How to survive as a vegetarian in the Philippines
Vegetarianism in the Philippines
As the top rated expedition company in Coron, we’ve had a lot of 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 we think this deserves a write up!
So, is it hard to survive the Philippines as a vegetarian? Yes and no.
First of all, if you look at the country, we have thousands of islands and you’ll get the tropical vibes all over. This means that you’ll have access to all kinds of fruits and they are literally 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!
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 isn’t exactly widely understood in the Philippines yet. Although thankfully there are a lot of vegetarian restaurants these days, especially in the metro and expat friendly places, a lot of the common food places don’t 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) and 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 pretty much 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 that 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/flavor).
When you ask what’s in the dish, they might forget to mention what seasoning goes in the dish making it hard to simply ask for “no pork please” when ordering.
Since fish is abundant in our area, we also have a lot of dishes from the sea too! The lives of Filipinos are sort of connected to the ocean which is why 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. Here are some tips.
Stick to fruits.
Although we have so many variations of fruits around, we don’t usually consume as much fruits and vegetables as much as we consume meat. So don’t be surprised if your fruit bowl isn’t as much of a bowl as you’d expect. You can always check before ordering. Filipino serving sizes are usually small. We’re tiny people so…(lol)
Look for a vegetarian restaurant
Duh! This is pretty obvious. And it’s really easier this way but don’t worry. If there’s none in sight or if you’re the only vego in the group and everyone wants to eat at this place, you can survive.
Ask for vegetarian dishes or alternatives.
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 it 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.
Working around the 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 or shrimp and/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.
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 fish paste, a common alternative for shrimp paste, which is essentially fish! So the whole effort of me making sure our vegetarian had something to eat was pretty much useless. I’m sure they didn’t mean to. The waiter probably just didn’t understand what a vegetarian was and assumed that the customer just didn’t want to eat those things and used an alternative for “flavor” 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!)
It can be very tiring to explain why you don’t like these ingredients on your food especially when you do it over and over again 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 “flavor” or if they’re sneaky, maybe they’ll just pick it out of your plate before serving it to you (maybe this is trust issues talking) but better sure than sorry, right? So yes, the short cut: just 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.
The good news is you won’t have to worry about any of this when you go on our expedition because we’ve got this covered.
Any more tips to share? We’d be happy to hear them.