The Collegian
Thursday, July 09, 2020

INTERNATIONAL OPINION: Navigating Spain as a Vegetarian

<p>Jamón ibérico hanging in a restaurant in Seville, Spain, just before it had been served to customers.&nbsp;</p>

Jamón ibérico hanging in a restaurant in Seville, Spain, just before it had been served to customers. 

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

In 2017, the number of pigs slaughtered in Spain outnumbered the Spanish population by 3.5 million, according to BBC News. Imagine then, what it’s like to spend a semester eating in the land of jamón ibérico as a lifelong vegetarian.

My family has shifted between vegan and vegetarian diets my entire life, and although I occasionally eat eggs and dairy now, I have never had intentions of trying meat, poultry or fish. As plant-based diets have become trendier in the United States, my diet has become easier to maintain, but not all countries and cultures have jumped on that bandwagon.

Having spent part of my summer in 2018 studying abroad in Córdoba, Argentina, I learned firsthand that most cultures with Spanish influence prize meat above all other foods. In Córdoba, I spent six weeks eating boiled root vegetables; salads drenched in salt since, as my host mother claimed, “vegetables have no flavor”; pasta smothered in cheese; lots of bread; and, above all else, more cheese empanadas than anyone’s stomach could handle. 

A lot of my friends assumed that I’d be eating rice, beans and tons of fresh fruit, but Argentina’s gastronomy more closely resembles those of its Italian and Spanish predecessors. Although I loved being there, not being able to eat normally significantly affected my health and moods. I was tired a lot of the time, and my stomach began to hurt. I was also more irritable, which impacted my relationship with my host mother, professors and classmates.

With that experience fresh in mind, I was nervous to study abroad in Spain in the fall of 2019. As much as I wanted to improve my Spanish, I didn’t think my stomach or morale could handle a whole semester with such a limited diet. When considering countries and programs to study abroad in, I heavily evaluated how challenging it would be for me to eat. I picked Madrid in part because I figured a large, capital city in Europe would be most likely to have varied food options, and my research supported that. I also opted to stay in a student apartment rather than with a host family. I would’ve preferred the latter but feared that a Spanish family would struggle to include me in their meals, as that had become a problem for me during my stay in Argentina.

One of my cousins who stayed with a host family in Madrid in 2014 told me he didn’t eat a single vegetarian meal all semester. "Meat was the main ingredient in every meal my host mother cooked, and I wasn't allowed to cook for myself," he said. "Spain is kind of old-fashioned, and the kitchen is, like, the mother's pride and joy." 

Upon arriving in Madrid, I realized that my assumptions about the pig-filled country were only partially correct. Although smaller cities in Spain might not have heard of tofu yet, Madrid is pretty inclusive of the vegan and vegetarian diets. There are still lots of full legs of jamón ibérico on display in most grocery stores, but there are also small bio sections offering vegan protein, almond milk and many other staples of the vegan diet. These sections are not extensive but generally include anything you’d need. Cooking for myself in Madrid may have challenged me, but it wasn’t for lack of available ingredients.

Going out for the traditional Spanish tapas, however, was always a battle. Never wanting to be anti-social posed a challenge when, on a menu of 50 or so tapas, I could eat about five of them and, aside from hummus and patatas bravas, a classic Spanish dish of fried potatoes tossed in spicy aioli sauce, almost none of them were appealing to anyone else. One of the most popular spots was Museo de Jamón, or Museum of Ham, which speaks for itself. Plant-based cafés do exist, and some restaurants mark V (vegan) or VG (vegetarian) on their menus, but the diet itself is still not popular culturally. Most traditional Spanish dishes feature animal products of some kind so, while I could certainly go out to eat, checking the menu online first was a must.

Because I have always kept this diet, I am used to being limited in terms of enjoying meals out with others and using the ingredients available to me. With that in mind, my overall experience eating abroad was not as challenging as I expected and was much easier than Argentina had been. Traveling outside of Madrid was more difficult, but what may have been the most interesting aspect of eating abroad was the reactions of my peers, both Spanish and American, to my diet. My Spanish classmates and friends were intrigued by my lack of interest in trying meat, but more of them than I expected told me they were considering or were already eating less for environmental reasons. My American peers, mostly from UR, were surprised by how much I thought about where I went and what I ate. 

When visiting Seville, for example, my friend John Philippou, a UR junior, and I had to walk for close to an hour to find a place that served food I could eat, an experience that completely shocked him. "I never realized how tough this must be for you," he said. "I usually just walk up to a place and can eat there — I wouldn't look at the menu first unless it was for something specific."  

Whereas Madrid is a major city and has a lot of options, Seville offers dishes that are more traditionally Spanish, which means a lot of meat and fish. As menu after menu let us down, I debated eating olives and bread for dinner, or just sitting with John while he ate and then buying something from a grocery store after. He was upset by those ideas, and luckily we eventually found a menu suitable for both of us. 

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"I would feel so bad eating if all you had was bread and olives," John said. I, on the other hand, was not too fazed. I am always thankful when people want to accommodate for my diet but never expect it. It's a choice I am committed to, but I would never want to inconvenience others because of it.

Several of my friends came to realize how narrow the options sometimes can become for my diet as they saw me navigate eating while abroad, and I also understood how different that is from most people’s experiences. John was just one of many friends to see that eating for me, outside of D-hall, requires planning and poses challenges. I also realized how my diet might significantly limit what sort of nutrition I can get throughout travel, especially when traveling with others who do eat meat. That being said, I would never change my diet and think anyone with dietary restrictions can find ways to study and eat abroad.

Contact features writer Grace Kiernan at grace.kiernan@richmond.edu.

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