Kerry Springer is a Program Advisor at IFSA-Butler specializing in Alliance programs in India, China, and Israel. To sign up for a free study abroad consultation with her, click here.
It can be challenging enough just being a student studying abroad in a foreign academic setting and culture. Now imagine dealing with the added stress of having to find vegetarian options at every meal to fit your dietary needs!
Studying abroad should be exciting and educational, and there’s no reason your diet should get in the way. If you’re vegetarian, rest assured that while not all destinations will be, there are lots of fantastic options out there for you!
So, with the Rio Olympics having just wrapped up, we thought it would be timely to hold our own medal ceremony to help narrow down your search by awarding the gold, silver, and bronze to our top veg-friendly study abroad program destinations.
Gold Medal Winner – India! (Judge’s Score: 9.5/10)
Namaste to this vegetarian’s paradise—India! While vegetarians usually find themselves in the minority, India is home to the largest number of vegetarians in the world!
A Clear Frontrunner from the Start
Due to its primarily vegetarian Hindu population, most Indian restaurants, dishes, and snacks are veg-friendly and food items are clearly labeled with a nifty color-coding system (the green dot and box symbolizing vegetarian food, the brown dot and box symbolizing non-vegetarian food).
Even common fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Dominos, Pizza Hut, and Burger King mark their veg and non-veg menu items using these labels, making eating out a breeze. Many of these restaurants choose not to serve meat at all out of respect for Hindu beliefs, resulting in a number of delicious and unique vegetarian options that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
For once, it’s the non-veg students who need to make the extra effort to go out and find meat dishes!
For instance, when you see “burger” on an Indian fast food menu, don’t automatically assume we’re talking about beef. More likely than not it will be a veg-friendly “aloo” (potato) tikki burger made with vegetables and flavored with Indian spices, a fast-food version of a typical mouth-watering Indian street food!
Veg-Friendly Housing Secures India’s Place at the Top of the Podium
Luckily, unlike in other program destinations, it’s very simple to accommodate vegetarian students in India. In fact, it’s actually easier to find housing for vegetarian students than for non-vegetarian students on the sub-continent. Most study abroad programs in India offer home-stays; students are usually placed with middle-class Hindu host-families who will be strictly vegetarian, meaning they won’t have or cook meat in their homes. For once, it’s the non-veg students who need to make the extra effort to go out and find meat dishes!
If your program in India includes dorm living and a campus meal hall, then you’ll also be glad to hear that vegetarian food will be served at every meal.
Some Special Play-by-Play Observations
While salads may be a vegetarian go-to in the U.S., salads as we understand them in America, with lots of fresh leafy green vegetables, are a foreign concept in India. Vegetarian students should be prepared to eat mainly cooked vegetable dishes served with rice or Indian flatbreads like naan and roti.
*A Half-Point Deduction for Vegan-Friendly Options
Knowing that India is a haven for all things vegetarian, most people naturally assume that the country will be super vegan-friendly as well. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and this is where India misses out on that elusive Perfect 10.
Though India is home to the largest population of vegetarians in the world, most are “lacto-vegetarians,” meaning that they supplement their diet with milk and dairy products. In fact, in Indian culture, dairy is served at almost every meal in some form, so for vegans who don’t eat any animal by-products, this makes the road to the gold much more difficult.
Practicing veganism in India is doable, but will require additional effort:
- Vegan students should be aware that while the terms “veg” and “non-veg” are widely known in India, special dietary terms or concepts like being “vegan” or eating a “gluten-free” diet will not be understood by most Indians.
- With the help of their study abroad program’s resident staff, vegan students should learn how to communicate in a restaurant, home-stay, or mess hall setting what they can and cannot eat. Saying you “cannot” eat something vs. saying you “don’t” eat something conveys to your Indian hosts that there’s no choice in the matter and you’re not just trying to avoid a “cultural experience” of trying something new. Home-stays will definitely be the best option for vegan students, as families will quickly learn what foods their students can and cannot eat and can cook accordingly for the duration of their study abroad term.
- Resident staff and language teachers can help vegan students learn how to say certain phrases in the local language, like how to order food, for example, “without X (milk, cream, butter, ghee, oil, eggs, etc.).” They can also come up with a list of vegan-friendly go-to Indian dishes—like aloo gobhi, veg biryani, dal tadka (without ghee)—that students can order in a pinch when traveling on their own.
- Luckily, the most common Indian bread and lentil food staples are vegan-friendly, and fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive as well, in case vegan students should wish to prepare their own meals sometimes.
Despite being a little harder to accommodate vegan students, India is the clear winner when it comes to meat-free study abroad as a whole.
However, if India isn’t your cup of chai, then let’s move on down the podium to our silver and bronze winners, Israel and the UK!
Silver Medal Winner – Israel (Judge’s score: 7/10)
No Instant Replay Needed; it’s all Kosher!
Just as is the case for gold-medal winning India, Israel’s religious traditions greatly influence local cuisine, leading to more veg-friendly food options for vegetarian students. Israeli food is usually prepared according to Kosher regulations, meaning that meat and dairy are separated at all meals. This scores bonus points as well for vegans, who have lots of vegan-friendly dishes to choose from!
In addition, many Israeli staples like hummus, tabbouleh, and falafel, are all vegetarian, so there is no need to worry about a lack of veg options at every meal during your study abroad.
Bronze Medal Winner – The United Kingdom (Judge’s score: 6/10)
A Surprising Finish for Third
You may not have thought that the UK—known predominantly for its meat-heavy dishes like steak and kidney pie and bangers and mash—would have been a contender for the bronze.
But in actuality, vegetarian restaurants abound in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Finding vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurants is a breeze in cosmopolitan cities like London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Once out of the larger cities and in rural areas and small towns, however, vegetarian restaurants are harder to come by.
A Parade of Nations
While not an intrinsically cultural or religious phenomenon in the UK as is the case in India and Israel, vegetarianism is growing there, with the UK now claiming the largest number of vegetarians in Europe. Due to the ethnic diversity of the UK, there’s much call for trendy vegetarian “fusion” food which mixes together world cuisines like Indian, Thai, and French. The up-and-coming vegetarian scene in the UK’s larger cities is a great place for both vegetarian and vegan students to explore.
And for more budget-conscious students and students with more particular dietary needs, most programs in the UK offer self-catered options, allowing for you to prepare your own food exactly the way you like it.
The Finish Line
As you can see, being vegetarian shouldn’t be a hindrance to your study abroad experience or a disturbance to your studies. Being vegetarian is medal-worthy, and these amazing study abroad destinations live up to their spot on the podium!
When making such an important decision as where to study abroad, especially if you have specific dietary needs, make sure to do your research beforehand. Discuss any questions or concerns with your home school study abroad office or with your Program Advisor and you’ll be on your way towards an exciting, healthy, and (most importantly) delicious experience abroad.