Being vegetarian in the UAE

Penelope Walsh's heart goes out to her herbivore friends

The Knowledge

Before we start, let’s just put this out there: there are very few things I won’t eat (at least once). It’s a question I’m often asked – because of my job rather than my personality.

Of course, the food in question has to be ethically farmed, with consideration to sustainability and humane rearing, but if it walks, waddles, flies, swims or bobs (jellyfish tastes pretty good, in case you’re wondering), it’s fair game.

This means the UAE’s restaurants are a playground for me, but I do still feel for those who are more selective about what passes their lips. Since moving to the UAE I’ve made friends with several vegetarians, and I therefore often visit restaurants in the company of herbivores.

The more I eat with vegetarians, the more sympathy I feel for them, because they’re not particularly well catered for in the UAE. There have been instances when waiters have tried to fob off my friends with a fish option; on one outing the waiter was asked to remove meat from a dish but ‘forgot’, instead removing the veg.

I’m most fond of the time when we started a meal with a complimentary bowl of soup, which we were told was made with meat and potatoes. When my friend announced he was vegetarian, the story quickly changed. ‘In that case, it contains just vegetables,’ we were assured (rather unconvincingly).

I’ve visited a number of high-end venues with no vegetarian options at all, and have consequently lost track of the number of mushroom risottos eaten by friends in places that can’t conjure up a more imaginative vegetarian alternative on request.

But some restaurants really do try: one highfalutin venue pulled out all the stops and treated us to an impromptu vegetarian menu (albeit to varying degrees of success – the pepper-coated potatoes and strawberries were a step too far).

However, for all these UAE dining travails, the vegetarians I know are infinitely easier to please than my one carnivore companion. People who eat meat almost exclusively, and always avoid vegetables (even potatoes), pose a much bigger barrier when it comes to ordering a decent meal – even burgers need to lose the lettuce, tomato and the side order of chips. There’s a reason the Atkin’s diet is no longer in vogue. Me? I’m happily sticking to my ‘try everything and anything at least once’ policy.
Penelope Walsh is a Time Out food editor. She is now recruiting for fruitarian friends.

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