Becoming Vegetarian in Latin America is a guest post by Robin Bayley from The Mango Orchard
I became a vegetarian the day I began my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather around Latin America.
My grandmother had told me wonderful stories about her father’s adventures in the Americas; wild jungle journey’s, gun fights, hidden treasure in a mango orchard and a daring escape from the Mexican Revolution with the help of bandits.
She had never said anything about the near impossibility of avoiding starvation if you are a vegetarian. Mind you, as you’ll see, there were a lot of things she didn’t tell me.
Being a Vegetarian in Latin America
Outside the main tourist haunts, eating well without eating meat is something of a challenge in pretty much any country in Latin America. And when you arrive without a word in Spanish, it’s nigh on impossible.
I certainly didn’t manage it. I learned the words for cheese, bread and cake. For the first few weeks I ate a lot of bread and cheese, cake and cheese cake.
As the weeks went by, my vocabulary grew and my diet diversified to include plantains, rice and beans. Waiters were often mystified by my precise a la carte orders and demanded an explanation for why I was a vegetarian.
The Spanish for vegetarian is vegetariano. Unfortunately, my accent was so poor that waiters confused it with the word Italiano. As a consequence, I regularly had conversations along the following lines:
Me: Hello. What food do you have without meat?
Waiter: Without meat?!
Me: Yes, I’m a vegetarian
Waiter: There is no meat in Italy?
Me: I don’t know but it seems rather unlikely
Waiter: Today, we have meat or chicken
Me: But I can’t eat meat, I’m a vegetarian
Waiter: My uncle can eat meat and he’s from Italy
Me: My uncle can eat meat too and he’s from England
Waiter: Oh, you’re English, I thought you were Italian!
Me: I’m not. Do you have rice, beans and plantains and maybe a bit of cheese?
Waiter: Of course, but why don’t you want any meat?
…and then the conversation would begin again.
As I travelled through Central and South America, my Spanish improved and I began to eat better. Far from the clichéd Latino attitude to vegetarianism being somehow an affront to their machista sensibilities, the most common reaction from restaurateurs was one of concern that I wasn’t getting all the proteins I needed.
No one should suffer from vitamin deficiencies though. The array of exotic fruit on sale pretty much everywhere, and especially in the warmer regions, is overwhelming: mangos, pineapple, passion fruit, watermelon, guava, papaya, tree tomato, zapote.
Every country, I learned, has its veggie options.
In Colombia and Venezuela, for example, the fast food of choice is the arepa – a fried corn flour patty, or the empanada, both delicious with a cheese filling. And when local cuisine offers little, there are always Chinese and Italian restaurants.
In Costa Rica, often characterised as the Switzerland of Latin America, I once offered a homeless man half of my takeaway pizza. He looked up at me and before accepting, and asked “Is it vegetarian?”
Returning to my great grandfather’s roots
My favourite cuisine is Mexican, which is fortunate as that was where I spent most of my time.
Of course, Mexico is as carnivorous a country as they come, but a vegetarian will always have quesadillas, guacamole, frijoles (refried beans), gorditas (a grilled cheese sandwhich), tortilla soup, stuffed chillies and nopales (cactus, usually sautéed) and various regional dishes – such as mole, that can be served without meat.
After eighteen months of travelling around Latin America, I eventually managed to track down the small village in western Mexico where my great grandfather had lived and worked – the place that my grandmother had told me about in her stories.
But what she hadn’t told me, because she hadn’t known, was that my great grandfather had left a secret family behind there, now numbering over three hundred people. I also discovered that not only had he narrowly escaped the Revolution with his life, he also had a hand in starting it.
I was invited to stay in my Tío (uncle) Javier’s house. His wife was a superb cook and my being a vegetarian didn’t cause her any problems at all.
I ate as well there as I have anywhere in the world. I complimented her on her cooking. She smiled. She had been taught by her mother-in-law, who had been taught by her mother, who had been taught by her father…my great grandfather.
Bio: Robin Bayley had a successful career in children’s television, when one morning he decided to leave his job and sell his apartment to travel and follow his muse. As well as uncovering the story told in The Mango Orchard, he was once cast as a drug smuggler in a Bollywood film, has written many articles and articles and is currently working on the screenplay for a feature film he has been commissioned to write. The Mango Orchard has been published in several languages and has just been released in North America. You can find Robin on facebook.