Vegetarian on the Camino de Santiago
Oh España, land of jamón ibérico (ham), morcilla (black blood pudding), pulpo (octopus), and chorizo (sausage). For us vegetarians, decoding the meat-centric menu can be a nightmare (especially if you don’t speak the language), and worrying about not having anything to eat on an exciting trip like the Camino (más pan por favor?) is the last thing any of us wants to worry about.
Our meat-eating friends will be dining on bocadillos (sandwiches) with freshly sliced meat, eating tapas without worrying about what that mysterious ingredient is, and the menu del día or pilgrim’s menu without having to figure out how to ask the restaurant owner (en Español) about substitutions and risk being the annoying tourist everyone hates. So now we ask ourselves the question we get asked all the time:
You’re a vegetarian in Spain, what the heck are you going to eat?
Oh dearest salad-loving friends, fear not, I know the answers to your leafy questions. Spain is a paradise of fresh meat for those who enjoy it, but it is also full of some UH-MAZING vegetarian options as well! The good news is, as the Camino de Santiago becomes more popular, so too do the number of vegetarian pilgrims who walk it. Many restaurant and albergue owners understand the needs of vegetarians and offer items or special menus if you just ask (keep in mind, sometimes fish is considered vegetarian, so if that’s not your style, make sure you say you don’t eat fish: no como pescado). Here’s what to ask for at restaurants + what you can look for in grocery stores/street vendors which will keep you full and energized on the Camino (yes, I also have a mother who constantly worries about protein deficiency, I know what’s up):
1. TORTILLA. This, is not the flour or corn tortilla wrapped around your favorite veggie taco or burrito. Tortilla in Spain means omelette, and get used to it because this will be your best friend. The two most common forms of tortilla are tortilla francesa (literally just the egg part of the tortilla—no cheese, onion, nada) and tortilla española (thick omelette of egg, potato, and usually onion…it’s delicious). I say that this will be your bet friend because it’s a typical and safe option at virtually every restaurant/albergue/food stand you come across, and unless it specifically says so, it is not made with meat. Try also: bocadillo de tortilla: basically a tortilla on french bread (carbs + protein= meal of pilgrims). My favorite bocadillo toward the end was a bocadillo de tortilla francesa con queso y tomate (plain omelette sandwich with cheese and tomato).
2. HUEVOS FRITOS. Seriously, they love their eggs in Spain. Huevos fritos = fried eggs. This plate is usually literally two fried eggs with patatas (french fries), and it usually it comes with chorizo (sausage) as well, so simply ask for no chorizo, or sometimes I would ask for a substitution of veggies or cheese. Also common: huevos rotos (scrambled eggs). The above picture is from Ana Maria’s awesome vegetarian-friendly restaurant in the small town of Agés: Albergue San Rafael Restaurante (I highly recommend stopping here).
3. ENSALADA MIXTA. I often found salad in Spain to be extremely dissatisfying…especially after walking 25+ km day, you need more than that! Ensalada mixta is usually a safe vegetarian bet as long as it doesn’t have atún (tuna). It is always a base of iceberg lettuce with tomato, and will sometimes also have pickled asparagus, canned corn, carrots, and hard-boiled egg. It can sometimes be a nice first course of a menú peregrino, especially if you’re feeling a little veggie-deprived, but I found it difficult to find quality fresh produce when eating out (and pickled/canned vegetables are not exactly my style).
4. MACARONES. False cognate alert! This does not mean Mac & Cheese. Macarones = pasta, usually with tomato sauce. YAY MORE CARBS!
5. PATATAS BRAVAS. HOLY MOTHER OF YUM! This is probably my favorite Spanish tapa out of all Spanish tapas ever to be in existence. Potato wedges + a spicy tomato aioli? Gimme! Be warned: I also had the most awful “patatas bravas” in León. Usually if you are ordering something and it has a side of patatas that means french fries, so at one restaurant I ordered patatas bravas and it came out as a plate of french fries with ketchup and garlic ranch sauce…gross. Don’t worry, most restaurants get it right.
6. CALDO GALLEGO. The first time I had this amazing soup was in O Cebreiro, a gorgeous town at the top of a mountain with the most beautiful views I had ever seen. This was the first town in Galicia and the temperature was quite a bit cooler than what we had been experiencing at the beginning of the Camino, so soup was calling my name. Caldo Gallego is a traditional Galician soup which usually has some sort of greens in it. At the restaurant in O Cebreiro, the broth was potato-based and DELICIOUS, but everywhere else I tried to order, it was always a meat-based broth. This is a difficult vegetarian situation to both communicate in Spanish and understand culturally (there aren’t actual meat chunks after all), so definitely try it in O Cebreiro, but maybe skip it after that.
SUPERMERCADOS: Most peregrinos opt to snag food from grocery stores rather than restaurants both because it is more budget-friendly, and there are sometimes more options. I mentioned that I had a difficult time finding quality produce in restaurant dishes, but there are definitely some awesome fruit and veggie selections at most supermarkets. Additionally, supermarkets are a great way to make friends with fellow peregrinos because you can make some awesome community dinners in the albergue usually for only 1-2 € each. Pro tip: check to see what your albergue kitchen supplies before you buy your groceries. Many kitchens at the beginning of the albergue are fully stocked, but toward the end of the Camino (especially in Galicia), the kitchens have no utensils, pans, or plates. Sometimes the albergue won’t even have a kitchen at all.
SPECIAL ITEMS: Above I listed the usual items that are safe bets on Spanish menus. Keep in mind, that as the Camino grows in popularity, restaurant owners have expanded menus to accommodate vegetarian diets (I even saw some gluten-free options!). The above foods made up the majority of my diet, but I was also able to order ratatouille, mushroom risotto, pizza, and roasted (fresh) veggies.
BEWARE OF THESE ITEMS: Some items on the menu may seem like they’re vegetarian, but unfortunately they’re not:
- Lentejas (lentils) or garbanzos: I had these once as a vegetarian option (the chef understood vegetarian needs), but the lentejas dish often has more than one type of meat in it, so STAY AWAY.
- Sopa (soup): Even if it claims it is a veggie soup, the broth is often meat-based (as I sadly discovered from my beloved caldo gallego). This is a good rule of thumb for any soup/stew concoction.
- Paella: Paella is an amazing rice dish from southern Spain. Typically this dish has seafood, though many menus will have vegetable paella. Veggie paella is fair game, but on the Camino, it won’t be the good stuff. You can get authentic paella in southern Spain, but the stuff they sell along the Camino is a packaged/frozen brand (not a terrible option when you’re sick of eggs though, just make sure it’s veggie!).
AND if you’re still worried about getting enough protein while walking the Camino (valid concern: the Camino is no joke), my future mother-in-law packed these protein smoothie powder packets for me that are super easy, don’t take much space in the backpack, and all you need to do is add them to water. They were definitely helpful some days when I realized I hadn’t had any protein yet.