We knew we were going to have a tough time eating vegan in the Philippines, when our request for help to find vegan food was misinterpreted as an interest in the cuisine from the Filipino town of Vigan. Immediately, we were thankful that we always pack high-protein snacks like nuts, seeds and granola bars.
Despite Lonely Planet’s ill advised recommendation to visit one of the many Korean restaurants in Manila’s Malate district to find vegan fare, we gave up looking at menus after stepping into about half a dozen places.
On our 3-week vacation in the Philippines, we spent about 5 days in Manila. If we were to return to the country’s capital now, we’d have a better idea of what to expect and where to eat. Now we understand a menu item’s picture does not guarantee the ingredients of the ordered dish, as we discovered with a plain-sauced spaghetti that arrived with minced meat and sausage bites.
The next time we faced a menu with spaghetti pomodoro, we tried our best to get the server’s guarantee that our meal would not contain the gamut of foods we choose to avoid. When our food arrived, we hungrily began eating but quickly stopped when we didn’t recognize the taste and texture of a mystery ingredient. Upon asking our server about it, she explained that she added tuna fish because we had insisted we didn’t want to eat any animals.
In both vegan pasta failures, we were issued a full refund, which satisfied our wallets, but left our bellies empty and our hearts a little sadder.
Of course, after almost a week in Manila, we realize that there are plenty of great vegan options. We found a couple of Middle Eastern restaurants to satisfy our hummus and falafel cravings, and although it was a bit out of our budget, we were impressed with the menu of an Indian place close to the Robinsons Mall.
Vegan in Bohol
Explaining what “vegan” means to others can be difficult even when chatting with native English speakers. Throw in a language barrier, and we sometimes have to add in a bit of charades, sound effects and maybe a round or two of Pictionary. In Bohol, Philippines, however, our guesthouse owner understood without all the games. We were introduced to the traditional Filipino dish of sari sari, which is a combination of root vegetables in a mild, rather flavorless, sauce. But at least it was something we could eat. Accompanied by an order of garlic rice, we went to bed full and happy to have eaten a warm meal.
Of course, we understand that our dietary restrictions are cumbersome. We also recognize that we need to develop a sense of humor to handle the countless miscommunications that are bound to occur. When we journeyed to Bohol’s famous Chocolate Hills, Ligeia wondered if the hills were vegan. We admit, our mouths watered a little as we contemplated the prospect of these mounds being made of dark chocolate. Alas, the possibility milk chocolate stopped us from taking that first bite!
Our good mood continued along the ride back to our guesthouse as we passed a sign that advertised “Vegetarian Food”. Of course, we had to stop. It turned out to be a restaurant at the Butterfly Park and this is where we got our first straight-from-the-menu meal WITH protein since we had entered the Philippines.
On the quiet island of Siquijor, we were doubtful that we’d be able to find vegan food as we passed numerous front yards with pigs, cows and chickens tied to trees or posts. We rented a beachfront condo equipped with a full kitchen, and after a trip to a local market, we had enough to cook spaghetti with a very basic tomato sauce.
We also discovered Sylvia’s Restaurant, along the southern shore that offered moringa soup, made from the leaves of the ever-present moringa plant, which we were told is packed with protein. Regardless, the food was tasty and the generator-backed Wi-Fi signal stayed strong even when the island lost power, which happens quite frequently.
When we visited Donsol in the hopes of snorkeling with whale sharks, we were delighted to discover the traditional Bicol meal of Laing, a flavorful dish made of taro leaves stewed in coconut milk. Luckily, the restaurant where we stayed offered this dish without the standard ingredient of pork, so we were able to enjoy it daily. Other than that, however, our diet consisted mainly of vegetable stir-fry, supplemented with handfuls of peanuts.
We left the Philippines with the conclusion that our difficulties in finding vegan food is, so far, second only to finding suitable fare in Tibet. Our sense of humor helped us survive the lack of variety, and it also assisted us with teaching others the definition of veganism. We still smile when we think of the shocked face and loud “Whoa!” we received from the hotel clerk in Cebu City, when we explained “it’s like vegetarian, but one step further.” Unsurprisingly, this same hotel served up the blandest breakfast Mindy’s ever had, which included white bread, white rice and a not quite ripe banana.