Travelling as a vegetarian can be challenging, depending on where you go in the world. Vegetarian food experiences range from the sublime in places like India where incredible meat-free food abounds, to the challenging – in China, where the concept of vegetarianism is extremely hard to explain and “vegetarian” dishes comes with pork flecks.
On my travels through Africa I’ve never struggled to find vegetarian options anywhere other than Namibia. The Namibian diet is extremely meaty and some places I’ve stayed at there only served meat and potatoes for dinner. Everywhere else I’ve been in Africa there’s always been a veggie option – often a simple but hearty traditional dish of beans, stewed greens and maizemeal (referred to as pap in South Africa, nsima in Malawi, sadza in Zimbabwe, posho in Uganda and phaletshe in Botswana) often with a spicy relish (like chakalaka in South Africa or searingly hot peri peri in Mozambique).
I’ve had some truly memorable vegetarian meals while travelling in Africa – sometimes in the most unexpected places, like from the back of a motorbike in Mauritius or on the side of the road in Uganda. Here are my favourite veggie places and stand out dishes.
South Africa is a fairly meat-heavy place, with braaing (barbecuing) meat the national pasttime of a large majority of the population, and meat and fish featuring predominantly on menus. Having said that, as long as you do your research, there are plenty of great meat-free dishes to be had in conventional restaurants around the country. There are also some pure vegetarian and vegan restaurants, making South Africa one of the easiest countries in Africa to travel as a vegetarian.
I’ve always found better vegetarian food in Cape Town than in Johannesburg. In the Mother City my favourite vegetarian-friendly restaurants are Dear Me (which has healthy dishes such as beetroot carpaccio with feta and quinoa salad), Tokara in the winelands (which only has a few vegetarian options, but they’re all exceptional – like asparagus with miso eggplant, pickled cucumber and tomato jus). O-Ways Tea Café serves up only vegetarian food, and most of it Asian-inspired, paired with teas, while the Test Kitchen, South Africa’s top-awarded restaurant, does a great vegetarian lunch menu with dishes such as soft baked celeriac, roasted red onions and roasted potato skin puree. In Sea Point, casual eatery Nu is my go-to place for healthy vegetarian and vegan food for breakfasts, wraps, green smoothies and salads.
If you do find yourself in Joburg, I’d recommend stopping by Free Food* near Melrose Arch, where the food is literally free of everything — wheat, sugar, gluten, preservatives, additives, meat, and lactose — but shockingly inventive and tasty. Greenside Cafe in Greenside is also worth checking out. They offer mains like crispy sautéed tofu with brown rice, sprouts, wilted spinach, carrots and beetroot, and Mexican pizza with spicy beans, avocado, tomato and cashew nut cream.
I do go to a fair amount of braais and end up eating veggie patties or mushrooms on a skewer. My favourite traditional braai treat though is roosterbrood – bread rolls cooked on the grill – which are often cooked alongside meat, but they can be served on their own too, stuffed with melted butter and apricot jam. Another version of roosterbrood is the toasted sandwich – simply two slices of buttered bread sandwiched together with grated cheese and perhaps some onion and tomato (and for a deluxe version – a fried egg), cooked to a perfect golden brown on the grill – my ultimate camping breakfast meal!
South Africa’s cultural diversity means that the country is home to a wonderful array of cuisines – all the more choices for vegetarians. Cape Malay food, which has a multitiude of influences contributing to rich flavours and spices, has some great meat-free dishes, my favourite of which is dhaltjies, or chilli bites: deep-fried balls of dough made from chickpea flour, onion and turmeric. They’re best served with homemade coriander chutney but they’re also eaten with sweet chilli sauce.
I love Indian food, and luckily don’t have to travel back to India to get my fix – South Africa has some of the best curries outside of the subcontinent. While Cape Town and Joburg have some good Indian restaurants, the best place for Indian food is undoubtedly Durban. In the coastal city there are pure vegetarian restaurants serving cheap and delicious veggie curries and bunny chows (hollowed out bread loaves stuffed with curry) such as Little Gujarat and Patel’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room, but even the non-vegetarian Indian restaurants have amazing meat-free options, like paneer curry, vegetable breyanis, onion pakoras and butternut samosas. My top curry splurge is at the fancy Oyster Box Hotel in uMhlanga, which offers a daily curry buffet with delicious vegetarian options such as sugar bean, vegetable korma and black bean.
Mauritius is near the top of my list of favourite foodie destinations. While there is a lot of fish and seafood (unsurprising for a tropical island) on restaurant menus, Mauritius also has delicious vegetarian food, ranging from streetside snacks of deep fried eggplant and potato fritters to dholl puri — the unofficial national dish – made up of fried thin bread (similar to paratha from India), which is rolled and stuffed with cooked split peas, bean curry, chutney and spicy atchar. There are hole-in-the-wall restaurants selling dholl puri, but I loved buying them from the back of motorbikes – true food on the go!
Mozambique is known for its great seafood and prego steaks, but most foreign tourists don’t know anything about traditional meat-free dishes such as matapa. A stew made from cassava leaves, garlic, coconut milk and ground peanuts and often served with white rice, healthy and filling matapa is the kind of thing I could eat everyday.
Of everything I ate in Uganda, rolexes were the veggie standout. Much cheaper than a gold watch, this tasty snack is sold on the street and cooked up in a matter of minutes: on a flat griddle an egg and onions are fried and then wrapped up in a buttery thick chapatti flat bread with tomatoes. Perfect refueling on long drives between the gorillas and the other national parks!
I loved everything about Lamu, Kenya’s version of the laid-back tropical paradise: the beautiful beaches, the donkeys instead of cars, the quirky guesthouses and incredibly relaxed pace. I also loved trying Swahili food for the first time – a delicious combination of influences from India, the Middle East, Portugal and Africa. My best meal in Lamu was a spicy Swahili curry of chunky vegetables, fresh coconut, coriander, yoghurt, sour pickles, sweet chutney, rice, poppadums and buttery naan bread eaten on the balcony of my room at the Peponi Hotel with an unbeatable view of dhows sailing in the calm Indian Ocean.
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