There’s a common misconception that it’s crazy hard and/or damn near impossible to be a vegetarian in Latin America, including in Mexico.
You can absolutely be a vegetarian and still enjoy eating and experiencing the local cuisine.
Cross my heart, I promise.
happily drinking a vegetarian, Clamato-free Michelada in Chiapa de Corzo
I’ve been a strict vegetarian for nearly 20 years, living and traveling in Latin America for 5 of them, and loving (pretty much) every minute of it.
You, too, can have an absolute blast as a vegetarian in Mexico, and stuff your face at every possible opportunity without consuming animal products, by taking advantage of my triumphs and failures that I’ll shamelessly be sharing in this post.
The fresh veggies, the unique fruits, the assortment of delicious natural protein-filled meat alternatives (like beans and mushrooms and huitlacoche), the complex sauces and spices and seasonings!: Mexico can be a vegetarian’s dream.
I’ll be the first to admit, it is a bit harder, a bit more complicated, and requires a bit more patience to survive and thrive as a vegetarian in Mexico, as compared to our carnivorous counterparts.
In Latin America, and Mexico specifically, you’ll need bit more preparation and an awareness of the culture and language (or a Mexican Spanish phrasebook/Kindle download), but it’s by no means impossible or even unenjoyable… if you know these few tips and tricks.
1. Understand what vegetarian is assumed to mean.
As vegetarians, we might assume that everyone thinks of the word we use to define ourselves the same way we do. Most likely, if you’re a self-defined vegetarian, you don’t eat any product that uses any animal’s flesh: chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish (though you might still eat cheese, milk, and eggs), including stock, broth, and/or lard made from these animals. If you’re a pescatarian, you add in fish to your repertoire, and if you’re a “flexitarian” you’re a bit flexible with what you do and don’t eat.
The average vegetarian, though, isn’t that flexible, for health, animal-loving, or religious reasons (or all 3, like me!). If you’ve been a longtime vegetarian, even a little bit of meat “flexibility” (whether intended or not) in your dietary definition can wreak havoc on your stomach and your health.
So it’s important to get this out of the way to start with: your definition of vegetarian and the average Mexican cook’s definition probably don’t match up.
Especially in more traditional and small-town eateries, something can be considered to be vegetarian if it doesn’t have chunks of meat in it. It could (and likely is) still be prepared with lard or animal-based broth. I’ve been there, and suffered the stomach-stabbing and guilt-inducing consequences.
Vegetarian is also often assumed to mean without red meat. Chicken or fish is still considered fair game, and sometimes even pork.
Instead of saying you’re a vegetarian (Soy vegetariano/a), you can say you don’t eat meat, chicken, fish, or seafood (No como carne, pollo, pescado ni mariscos) or more strongly, that you cannot eat meat, chicken, fish, or seafood (No puedo comer carne, pollo, pescado ni mariscos), and then look out for hidden meat ingredients (like lard and broth) on specific dishes, which we’ll talk about below.
2. Watch out for a few frequent offenders.
Tamales are not vegetarian even if the fillings are
These foods, while they may seem vegetarian-friendly (and will likely be offered to you as such) are actually generally not and usually made with animal items.
You should be most careful for animal-based broths (used in soups and thick savory sauces like some moles) and lard (which could be smeared on almost anything that is fried).
Soup is frequently made with chicken or bone broth. Ask specifically what kind of broth (“caldo”) is used in the soup. (Qué tipo de caldo hay en la sopa? Hay caldo de pollo en la sopa?)
You want “caldo de vegetales” or “caldo de jitomate”, which means vegetable brothe or tomato broth.
Refried beans are commonly made with lard. Ask specifically and make your waiter/the vendor aware that you cannot eat lard. (Hay manteca en estos frijoles? No puedo comer manteca.)
Tamales sold on street corners are almost without fail greased with pork lard. They are made in advance, usually at the home of the vendor, so don’t ask for a vegetarianized version, it won’t be possible on the spot.
If you’d like to try a vegetarian version, check out the chain called Tamalli which has vegetarian and vegan versions.
Sopes usually have a thin layer of pork lard smeared on the top before being covered with beans or something else. Ask for the sopes without lard before ordering to check that it’s possible. (Puedo tener los sopes sin manteca?)
The Canadian clam-tomato drink has taken Mexico by storm. Clamato is frequently used as an ingredient in Bloody Marys and in Micheladas. If you’re into one of those drinks (Bloody Marys are my FAVE) be sure to specify each and every time that you want it sin clamato.
I spent four gut-knotting days in Isla Mujeres wondering why Bloody Marys were making me feel worse, not better, until I saw the bartender making them with Clamato and, after discussing it with him, found out that it’s common practice.
3. Never ask if there’s vegetarian food on the menu.
If you ask “tiene comida vegetariana?” in most cases, the answer will be a confused and nervous no. In worst cases, the answer will be yes, and you’ll be given something that is most definitely NOT vegetarian (like soup made with chicken broth).
Remember, it is not the host culture’s responsibility to be aware of your dietary requirements and definitions. That’s your responsibility. As a visitor, it is up to you to figure out what you can and cannot eat.
So, check out the menu, and ask about specific items (see #4 for suggestions) that you know are vegetarian-friendly. Very rarely have I seen a menu that didn’t have at least a few vegetarian items.
If you’ve stumbled across a meat-heavy menu, have no fear! Choose a type of food you like (tacos are a good fallback), and ask if the vendor/restaurant can substitute the arrachera/pollo/cochinita pibil for a vegetarian filling (check out #5 for suggestions!) you can eat. I have never had a vendor or restaurant decline to make a specifically-requested vegetarianization of a menu item for me. The key is to be specific, be polite, and be patient.
4. Have a few tried-and-true favorites to fall back on.
If the tortilla soup on offer is made with “caldo de jitomate” rather than “caldo de pollo”, you KNOW that’s what I’m getting
These items are almost always vegetarian (exceptions are noted). If you’re at a loss and can’t figure out something to eat, ask if the restaurant/vendor can whip you up one of these common items.
One of my breakfast favorites, the ingredients for this dish are so simple that pretty much any vendor will be able to make it for you in a pinch. Basically, chilaquiles are salsa-fried chips (totopos), sprinkled with cheese (queso) and cream (crema), and sometimes a fried (estrellado) or scrambled (revuelto) egg is added.
*Sometimes this dish comes with chicken. To be safe rather than sorry, confirm: Sin pollo, por favor.
Tortillas stuffed with your choice of chicken/meat or cheese (go with the cheese: queso), covered in red or green sauce, and sprinkled with a bit more cheese and cream.
*Confirm: Sin pollo, sin carne por favor.
Tacos are pretty self-explanatory and popular everywhere. The tortilla is heated up, and then a filling added.
Quesadillas are like tacos but heated after the filling is added (or in addition to before). Usually containing cheese (while in the US quesadillas ALWAYS have cheese, in Mexico City it’s not necessarily included).
Tostadas are an open-face, crispy taco.
A torta is a Mexican sandwich on a crusty bread roll.
No vegetarian options on the menu? No problem! Ask to substitute a vegetarian filling (#5, below) for meat.
*Tacos de canasta (soft and a bit slimy-looking, sold streetside in covered baskets) are often steamed in chicken broth.
Guac isn’t my fave idea for a meal’s main course, but it definitely comes through in a pinch and is undoubtedly vegan.
Sopa de tortilla or Sopa de azteca
Depending on the restaurant, these soups are tomato-based, served with chunks of avocado, local white cheese, onion, dried peppers, and fried tortilla strips.
*Sometimes these soups are made with chicken broth (caldo do pollo), but they’re more traditionally made with tomato stock (caldo de jitomate). Sometimes they are served with shredded chicken or chicharrones (fried pork skins), so be sure to ask for “sin pollo y sin chicharrones“.
5. Know some vegetarian-friendly substitutes for any meat-filled dish.
a super cheap vegetarianized burrito: I got champinones (mushrooms) in place of meat
If you see something that sounds delicious, but the menu states it’s made with meat products, get creative and bust out those language skills. Try asking the waiter if he or she can substitute meat for something that sounds more appealing to you and more appropriate for your diet.
¿Puede sustituir “INSERT MEAT NAME HERE” por “INSERT ONE OF THE DELICIOUS THINGS BELOW HERE“?
Vegetarian-friendly fillings you can request are frijoles (beans – ask about lard), vegetales asados (grilled vegetables), champiñónes or hongos (mushrooms,) papas (potatoes), flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower), and huitlacoche (“corn truffle” or corn fungus). If you’re not a vegan, you can always ask for queso (cheese) and/or crema (cream) and/or huevos (eggs).
Pin it for Later: How to Survive as a Vegetarian in Mexico
It is certainly a good idea to suggest vegetarian fillings to the vendors! However, during my last trip to the south of Mexico, I found some explicit “vegetarian” options. Maybe it was due to the fact that the places I visited were touristic or Mexico is more conscious of vegetarians now 🙂
Occasionally, I find explicit vegetarian options as well, especially in places that get a lot of tourists (and vegetarians). But in less touristy towns and more traditional eateries, there will be very few vegetarian-friendly options on the menu (if at all, and never explicitly marked as such). While I think there is a growing awareness of vegetarianism throughout the world (yay!), that doesn’t usually extend to simpler restaurants in places off the tourist trail. I don’t want vegetarians to feel as though they need to stick to the tourist trail when they definitely don’t.
Great advice Steph,
I only wish I’d read it (or something similar) before my first trip to Mexico. For the first couple of weeks everything seemed soo easy… Then I found out about the lard!
By the way, since you’ve lived in Puebla, are there any good vegetarian or veggie friendly restaurants that you can recommend near the Zocalo?
This was very helpful, thanks!