It was our sixth restaurant that day.
At each, we looked at the pictures — despite our best efforts, we still hadn't learned Indonesian — and tried to gauge whether each dish had meat.
"Yea, I think that's chicken," I decided. Smiling apologetically at the eager shop owner, we walked out.
"It's OK," Manfriend insisted. "We will find you something." I wasn't so sure, but I kept my mouth shut. At least, in this largely Muslim country, Manfriend was in luck. We didn't have to question about pork in Indonesia as often as we did in Beijing. He wasn't as jaded as me, either. I mean, I'd already spent two years searching for meatless meals.
Turns out, being a vegetarian isn't easy. Not as an expat in China, and sure as hell not as a traveler.
When I made the choice almost two years ago to go vegetarian, it had been a long time coming. In the states, I had noticed myself making the shift. Largely unwilling to cook meat, I mostly stuck to veggies and grains. When ordering out, I was always wary of a meal that would give me a "bad bite" — one that was full of fat or chewiness. Sure, I still ate meat — usually beef, usually ground or pulled — but I couldn't shake the feeling that perhaps I shouldn't.
Looking at the state of meat in China — cooked on dirty grills, no consideration for lean cuts or trimming out fat — it was a no-brainer.
"I will now be a vegetarian," I thought. Shouldn't be hard in the land of cheap produce and great tofu.
Unfortunately, I've been proven very wrong.
In every Asian country I've visited, meat is a staple. From street food to fine dining, everything revolves around meat.
From Singapore to Malaysia, it's all I could do to even find a whole meal. Sure, there were Vietnamese spring rolls or Indonesian gado gado, but outside that, my options were limited. My friends eat like foodie kings while I mumble about yet another bowl of fried rice.
What's more, it's weird to be vegetarian. When we order at our local hotpot restaurant, they cannot fathom why we haven't ordered a meat dish. In the hutong alleyway eateries, it's always the same. "No meat?" they ask. "OK, try this. Just fish."
Standing in line for hotteok at a little stand along one of Busan's snack streets, we noticed a fellow expat couple. I asked if they had any recommendations for a veggie like me. We'd done our research, of course, but expats and locals always know best.
They chuckled awkwardly. "You're clearly not living in Korea."
"No, but we've been in China for a few years now. We've found some good options there."
Yea, not in Korea. Who knew China would be the easy one?
Tucking into a pile of convenience store snacks back at the hostel, I wondered why I did this. But as hard as it is, I won't change.
And going by the quality food I've found in the past, good things really do come to those who wait.