the plus side, more tropical places have an amazing range of fruits!
posted by luxperpetua at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Vegetarianism is a deeply ingrained in the Buddhist religion, so you will most often find a bunch of vegetarian menus in countries where a large chunk of the population practices Buddhism. India is a country that comes to mind.

Although, be warned. Some Buddhists DO eat meat, and many do not consider fish as meat (like Japan).
posted by nikkorizz at 12:58 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to travel to Brazil with a vegetarian friend, who always complained about how difficult it was for him to find restaurants that served true vegetarian food (especially in the north). It may have changed in recent years, though.
posted by eas98 at 12:59 PM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Would I be right in assuming that Central and South America are pretty difficult too?
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:59 PM on January 10, 2013

(My mother's husband, a recent immigrant to the United States from Moscow, offered my then-vegetarian girlfriend fish at a meal because he understood that she was vegetarian. Then he argued with her over the definition of the word. This is not uncommon. Veganism is generally considered a route to the grave by malnutrition.)
posted by griphus at 1:00 PM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

France was incredibly difficult for me while I was vegan. Between the ham, animal stock and cheese I thought I'd loose my mind. But as a vegetarian I think I could have gotten along just fine. Likewise Spain is rough for vegans, though now that I'm eating meat again I have to say that Salchichon and Iberico Ham are two things I'm glad to have the pleasure of trying. Both countries are very much worth the trouble though.

Agreed on the falafel - it was my go to throughout Europe when I wasn't eating animal products.
posted by FlamingBore at 1:01 PM on January 10, 2013

Chile is difficult, although there are some good veggie restaurants. The vegetarians I know that are happiest make most of their own meals and just eat out to supplement.
posted by carolinaherrera at 1:01 PM on January 10, 2013

Brazil is difficult due to meat, meat, meats!
posted by floweredfish at 1:03 PM on January 10, 2013

Romania: beautiful tomatoes, wonderful peaches, delicious garlic things, and a choice of mamaliga (cornmeal mush) and sour cream. That was pretty much it. Oh and pickles. (I mean there are sometimes roasted vegetables and things, but a lot of the delicious beans had bits of pork.) The pizza was never good. I won't consider it an ABSOLUTE NO GO, but I was really glad I brought peanut butter and Cliff bars.

Turkey: amazing vegetables, delicious breads, severe cultural barrier to getting a solely vegetarian meal. This varies tremendously from place to place-- for example, there's a really fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Istanbul-- but it's sometimes tricky to figure out what the ingredients actually are. I ate a lot of eggplant kebabs and gave the (basically obligatory) meat chunks to a friend.

Belize: rice and beans, generally? Really great rice and beans and hot sauce, though! There was a tremendous amount of seafood.

Italy: sort of touch and go, especially for vegans. There are some really fantastic vegetarian restaurants and it's certainly not difficult to make meals out of vegetarian items, but, well, butter and stock and so forth are often issues for vegans. If you're with a tour, the set menus for big groups rarely have vegetarian options, though this is slowly changing, I think. Fish is often presented as an option, even if you are allergic to seafood. (Maybe I'm just bitter.)

A lot of this is resolvable if you have access to even the most basic of kitchens, which is really fun if you like to cook (and cheaper, if you do smaller meals of yogurt and things at home and only eat out once or twice a day.) Honestly, I'll eat meat in foreign countries or pick around it; my iron is low anyway and if I'm in a place for weeks at a time it's never been worth the fuss.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2013

Argentina was very meat-centric when I was there in 2005 (the one vegetarian restaurant in Mendoza was called "The Green Apple," in English and everything, to give you an idea of how common it is there). Beans and rice are, indeed, pretty common in Central/South America. As are eggs.
posted by pitrified at 1:14 PM on January 10, 2013

I've traveled to Central America a dozen times as a mostly-vegetarian, though I do eat fish. it's definitely doable, as long as you're not vegan. fruits are cheap, diverse and amazing. you'll eat tons of fried yucca, rice, plantains both sweet & savory, cheese, nachos, french fries, fresh guacamole, and scrambled eggs. for vegetables, lots of cucumbers, tomatoes and jicama. basic salads are pretty easy to come by, although they can be questionable if rinsed in tap water. you also need to be wary about things like tortillas or tortilla-based foods (like pupusas) because they're often cooked with lard. tamales are also usually made with lard. (often traditional rice & beans dishes are made with lard as well; ask first.)

however! there are plenty of vegetarian hippie food restaurants run by ex-pats in any reasonably touristy Central American destination, like Antigua Guatemala, the Belizean Cayes, the Honduran Bay Islands, or pretty much all of Costa Rica. it's also easy to shop in local markets or supermarkets, and carry around PB&J sandwich-makings for times when a vegetarian meal is impossible.
posted by changeling at 1:18 PM on January 10, 2013

On reflection, a lot of this comes down to language skills (yours and that of the people you're talking to). For example, as I understand it, broths are not universally a no go in Japan, but you have to be able to ask. I suspect a lot of countries have similar situations--there's something fairly common (e.g. curry pastes, cheese) that may or may not vegetarian, but you have no way of knowing if you can't ask.

Even cooking at the hostel in Japan was irritating. While I could be sure of what I was eating, not being able to read meant there was a limited array of things I could buy. I could buy pasta, but not pasta sauce, for example. Tofu, but it was tofu roulette because I had no idea what kind of tofu it was (way too soft, as it turned out). But grocery shopping in most of western Europe is pretty easy because I have some frame of reference of the languages (plus the packages are labeled in a ton of languages).

The only countries I know of with robust labelling practices are the UK and India (where it's mandated by law).
posted by hoyland at 1:18 PM on January 10, 2013

When I was in East Africa, the very idea of being vegetarian was basically considered ridiculous. Although you can find some fantastic (vegetarian) Indian food in some of the port cities along the Indian Ocean if you try.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my colleagues is in India, and we were discussing the possibility of training at the headquarters of the company that makes our software, which is based in Germany. She said that it's a difficult place if you're vegetarian. To quote the Bugle's Andy Zaltzman, she feared the wurst.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Hoyland... I lived in Japan, and there's fish stock or fish-based seasoning in practically everything. The upside is that most major cities have excellent grocery stores; and the main train station in Nagoya had (has?) and international grocery store too (granola, PB, etc.). Also, the macrobiotic diet is from Japan, and I ate at several excellent Macrobiotic restaurants while there... if you spoke a little Japanese, you could probably get vegan food at a Macrobiotic place. All Japanese take English in school, plus hiragana/katagana is easy to learn to read, and basic Japanese is easy enough to learn, so communication is possible. There's a subtle Western influence due to the occupation, so concepts like "vegetarian" and "western-style" restaurants are more accessible.

I'm going to vote for China: meat, fish, insects etc... in almost everything; like Japan, fish sauce and flavoring in vegetable dishes etc. Complicating factor: Chinese is very very difficult to learn to read or speak, and "vegetarian" is likely to be interpreted as "pescatarian".
posted by jrobin276 at 1:20 PM on January 10, 2013

I'll add that I had the most difficult time avoiding meat in Eastern Europe, specifically Serbia and Slovakia. I ate a lot of potatoes. also, it's not a state, but Wyoming. man alive, they love their meat.
posted by changeling at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2013

I've traveled extensively in Brazil as a vegetarian, and it wasn't terribly difficult (and definitely worth the exception!). Usually when you go out to eat it's a buffet-style place and they have really good salad bars. People are also very accommodating and gracious so if you have a special need they're usually extremely helpful. The one difficulty is that often people didn't seem to understand what vegetarian means. They would ask me if I could eat spaghetti. A middle eastern place told me they didn't have any vegetarian dishes even though almost nothing they served had meat in it. Seriously, though, don't rule it out!
posted by stinker at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2013

Seconding changeling on Central America. Tourism is a huge part of the economy, many of the tourists are vegetarians, and most restaurants above the very bottom of the barrel are trying to get in on the action. In towns on the backpacker circuit (which includes some very small out-of-the-way places if you're into that) nearly every restaurant will have some vegetarian items available.

When in doubt, figure out where the Israeli backpackers stay/eat when they're in town — that basically guarantees you some excellent vegetarian food, since those places will be at least quasi-kosher and the easiest way to manage quasi-kosher in a country without kosher butchers is to keep some of your stuff meat-free.

Veganism is possible in some places (in Guatemala, you could live comfortably as a vegan in San Pedro La Laguna, Quetzaltenango, and a few other towns) but makes it tricky to just show up someplace at random. But in a pinch, avocados are plentiful and very very good.
posted by and so but then, we at 1:27 PM on January 10, 2013

In reasonably large European cities, it's not hard to eat vegan or vegetarian. I'm speaking specifically about Paris, Rome, and Florence, which I spent time in while vegan (and with no kitchen access). I can't speak about difficulties in rural areas, but if it's the right time of year there should be plenty of fresh produce.

In South America, I've traveled in Peru and Colombia and and had no problem getting vegetarian food, but it gets harder the further away from large cities you get. Subsisting on fresh fruit is downright pleasant given the large variety, though, so as a worst-case scenario that's not too shabby. Cusco, in particular, was utterly amazing in how vegan/vegetarian-friendly I found it to be.

Other places I have personally traveled as a vegan/vegetarian and had no problem whatsoever finding food to eat: Cambodia, Mexico, Morocco, Greece, the Netherlands, UK, Australia, NZ.

Places where it was actually a little hard to find food to eat—but still totally manageable, just required a bit more effort, and I was surprised by this: Spain (everything-but-everything has cheese and/or ham!), French Polynesia (fish in everything, not surprisingly, but vegetarianism seemed really uncommon).
posted by booknerd at 1:29 PM on January 10, 2013

In portugal it felt like the only veggie options were omelette or salad; and the salad was pretty basic. Thats not a lot of options for the hungry vegan.
posted by biffa at 1:30 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Traveled around Germany as a vegan about half a dozen years ago -- I totally starved, lost almost 10 pounds during my stay. The people were so, so nice and well-meaning, but it was just kind of inconceivable to them that someone would eschew not just red meat, chicken, AND fish, but butter, eggs, milk, etc. They were confused. "Keine.. Milch, aus?"
I was on tour with a band, which barred the possibility of doing a great deal of shopping/cooking for myself, so it was mostly a lot of fruit, dry toast, french fries, crisps, little snacks from petrol stations. The wonderful staff at Karlstorbahnhof in Heidelberg (most beautiful city I've ever seen) made us all a home-cooked meal, and very proudly presented me with my very own bowl of vegan tomato soup, which was the first "real" food I'd had in over a week. I'd give anything to go back to Germany, but I'd pack granola and protein bars up the wazoo before I left.

In Spain and France, you can look for Maoz. They were my savior in the Netherlands; I ate there every day I spent in Amsterdam.
posted by divined by radio at 1:30 PM on January 10, 2013

Sorry... hoyland is right about food labels in Japan - those will be in kanji, and you'll need to ask someone at the grocery store (look for a high schooler, or ask at the hostel for brand suggestions). Ideally, you'd find some college kid who'd spent a year abroad to give you a grocery store tour when you first arrived. Japanese customer service will bend over backward for you. Also, Japanese rarely say "no", so if you ask "Is this vegetarian" and they say "maybe", well, "maybe" = No, and "it's difficult" = no. It's a politeness thing. (The whole thing is definitely possible - one of my co-workers had a severe fish/shellfish allergy, and he's lived there for years now!)
posted by jrobin276 at 1:32 PM on January 10, 2013

There are a lot of websites to help you find vegetarian food in Japan, including English sites.

Korea is reputedly extremely difficult.
posted by wintersweet at 1:46 PM on January 10, 2013

When my mother in law, who has a severe fish allergy, traveled in Japan she had someone write "If you give me fish or fish broth it will kill me" in Japanese for her, and she managed to eat well without a health crisis.

As a "don't ask don't tell" vegetarian (I read labels at home and won't eat any animal flesh I can identify but don't bother learning new languages to ask how the broth is made or what kind of fat the potatoes are fried in), I found it very easy to eat out in Istanbul.

And I had a great time as a poor college student in France. Get a baguette and jam or butter at your youth hostel breakfast, then stop at markets for fresh fruits, breads and cheeses for lunch and dinner. NOM. (Only works if you are comfortable with the likely risk that the cheeses contain rennet, though.)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:05 PM on January 10, 2013

Also: How difficult it feels to be vegetarian probably varies depending on where you're starting and what you expect. As a Portland resident accustomed to seeing vegan entrees at seafood shacks and steak houses, I've been more shocked/offended by the complete lack of veg-friendly food last time I transferred planes in the Minneapolis airport than by the cultural issues associated with avoiding meat in another country.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:08 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to eat a LOT of beans n rice, you could do africa, but you'd be crazy bored with your food. (That being said, if you're vegan for animal-rights reasons, you might be willing to suspend your veganness given that all the meat you'd be potentially eating is of the free-roaming non-manufactured variety and the fish would likely have been caught by a local person and not from a big trawler.)

Spain is pretty tough even for meat eaters who don't eat pork.
posted by Kololo at 2:09 PM on January 10, 2013

Most of Africa will be near impossible as well.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 2:10 PM on January 10, 2013

Just a thought, if one of your must-see countries is tough for vegetarians, you might consider WWOOFing. It's not uncommon for farms (even in some of the "meat-centric" countries mentioned above) to cook only vegetarian/vegan meals.
posted by hannahelastic at 2:37 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think this depends as much on the country as it does on how much you want the food to feature as part of your travels, whether you're in a urban or rural place, and what travel companions you may have and how much they're looking forward to particular restaurants. I can speak to these places as a lacto-ovo willing to eat bread and fruit from the store or fries at the restaurant and not usually having to accomodate meat-focused companions:

-Germany was a-okay, vegetarianism actually caught on in Germany around the same time as it did in the US, reputation for wurst-loving aside. I actually experience continued lust after at least two of the imbiss type meals I had here.
-Kenya was fine in the cities with an Indian influence to boot, okay in the sticks with people used to eating non-meat items (probably even vegan technically), though the food was dull and I ate an occasional meal that was a sad ghost of a carnivore's meal.
-India was amazingly awesome. Almost certainly a terrible choice if you're a vegan.
-Spain: I was much younger and on a group trip and was once served just a heap of boiled vegetables and otherwise lost like 10 pounds eating bread and salad. I'm sure Spain and I could do better nowadays but I got the impression vegetarianism was not a strong presence, but not necessarily an abomination either.
-France: I was only here for a couple days and just used the veg-unfriendly reputation as an excuse to eat cheese and bread and pastries to my heart's desire.
posted by zizania at 2:53 PM on January 10, 2013

I've done just fine as a vegetarian in:
- France, Spain, and Portugal (yep, cheese, eggs, and bread ALL THE TIME, but that's delicious, and in summer you can get nice fruits and veggies - or just eat at ethnic places all the time. Maoz falafel, forever)
- Italy (alllll the pasta)
- Greece (spinach pie, pastas, casserole things - most of the touristy restaurants had veggie menus)
- Germany and Holland (actually awesome veg places - Amsterdam especially, with loads of wonderful restaurants)
- Turkey (the touristy bits - Istanbul and the coast - again, veggie menus most places, and I ate a lot of appetizer sampler plates, but those are delicious anyway)
- England obviously, and Ireland to a lesser extent (a lot of Irish people seemed to think I would eat chicken and meat...definitely I had to pick my restaurants more carefully in Ireland)
- Morocco, to my surprise! I ate a lot of street food and had chickpeas all the time. I was only in big cities (Rabat, Marrakech), which helped.

Note that I am another "don't ask, don't tell" vegetarian, so I didn't go out of my way to learn if things were cooked in animal stock or whatever, even though I do it in the States. My command of any foreign language is just not up to it.

The toughest places for me have been Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Iceland), even in large cities, though if I'd had a bigger (nonzero) budget, I probably could have found something. I did a lot of hostel cooking. It's been about 10 years since I was in Norway or Sweden, though, so it may have caught on since then. If you will eat fish, your life will be much easier. (After three days of, like, buttered bread, I started eating fish in Norway.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 3:22 PM on January 10, 2013

Whenever we're considering travel to a foreign country or a U.S. city we've never been to, I use Happy Cow to look up veg-friendly restaurants. I think you can also look up grocery stores.

I second divined by radio's recommendation of Maoz, which can be found in many large cities. When we visited France for a week, it was on our list of vegetarian places, and it was amazing.

Speaking of France, we really had no trouble eating vegetarian there a few years ago. We just used Happy Cow and other resources to create a list of restaurants we knew would be safe, and we stuck to those. Maoz was our favorite, and we went there multiple times (we did the same when we went to London!). A lot of the veg-friendly places were macrobiotic, too, and I think a lot of the food we ate happened to be vegan as well--lots of fresh fruit, veggies, salads, and grains. We were able to eat sandwiches at corner cafes, too, though I don't think those were vegan. They most likely had cheese.

In any event, definitely keep France on your list. Good luck!
posted by eleanor_of_aquitaine at 3:22 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mongolia = impossible in the countryside (which is the most compelling place to visit), and difficult in the capital. There's a saying that goes around, to the extent that "vegetarians last exactly three weeks in Mongolia... or however long it takes a person to die of starvation."
posted by scrambles at 3:37 PM on January 10, 2013

during the last decade, "vegetarian" has taken on a new meaning for a lot of people, and seems to include fish and eggs. This is very confusing for me.
However: in most of Europe, you can easily travel with a vegan diet. If you eat fish and eggs, even more so. I don't agree at all with the notion that Spain is difficult - several of my Spanish friends are vegetarians. Middle East and north Africa is mostly vegetarian already - meat is for feasts
Latin America can be difficult outside the major cities. But all the major cities have vegan communities.
Japan is also a very simple country for vegans, with lots of good options, like tofu restaurants, and vegetarian stir-fries

I haven't travelled in Asia, but my friends all agree veganism is not an issue. The only areas where I think it could be really challenging are South America outside the big ciities, and the former East Block, as in Russia, Belorussia, Poland, Hungary etc.
posted by mumimor at 3:40 PM on January 10, 2013

I think you'd get better answers if you specified whether you wanted to know about vegetarian-friendly or vegan-friendly countries. Like, a vegetarian can eat a million things in Italian restaurants (pastas, pizza, cheeses, frittatas, pastries, risottos, salads, cooked veggies, etc) while the vegan can only eat a fraction of those things. Likewise, a vegetarian can eke out a meager existence in ex-Yugoslavian restaurants (salad with fresh cheese is on many menus, as is burek [cheese pie] and french fries), while a vegan would be screwed.

Also, it depends on how you travel. If you travel in a way that doesn't make you eat in restaurants all the time (i.e. staying at hostels with kitchens or in rental apartments vs. in hotels), that makes a lot of difference ... like in Spain or France there are few options for a vegetarian in restaurants, but plenty of delicious ingredients you can cook at home (or eat picnic-style).
posted by feets at 3:55 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

South Korea is really hard, according to a friend. Restaurants do not understand the concept; if you say you don't want meat, they'll probably bring you chicken. Even things that you think are vegetarian probably have fish stock/sauce in them. A lot of the produce you would expect in the West doesn't exist there, and the produce they do have can be very expensive.

On the plus side, there are a couple of vegan restaurants in Seoul, and the country's not that big. If you can handle eating bibimbap every day, and don't mind explaining that you don't want beef or an egg in it, you can probably manage at even more restos. Also: Jeju oranges!
posted by vasi at 5:32 PM on January 10, 2013

China is hard but not impossible. Most menus have a number of purely vegetarian options, and with a little bit of communication you can probably get some additonal dishes made without meat. (Meat stock could be an issue, since that may not be considered "meat".) Beijing has a few vegetarian restaurants as well; I assume that the first tier cities all do.

Mongolia and Central Asia are complete no-gos, and if seafood is also out of the picture, much of SE Asia would be a problem unless you decide to really restrict your diet.
posted by hawkeye at 6:34 PM on January 10, 2013

2nd-ing China as "kind of hard, but not impossible". The variety of vegetable and tofu dishes is great, but many of these dishes are garnished with meat. If you don't mind picking around the meat pieces, or meat stock, then there's not much of a problem. There are also lots of purely vegetarian options available- i.e. noodle dishes with no meat, dishes of just vegetables. Some menus have photos and you can see pretty clearly that a particular dish has no meat. Most dishes are made fresh and on the spot so if you can communicate that you don't eat meat, you can easily get meatless dishes. They certainly won't mind leaving the meat out. However, the number of vegetarians in China is very small and even though Chinese people tend to eat lots of vegetables and not much meat, pure vegetarianism is rare and it can be hard to communicate without language skills. If you want some help with that, feel free to memail me.
posted by bearette at 6:42 PM on January 10, 2013

during the last decade, "vegetarian" has taken on a new meaning for a lot of people, and seems to include fish and eggs.

In many parts of the world (or the English-speaking world, anyway), 'vegetarian' means lacto-ovo vegetarian, i.e. people who eat eggs and dairy products. The notable exception is India, where 'vegetarian' means lacto-vegetarian and does not include eggs. People who eat fish and not other meat are pescatarians.
posted by hoyland at 7:00 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing Central Asia. Your question reminds me of a good friend with vegetarian tendencies who ended up on a business trip to Kazakhstan; she had one business dinner that consisted primarily of horse meat and vodka.
posted by N-stoff at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2013

I'll say this: ANY major city in Europe and you'll be fine.

Someone mentioned Happy Cow and its worth repeating. Despite all the comments about Spain above, Happy Cow shows 71 Veg/vegan restaurants in Barcelona for example.
posted by vacapinta at 4:16 AM on January 11, 2013

Just in case East Africa is on your wish list, it's actually easy to eat vegetarian in Ethiopia (as long as you don't go way way out in the boonies). This is because the Ethiopian Christian church has many 'fasting' days where adherents do not eat meat, so the culture has developed a significant vegetarian culinary tradition (lots of really tasty chick pea, lentil and bean dishes). In Addis and many of the tourist areas, there are also usually Italian restaurants with pizza and vegetarian pasta dishes.
posted by deeparch at 5:48 AM on January 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Uganda, on the other hand, is extremely difficult. People will look at you like you've grown an additional head. Ditto much of the Latin Caribbean, where telling people you don't eat meat is likely to result in a chicken dish. Or pork. Really. The Commonwealth Caribbean is better situated thanks to the influence of Indian cooking. Hot doubles / roti are a savior for many vegetarians there.

China? I had problems until I realized that the issue was one of understanding. It seems to be a feature of the mainland culture; people don't care about your requests unless they understand and personally value your reasons for making them. So it became much, much easier for me to exist as a vegetarian when I started telling people I was an observant Theravada Buddhist, something that they could kinda-sorta relate to.

Forget Korea. Really. Just give up. Hangawi in NYC is a vegan Korean restaurant, and Korean people think that is so funny that sometimes they fall down laughing about it.

I found Scandinavia to be far more forgiving than some other places in the world. Vegetarianism has a toehold in Sweden now, and most restaurants will at least have SOMETHING on the menu that a vegetarian can eat. Max, for example, has a "Green meal" which is perfectly acceptable. Also true in Iceland, which I thought was a minor miracle. Vegans, not as much.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:15 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's an excellent thread on reddit about being vegan and vegetarian in Japan: http://www.reddit.com/r/japan/comments/15gmc5/being_a_vegan_in_japan_fruit_and_veggie_concern/

It's hard to be a vegetarian or vegan in Japan unless you want to cook your meals at home. Even if you say "I'm a vegetarian who doesn't eat meat" you might get things with pork broth or bits of fish. If you visit very large cities, you'll be able to find a handful of vegan and vegetarian restaurants and it's likely you'll have to spend a lot on food. If you want to eat beans, you'll have to go to import shops.

Even if your Japanese is good, you'll have to be really specific about what you can and cannot eat. A blogger was allergic to milk (not lactose intolerant) and people tried to give her ice cream and cheese.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 6:53 AM on January 11, 2013

A friend of mine lived for two years in Spain as a vegetarian. It was fine as long as she was explicit about no meat whenever she went out to eat. I saw her forget that once and end up with vegetable soup with ham on top. She picked out the ham and ate it, but was annoyed with herself. So Spain is very doable as a vegetarian, (and I think this applies in many places), as long as you are able to ask and interpret the results. Do not assume that just because something is labeled vegetable x, it only has veggies in it.

I know she has been doing fine in London and did ok in the Netherlands when she lived there.
posted by Hactar at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2013

Tibet. The mountains are too high to grow produce, and most of the diet is yak.
posted by QuakerMel at 7:51 AM on January 11, 2013

Speaking in broad terms, Central America is probably easier than much of South America due to "the bean factor" (not that South Americans consume no beans, but beans are not a dietary staple the way they are in CA). Be forewarned that there are a lot of dishes that are not meat-centric but still contain token amounts of animal products, whether that be little bits or pork in a bean stew, or refried beans prepared with lard.

That said, as long as you stick to the cities, there are probably at least a few restaurants that cater to vegetarian tourists and other outsiders. My own travel experience is most extensive in Bolivia, whose biggest cities are still very provincial compared to places like Lima or Sao Paulo. Still, there are enough Adventists, Hare Krishnas and woo-woo hippy expats around that you can find multiple vegetarian/vegan restaurants in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. You will miss out on many of the main dish "platos típicos" but there are several popular street foods that are vegetarian friendly and a handful that are vegan. Bolivia is also a country where English fluency is quite low; if you plan to eat outside of tourist restaurants you'll need to know the basic phrases for "does this have cheese? is it fried in lard? does it contain Maggi? [if your beliefs extend to not wanting to eat something that contains non-veg. boullion] etc.
posted by drlith at 8:27 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I actually think East Africa would be easy - I grew up in Kenya as a vegetarian, and visited Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia while not eating meat. Urban areas in those countries are fine. Rural areas would be problematic, but even there - meat is expensive and most people in rural areas have a mostly vegetarian diet, reserving meat for special occasions.
posted by darsh at 8:54 AM on January 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re: mumimor - you can't really put all of the former "Eastern Block" countries into one bag, it's generally the harder to eat vegetarian (esp. vegan) the farther East you venture (but Belarus is worse in this regard than Russia) and the smaller the city you're in. And countries like Hungary, Czech Republic or Croatia are tourist destinations so people there cater to their vegetarian guests.
posted by hat_eater at 10:13 AM on January 11, 2013

Actually, I was just going to say that I think Hungary would be pretty difficult, and I was in Budapest. I'm not a vegetarian, but when I wanted non-meaty things I was hard pressed to find any. Prague was also fairly meat-heavy, but better (and much more tourist-heavy as well. I tend to doubt this is pure coincidence).
posted by Because at 4:08 PM on January 11, 2013

Traveling in Cuba turned me from a vegetarian to an omnivore.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:43 PM on January 11, 2013

Here is a very recent article in the BBC magazine about the difficulty of being a vegetarian in a part of northern Italy.
posted by anaelith at 3:39 AM on January 14, 2013

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