French fries with pepper

Morphine muso Mark Sandman sang it best: ‘oh-owwwww-oh! French fries with pepper’. Perhaps it goes against tradition to adorn your chips with pepper, proving that traditions are there to deviate from. Though Mrs Lomez cannot be sure of the late Mr Sandman’s veggie status, the pepper recommendation does not come from the palate of your average omnivore.

the talented mr sandman

Ah, the vegan staple. Especially when travelling and the traditional regional fare is built around consuming animals.  It’s not unusual to go out for a meal and find that the only veggie offering is a plate of chips. Such is the case in Portugal. You may not find much in the way of choice but you will always find two old reliables, salad and chips. A third reliable would be bread (sopped with olive oil) and a fourth would be the red wine that Sandman dreamed he would sit on the back porch and sing with.

Because of the ubiquity of salad, chips, bread and wine, olive oil too perhaps, these foods don’t identify themselves as most typifying the traditional of any particular cuisine. Yet they make up an international vegetarian greatest hits. What first comes to mind when you think of Portuguese food is fish, maybe some grilled sardines and fish stew, and let us not forget the custard-filled pasteis de nata. But the vegan is damned to eternal repetition of salad, chips, bread and wine, with peppered variations. How can vegans immerse themselves in the culture of a flesh-fascinated country? Only half-heartedly?

Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez tried a few veggie restaurants in Portugal, to balance out the fish overload. Paladar da Alma in Porto was joyously cheap for food which was tasty and almost totally vegan – hurrah! But was it traditional? Though visitors in the country, they knew enough to not expect a centuries-old habit of seitan. Down in Lisbon, The Green Room offered both meat and vegetarian dishes, all of a somewhat inoffensive internationalised flavour (or offensive, depending how sensitive your taste). The fact that both dietary persuasions were welcomed was exciting but as for the food itself, Mrs Lomez could have easily stomached the salad and chips while watching Dr Sin chomp ecstatically on grilled sardines at a more ‘traditional’ restaurant. At the exclusively veg, overpriced buffet (yes, an overpriced buffet!) at Terra – which somehow garnered a ‘must visit’ in the Lisbon Time Out guide, incredible given the number of superfluous foodie joints there – one dish appeared to be a rendition of something traditionally meaty, a sausage and bean stew. Replace the meat sausage with a vegetarian sausage and hey, even the vegans can eat it! The overriding flavour of this was of vegetarian sausage which Mrs Lomez somehow doubts is traditional.

Can you substitute the essential ingredients of a tradition and still honour it? Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals writes about the role of food in our stories but that we can always make new stories with different foods. We are always changing.

A wise vegan once said to Mrs Lomez, ‘you can always buy vegetables wherever you go’ and so vegan travelling is easy if you can fall back on preparing your own food. What you then miss out on is the experience of eating regional food, literally consuming culture. But how does the eager traveller come to a singular notion of culture in whichever country they seek to experience, to expose their ever-widening mind to? How many meat-eaters does it take to create a tradition? How many vegans?

Other traditions, such as bopping people on the head with inflated plastic hammers at Porto’s Festa de São João, are not centred around food and involve no real harm.

Until next time,

Mrs Lomez

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