Losing My Vegetarianism
After nine months of considering and practicing vegetarianism I thought I would be prepared to carry the belief with me to Spain. I had done some research and talked to a few friends about whether or not such a lifestyle would be possible in Madrid and was told that a little searching would turn up alternative options. The second day I was in the city I realized that “a little searching” was far more than I originally planned in the land of ham.
Madrid has more restaurants and butcher shops boasting pig byproducts than would ever seem possible. Nearly every street corner has assorted porcine parts hanging from the ceiling or at least some kind of swine-including dish. In fact, the busiest late-night eateries are those that serve a good ham sandwich.
Even if pork is not a delicacy you ascribe to, there is a myriad of other incredibly well-prepared foods ranging from a thin-sliced steak to a full octopus on ice for sale. Paella, the specialty and most common dish in Spain, is often cooked with a bit of everything over rice and seasoned with saffron. As Kebab shops offering strips of mystery meat are the saviors of college students on a budget as well. To find a vegetarian version of these dishes one must venture into the small neighborhoods of Madrid and pray some modern family restaurant will take mercy on their kindhearted ways.
And if the carnivore-favoring food is not hard enough to adapt to, there is always the strange eating schedule Spain has in place. For example, the hearty breakfast we Americans consider so important to a healthy lifestyle is replaced in this country with a cup of coffee combined with a pastry or couple pieces of toast. Orange juice is also freshly squeezed at most establishments including bars.
Lunch will not take place until around 4 p.m. after an early afternoon snack. This is when the menu of the day comes into play. Three plates, dessert, and a beverage cost a mere 11 Euros most places and aside from the first round (the appetizer), a vegetarian option is rarely included. Brush up on your Spanish if you want to make a substitution, but be aware that asking can be just as bad as not finishing your plate, which is considered an insult to the chef. Also, coffee comes at the end of the meal with dessert.
Due to the late nightlife of the Spanish, dinner is eaten around 9 or 10 p.m. to prepare for a night on the town that may not end until six in the morning. This can often be replaced by an assortment of tapas: small appetizer-type dishes such as olives or tuna on miniature pieces of garlic bread. Combined with an ice-cold beer while watching a Real Madrid game, tapas can be an excellent substitute for a traditional American dinner.
Do not settle for dessert at your restaurant if it is going to be any less appealing than a warm, soft, well-sugared churro. Good coffee is common most places, but good churros come from a select few. Served with hot chocolate more similar to melted chocolate than a drink, churros are a fried dough-lovers paradise. In fact this is one of the few specialties Madrid is famous for that never includes meat, allowing vegetarians one consistent dish.
Take-out (or take-away as it is called in Europe) is not common. Generally unless you are at a train or bus station and in a rush it is expected you will sit down and enjoy every bite. Asking for the leftovers to go is also a strange request for most wait staff as the family dinner table is so important to Spanish life.
Of course, no one can eat out for every meal every day. This is why the markets and food stands of Madrid are so highly praised. Spain does not use preservatives as heavy-handedly as the United States, so a crate of strawberries will be deliciously natural but only last for a couple days. Open air and indoor markets sell more than just the typical jams, veggies and fruits. Instead there are different meats, wine selections, full supplies of seafood, ice cream delis and a few stalls selling smoothies and sangria in case the shopping has built up a thirst.
So what hope did I have of remaining a vegetarian when meat is always on the menu? It is possible for those who have the willpower to refuse the constant plates of beef, pork, chicken and fish. However, for me the rich delicacies of Spain combined with the importance placed on the sit-down meal was impossible to resist.