Food As the Universal Language of All Cultures: Experiences in Vegetarianism Around the World

By Sarina Jain, Manager at GiveDirectly

As someone who was raised vegetarian by two Jain parents (Jainism is a religion in which one of the central beliefs is non-violence toward all living beings) and who has been (more or less) vegan for the last decade, food is a big part of my life.


When I travel, I love using food as a point of entry to better understand a new culture. Unsurprisingly, it’s not always straightforward to be vegetarian/vegan everywhere in the world. And for me, that exact challenge has been one of my biggest ways of learning what it means to be culturally competent.



Let me share a few examples of what this has looked like for me.

  • When I traveled in Peru some years ago, I ordered a vegetarian dish at a restaurant, but then when the food came out, it had little bits of ham sprinkled throughout. When I told the server I had ordered a vegetarian dish, she proclaimed “don’t worry, it’s vegetarian ham!” I have yet to discover what that truly means (it was far before the time of Beyond Meat…) but if nothing else, it goes to show that the definition of “vegetarianism” itself can vary widely across cultural contexts.

  • When my family and I visited Vietnam, we anticipated it would be tough to find vegetarian food. Indeed, telling people we were “vegetarian” or “vegan” led to invariable amounts of confusion, but we soon realized that if we told people we followed a Buddhist diet – which involves no meat or seafood – we were immediately understood. Sometimes, it’s just about knowing what resonates culturally; in this case, the term “vegetarian” didn’t, but “Buddhist” did, which made sense given that Buddhism is a fairly common religion in Vietnam.

  • When I was in college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Chile. I lived with a host family, and they were – shall we say – enthusiastic meat eaters. They were incredibly gracious about preparing vegetarian dishes for me at home, my host mom would occasionally lament that she felt like she wasn’t able to share so many of the most traditional dishes with me because they all contained meat (like cazuela, a hearty Chilean stew that typically features beef). Until one day, when she realized she could buy soy meat in the grocery store and use that as a substitute in her dishes. Even though I don’t normally purchase or eat a lot of faux meat myself, I was so grateful that she had done it, so that I could participate more fully in meals with the family.

Most recently, just before the pandemic, I was living in Tamale, a city in Northern Ghana. West Africa is not known for being especially vegetarian/vegan friendly – in Tamale, particularly, meat was a central part of the diet. For me, it was an interesting challenge to figure out how I could navigate being true to my own cultural values and still try to experience the culture I was surrounded by in the moment. In some cases, I was able to find dishes I could try (a dish called kelewele, which is a combination of fried, spiced plantains and roasted peanuts that’s often sold by street-side vendors, was one of my absolute favorites), but in other instances I decided to just ask questions and learn as much as I could about a particular food, without necessarily partaking myself.


Altogether, these experiences have been my way of learning that increasing my understanding of other cultures can look different across settings. Sometimes it means immersing myself fully and flexing a bit with my diet to do so, and other times it means maintaining my own dietary practices but still being as curious as I can be from afar, knowing that food is often one of the best windows into another culture.


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