By Paige Newman
Buying a few of the brightly-colored, locally-woven tapestries was half the reason for our trip to Oaxaca; I also wanted to feel the dry Mexican sun on my skin, doing the typical get-me-out-of-rainy-Seattle winter vacation. After a day in four airports, I was hungry and curious as to what vegan fare I’d find as I walked around the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Endearingly-broken English called to me from a handwritten sign in a phone booth, “If you are a vegetarian and don’t eat with us, you aren’t a good vegetarian people.” A few blocks away a smiling local standing in front of another restaurant attempted to win my business saying, “Vegetable food. Very good.”
The phone booth sign won my heart, so we made our first venture to “Restaurant Manantial Vegetariano,” found at Tinoco y Palacios #303. “Manantial” refers to a spring or source. As this was the only all-vegetarian restaurant I had heard of through the Lonely Planet Mexico book, I hoped it would be a valuable source of sustenance for me, since I planned to be in Oaxaca for a week! Before my trip, I had done a bit of web research as well, coming up with no results when seeking vegetarian information on Oaxaca.
We ended up eating almost every day at “Manantial,” due to the wonderful service, the peaceful courtyard setting, and the healthy, diverse meals we were fortunate to try. My favorite was a two (U.S.) dollar breakfast of Swiss enchiladas–stuffed corn tortillas–with soy meat (texturized vegetable protein) and tomatillo sauce.
In another meal they replaced chicken with shredded vegetables and topped the enchiladas with the rich Oaxacan specialty–black “mole negro” sauce (made from chilies, chocolate, bananas, pepper, cinnamon and other spices). This candlelight dinner included several courses: mixed green salad, fresh watermelon juice, bread, garbanzo vegetable soup, fruit with honey, and fresh herbal tea for a whopping three dollars!
Though the restaurant was vegetarian, they were very accommodating to my vegan needs, leaving cheese off most dishes and making sure not to give me cereal with yogurt in it. I tried several other restaurants suggested in Lonely Planet as having vegetarian options but found none offering as many vegan meals as “Manantial.”
At many places I would order a side of rice and steamed vegetables, or a “tlayuda” (a crisp corn tortilla) with guacamole and beans, lettuce and salsa. Delicious, but for someone like me who does best eating significant amounts of protein each day, these meals were not enough to fill me. Since protein-rich snacks like soy yogurt, tofu burgers/dogs, and nuts were hard to come by, I felt limited and tired, and usually went back to Manantial needing some more calories.
I feel vegans who do well with less protein would do fine in Mexico, as an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and grains are available at the street markets, like rice, beans, tortillas, and bread, among other staples. For variety, try a local vegetable called nopales (prickly-pear cactus ears) , with a slimy crunchy texture. There are also various unique fruits like the guayaba (guava) and zapote (sweet, from the chicle tree) for the experimental types.
In addition to limited vegan options, another thing to watch out for are hidden ingredients like the lard used in beans, and the chicken or beef stock used in soups. Tourists also need to read their guidebooks for health cautions about particular areas, and always make sure to eat vegetables and fruits that have been peeled and disinfected. The water should only be drunk if bottled and labeled as purified, or well-boiled if drunk in tea. Manantial uses chlorine and disinfectants to purify all produce and water so tourists won’t develop bacterial infections.
Speaking the native language is highly useful in vegan travel abroad, not only for avoiding certain ingredients and ordering carefully, but for enjoyably communicating with the locals. I got to talking with Elioth, the son of the Meza Vivanco family that owns Manantial, wondering how in a culture where vegetarianism is so rare they ended up with a restaurant serving no meat. Surprisingly, the whole family had one-by-one become vegetarian after finding out their father had diabetes and felt much healthier once he switched to a meatless diet. Equally unexpected was that Elioth, though claiming vegetarianism was not a part of their culture, was not only vegetarian but a professional bodybuilding instructor. He looked very healthy and radiant to boot.
When the family opened the restaurant about 2 1/2 years ago, not many Mexicans came, but today some locals frequent Manantial daily. Still, eighty percent of the business they do is to tourists. Elioth claims many locals don’t come, because like in the U.S., there is a stigma attached to vegetarian food that implies all people will find at the restaurant is salad rather than anything filling, which is untrue.
Though I wasn’t able to visit more than Oaxaca in the huge country of Mexico, I felt the vegan choices were similar to what I found in my five months last year in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. In general, the bigger cities had several natural foods restaurants and stores, and the smaller the city was, the lesser your chances of finding something to eat, especially as a vegan.
Overall, I feel the U.S. (at least the West Coast), with its plethora of health food stores and ethnic restaurants, offers more vegan options than the Latin American countries I have visited. But the rich cultures, spirited people, beautiful scenery and inexpensive travel of Latin America keep me going back to more of the Spanish-speaking world, as does the salsa (both the hot sauce and the dance)!
Paige Newman has been a vegetarian for twenty-five years, the last six of which she has been vegan. She enjoys educating people about the vegan diet through public speaking and writing.
This article was originally published in Vegan.com.