How to survive as a vegetarian in the Philippines
As the top-rated expedition company in Coron and El Nido, Palawan, we've had many vegan and vegetarian guests come on board our boat. We've also heard some stories from our vegan and vegetarian guests about their experiences in the Philippines, and this deserves a write-up!
Is it hard to survive in the Philippines as a vegetarian?
Yes and no. First, the Philippines has thousands of islands, and you'll get tropical vibes all over, which means that you'll have access to all kinds of fruits that are as fresh as they come. You can even pick them out yourself in remote towns. Yay! We also have a lot of mountains and agricultural towns so you'll find plenty of vegetables to eat too! Another hooray!
Vegetarianism in the Philippines
It's not the supply of ingredients that makes it tricky. It's the tradition and lifestyle of the people in the country. Vegetarianism and veganism have yet to be precisely widely understood in the Philippines.
Although, thankfully, there are a lot of vegetarian restaurants these days, especially in the metro and expat-friendly places, many familiar food places need to practice or understand this diet.
So a typical restaurant won't usually carry a vegetarian menu. The demand wasn't that high until recent years (don't worry, we're progressing), so you'll have to find your way around it before we tell you how; first, you have to understand a few things about the Philippines.
Filipinos love love LOVE their meat! Especially pork. Have you heard of lechon? A lechon is a sign or symbol for a feast. It's like the turkey of Christmas, except we like having it for almost every occasion (when we can afford it). Our love for meat means there's bound to be a touch of pork, chicken or beef in your viands. Meat is usually the main ingredient for any dish here, but we also have a lot of vegetable dishes. But even so, if you're ordering veggies, meat is still mixed in with vegetable dishes as "pampalasa" (for taste/flavour).
Check our Palawan Food Guide.
Vegetarian in the Philippines
When you ask what's in the dish, they might forget to mention what seasoning goes in the dish, making it hard to ask for "no pork, please" when ordering.
Since fish is abundant in our area, we also have a lot of dishes from the sea! Of course, Filipinos' lives are connected to the ocean, so it's a great place to have your vacations and island escapades. But that also means that even our daily cooking ingredients or seasonings are derived from the sea. Hello, fish sauce and shrimp paste!
As mentioned above, we have several vegetable dishes, and you can request for them to remove the meat, but even so, these dishes can have shrimp paste or fish sauce as flavourings, so you will have to be very specific. (This is what we meant by it can be tricky.)
So yes. You can and will survive as a vegetarian in the Philippines. The trick is knowing how.
Check our Food in Coron Guide.
Tips to Survive as a Vegetarian in the Philippines
Stick to Fruits
Although we have so many variations of fruits around, we usually consume fewer fruits and vegetables as much as we consume meat. So don't be surprised if your fruit bowl is less of a bowl than you'd expect. You can always check before ordering. Filipino serving sizes are usually small. We're tiny people, so…(lol)
Find a Vegetarian Restaurant
Duh! This is obvious. And it's easier this way but don't worry. If there's none in sight or if you're the only vegan in the group and everyone wants to eat at this place, you can survive.
Ask for Vegetarian Dishes
Although we've already mentioned that most restaurants don't carry vegetarian dishes, you can ask the waiter. They might have suggestions on how to work around the dishes to make them vegetarian-friendly.
Is that not working out for you? Try asking the manager or the chef. Filipinos are very friendly and we are known for our hospitality, so ask politely and some of them would be more than happy to whip up something out of the menu for you.
You may also like How to Survive as a Vegan in the Philippines blog post.
Understand Filippino Ingredients
You can ask for the ingredients in the dish the waiter will gladly assist you with this. Let's go back to "pakbet", as mentioned earlier. You can simply ask for a "pakbet" without pork, shrimp, or shrimp paste. They will accommodate that request but be prepared to hear, "Sure, but it might not taste good", when you ask them to remove the pork or not to use fish sauce. Remember how we love our meat?
By default, people in the Philippines consider a dish with no meat or seasoning bland. Take note: cumin or mustard seed(and other vegan/vegetarian seasonings) aren't common in the Philippines, so they might actually be right about the food tasting bland.
Be Specific About Vegetarian Food
I once ordered a vegetable dish for a vegetarian I used to work with and specifically said no pork or shrimp. They ended up using a fish paste, a common alternative to shrimp paste, essentially fish! So the whole effort of me making sure our vegetarian had something to eat was useless. I'm sure they didn't mean to. The waiter probably didn't understand what a vegetarian was and assumed that the customer didn't want to eat those things and used an alternative for "flavour" instead. (If you're wondering what happened, don't worry; I had something else ordered for his meal. He didn't starve to death.-Ha!)
Tell You Are Allergic
It can be very tiring to explain why you don't like these ingredients in your food, especially when you do it repeatedly for every restaurant you go to. And not to mention the fact that some people (like the last item we just discussed) will try to look for an alternative or sneak in a bit of those ingredients for "flavour", or if they're sneaky, maybe they'll pick it out of your plate before serving it to you (perhaps this is trust issues talking) but better sure than sorry, right? So yes, the shortcut: say you're allergic. They're more careful with your food that way. Yes, it's a lie, but it's a white lie and quite a hack.
Read our El Nido Food blog post.
So, those are tips to survive as a vegetarian in the Philippines.
The good news is you won’t have to worry about any of this when you go on Big Dream Boatman Expeditions because we’ve got this covered.