South American countries top the world rankings in terms of annual meat consumption per person (particularly beef). Similar to what used to be the case in Britain, consuming meat in South America is completely embedded in the culture and goes without saying – it is the norm and it is hardly ever questioned. This is the case in every country, as my research suggests, but particularly strong in Argentina and Uruguay, the two meat exporters par excellence…
However, this is not to say that vegetarians won’t find other options, but they will need to search carefully, and do some preparation before venturing into the most carnivore of continents. There are plenty of other choices, involving potatoes, rice and other carbohydrates. Pizza and pasta are two fairly safe options. However, meat stocks and other meat by-products can quickly infiltrate the so-called vegetarian dishes.
If you are a vegetarian, be clear about what you eat and don’t eat. Some people will make the assumption that you don’t eat fish, diary or eggs – so it helps to learn a few words in Spanish (or Portuguese) to explain your requirements. You will find that South Americans in general will not be used to vegetarians but are very hospitable and people will generally make every effort to please you and make you feel comfortable. That might involved a joke or two, but the overall intention will be to make you feel at home.
You will also find that people often ask “why?!” when you say you are a veggie. Don’t take this as an offence, just explain it briefly and accept that others might not agree with you. A health professional from Uruguay told me recently that until not that long ago, someone not eating beef would be indicating that they were seriously poorly – beef was often one of the first foods that those with cancer would give up, so not having meat is quickly associated with illness. Could there be any other reason not to have meat?! I am not saying I agree with this way of thinking and it is definitely not the norm for those with a more global outlook (younger people with internet access, for example!) – but just be aware of how others might perceive your own choices. I remember travelling around South America with my veggie mother-in-law and my relatives whispering to me with very concerned expressions “is she ok? I am asking, because she said she wouldn’t eat meat… does she want to see a doctor?” – if you’ve seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you know what I mean!
Recently, health and financial concerns have driven many South Americans to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Vegetarian restaurants and shops are starting to become more popular and can be found in major cities (not so in smaller towns and the countryside). People are opening up to new options. As with everything, it might take time until vegetarianism spreads in the way it has spread across Europe (particularly Northern Europe). In the meantime, do your research, be open-minded and good luck!
Some interesting links for all those veggies travelling to South America:
http://www.haztevegetariano.com/ – good for vocabulary and has veggie restaurant directory
http://www.ivu.org/spanish/ – International Vegetarian Union including research on Latin America
If you are a vegan, information is even more scarce and you will have to struggle to make your viewpoint understood. However, it is not impossible but your language skills will be challenged as well as your patience! I guess it is the same in the UK, so you will be used to it! How do you say “vegan” in Spanish? As a native Spanish speaker having lived in the UK for over 11 years, I have to admit I didn’t know. I’ve done my research – you are a “vegano”… Good luck!
Would love to hear from veggies and vegans on their opinions on this blog post but also on their own experiences of travelling around South America, particularly on business.
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