Before launching VegNews in 2000 and immersing myself as a full-time professional vegan, I lived another kind of life (read my story here!). Instead of an office, I had an all-access pass to the world. Travel was my passion, and with my life-long interest in Asian culture and history, I spent two years post-college visiting such countries as Japan, India, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia. I traveled by plane, train, boat, bus, rickshaw, and pretty much every other form of transportation out there, soaking in everything I could along the way.
Armed with just a backpack and my passport, my freedom and sense of independence was awakened. I learned to value and trust my own intuition (there’s nothing like being alone on an Indian train in the middle of the night to get you to rely on your instincts). And while my experiences traveling as a young, single woman have served me well in the decades since, perhaps the most important life lessons I learned were those gleaned from the incredible places I visited.
I realize how lucky I am to have had these formative travel experiences, and understand that not everyone can hop on a plane and start a multi-year globetrotting adventure like I did. But perhaps the lessons I learned abroad will help you re-examine some of your own habits and branch out to to discover some new ways of exploring your relationship to food, to the world, and to yourself. Off we go!
9 Lessons That Changed My Life:
80% Rule in Japan
I began my post-college travels by teaching English in Japan, where I learned the art of balance and moderation in the way we eat. While fast and processed foods are definitely part of the food culture, traditional mainstays like rice, soy, vegetables, and fermented foods are still revered as the ideal foods for a healthy, happy, balanced life. From the Japanese, I learned the 80 percent rule—known as hara hachi bu—whereby people are conditioned from an early age to only eat until they’re only 80 percent full (eating slower also helps us realize when we’ve reached that point). I can’t claim that I’ve fully mastered the art of hara hachi bu (I love food, and always want to keep eating!), but this is something I strive for since it always makes me feel good.
Food as Pleasure in France
During one summer in college, I spent three months in France: eight weeks as an au pair and four weeks in Paris on my own. The French are renowned for their joie de vivre, or ability to fully enjoy every aspect of life. Never is this approach to life more obvious than when it comes to food rituals. In France, joy doesn’t come simply from eating food, but from shopping for it, discussing it, preparing it, and serving it. There are some formal rules that govern the dining experience (no snacking between meals, except at 4pm—the hour of the gouté), but mostly, it’s about eating food that is high quality and as lovely to look at as it is to taste. Sitting around the table with friends and family and savoring each bite is a ritual I’ll never grow tired of (nor is the optional glass of wine at lunch and dinner!).
Hot Soup in Vietnam
What to eat when it’s hot and humid outside? Soup, of course! While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s customary in tropical countries to eat a steaming bowl of soup on an equally sweltering day. Locals know that eating hot foods makes you perspire, and perspiration is simply the body’s own cooling system. Throughout Vietnam at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sidewalks would fill up with diners slurping large bowls of freshly made pho—a brothy soup with rice noodles, bean sprouts, star anise, lemongrass, and fresh lime. Yum!
Spices in India
Finding veg food in India is easy, since restaurant signs are almost always clearly broadcast either “veg” or “non-veg.” And in the oasis known as the veg kitchen (be it a restaurant or a home), the flavors that await are dazzling. Even something as simple as basmati rice (often with a few cardamom pods tossed in the pot) and dahl (spiced lentils) is a feast for the senses, and it’s no wonder: spice powders don’t come from a jar, but from whole cloves, peppers, mustard seeds, and other spices that are roasted and ground as needed for each dish. In every household, a stainless steel container filled with fresh spices is always kept stove-side for use all day long.
- Simple Cooking in China
While roaming a market one morning in a small village in Southern China 25 years ago, I was approached by a friendly woman and her teenage son who invited me, in pantomime, to be a guest at their house for a home-cooked lunch. After traveling solo for months, I was eager for company, and accepting that invitation formed the basis of one of my most beloved travel memories. Sitting on the dirt floor of their modest rural home, I was served a multi-course vegan feast of grains, tofu, and home-grown vegetables. Each dish was prepared using a single wok on an open-flame kitchen fire. No Instant Pot, no Vitamix, and definitely no microwave; proof that nourishing ourselves needn’t be an overly complicated act—and that accepting the kindness of strangers is sometimes the most rewarding risk we can take.
- Clean Eating in Nepal
People come to Nepal for many reasons, many of them rooted in spirituality. They come to experience the majesty of the Himalayas, to commune with nature in the great outdoors, and to steep themselves in the mystery and magic of the thousands upon thousands of temples in every corner of the country. Years ago, I embarked on a one-week trek in the Himalayas with my college roommate, and three times a day, we ate the country’s beloved dal bhat—rice served with an uncomplicated yet flavorful lentil soup spiced with ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and onion—plus locally grown, seasonal vegetables. We felt deeply nourished and energized for our hikes, and never tired of this thrice-daily meal.
La Dolce Vita in Italy
You’ve seen it in movies: the Italian family meal, served at a long table outdoors in the shade of a verdant canopy. Wine is sipped, spaghetti is slurped, and la dolce vita is the mealtime motto. I can tell you, from experience, that these mid-day events really are a part of the culture (even if it’s mostly on Sundays, these days). The Italians have mastered the art of living well, and it’s more than just sharing festive meals together. They know how to relax, connect, and stay present, whether it’s through reading, socializing with friends, strolling through a piazza, or enjoying a scoop of gelato. I can’t say I am anywhere near this level of life balance, but I keep trying!
Self-Care in Bali
I wasn’t 100 percent sure what to expect when I visited Bali for the first time; I knew it was a mostly-Hindu Island (the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim), that spirituality and religion were important parts of the culture, and that it attracted seekers from around the world hoping to tap into some of that island magic. What I found was an oasis of warm and welcoming people, incredible cuisine (hello, fresh tempeh!), and … spas. Yes, spas! One of Bali’s not-so-secret secrets is its tradition of massage and wellness rituals, and with a favorable exchange rate, even backpackers like me on that first trip in the 90s can experience the healing benefits of sasak and other Balinese massage techniques. Self-care isn’t something we should practice every once in a while, but on the regular. And the Balinese have it down!
Ayurveda in Sri Lanka
For years, I dined at a vegetarian restaurant in Santa Cruz, CA called Malabar. Owned by an incredibly gifted Sri Lankan family, the food was some of the best I’ve ever had (think mango salads, plantain curries, and housemade flatbreads), and now the Northern California office of VegNews is located right next to this wonderful eatery. In 2010, this loving family invited me to visit their home in Sri Lanka—a country to where I had wanted to visit for years. In desperate need of a vacation, my brother and I set off for what would be one of the greatest trips I’ve ever taken. We were welcomed into the home of my Sri Lankan friends, prepared divine vegan feasts made with locally grown produce, and had a chance to explore other parts of the country by train. During my short visit there, I took time to deepen my knowledge of ayurveda, an ancient South Asian system of healing that helps achieve holistic wellness by balancing mind, body, and spirit. I am fascinated by this 5,000-year-old wellness practice, and try to integrate its practices however I can.