Kia Ora: Part 4

Posted on 15 February 2012

Restaurants and eating out …

… the diary of a South African vegan living in New Zealand

11 February 2012

Going out to dinner remains a special occasion – whether it’s for a family celebration, a get-together with close friends or a business meal with work mates. Restaurants are going to be especially busy as we approach St. Valentine’s Day.

Sweet potato with tofu (instead of haloumi cheese off the menu) - photo by Laurinda ErasmusHowever, for most vegans the suggestion of a restaurant meal is received with trepidation: questions start circling one’s mind of “Will there be something for me to eat?”, to even: “Am I going to be seen as the fussy, difficult one?”, or worse: “Is it going to be a repeat of last time when everyone stressed as I sent the waitress back and forth to the kitchen?”  Yes, we all probably had such experiences!

As someone who eats out a fair amount, most specifically when I travel overseas (I spent about 4-5 months every year abroad travelling, learning and writing), I came up with a plan of action for eating out. This made me far more relaxed and enjoy the experience as one should. Eating out these days can be expensive, so you want to feel it was forth it.

The best (and least stressful for you, your guests and the chefs) is to phone ahead and make the booking yourself: either ask to speak to the chef or make sure the person you speak to make a note of the fact that you are vegan (and understands what it means). In this way the chef has time to think up a dish to make for you. I usually make the initial booking about a week before the event, then 2 days beforehand I phone again to confirm both the booking and the vegan request.

The second best thing I do when I know where we’re going to, is to look up the restaurant’s website and study the menu. Bearing in mind that the internet menu could differ slightly from the one being handed to you in the restaurant, this still gives you a good idea of what the chef is capable of doing and the chef’s style of preparing food. You will also notice any seasonality reflected in the menu items, how wide a range of inspiration from around the world the head chef draws his ideas from and notice any flexibilities around the dishes. Make a special note of the side dishes: you may have to fall back to this list if all else fails.

Thus armed, you can now calmly tell the server at the table that you are vegan. Also list the food groups you don’t eat, since you don’t want room for misunderstandings. If the server does not immediately suggest that the chef is able to make up a vegan dish for you, it is up to you to make the suggestion: say you are happy to have separate items from all over the menu (and point them out) to be compiled as a plate for you. Again, ask the preparation method for those items to make sure they don’t contain butter or cream sauces (for instance: ask that mushrooms are fried in olive oil; make sure there is no butter or yoghurt in dips ands sauces; make sure no butter is poured over stir-fried or grilled vegetable dishes; beware of risottos which are sometimes made with butter, even if you do ask that the cheese is omitted in the final stage of preparation, etc.)

However, many times one has no idea where you’re going to eat out. Either other people are doing the reservations, or, as it often happens in my experience when I’m overseas, going to a restaurant as an unplanned event depending on where one ends up at the end of the day.  

Knowing this, I’ve learned over the years to come prepared. I would order a plain salad (I ask for no cheese, and no mayonnaise dressing); a stir-fried vegetable or grilled Mediterranean vegetable dish, and then toss over the food my little bag of goodies I brought with. This would usually be my protein in the form of sprouted lentils, mung beans or chickpeas (so even if you are spending the afternoon or even the whole day walking in an overseas city the sprouted legumes will keep outside a fridge, and just keep on growing!), or nuts and seeds (usually that I soaked overnight to remove the enzyme inhibitors and then placed in the sun or unsealed in the hotel refrigerator to dry out; but at home I use my dehydrator), or I’ll bring along a store-bought (best place to find these is at organic shops), vacuum packed seitan (vegetable wheat) or tofu sausage.

Vegan dish from a Spanish restaurant - photo by Laurinda ErasmusThe photo here shows a lovely plate of food that I enjoyed at a Spanish restaurant that specialises in seafood: the chef came out to speak to me and talked me through ingredients he had in the kitchen. I got served a chickpea and steamed vegetable stack, olives, avocado, tomatoes, olive oil and sourdough bread.

Happy Valentine’s Day!
Benessere: well being, a book by Laurinda Erasmus

Article by Laurinda Erasmus, author of BENESSERE well-beingOpens in a new window: vegan & sugar-free eating for a healthy life-style. Quinoa Publishing.


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