Is It Difficult for Vegetarians to Fit Into French Culture?

In French culture, traditional French meals are meat-based, or at least include fish, with the exception of breakfast, which is very small and might just consist of a tiny piece of toast that seems more like an accompaniment to a cup of coffee.

Too Many Meat-Based Classic French Dishes to Explore

Confit de canard, steak tartare, sole meunière ... these are all classic French dishes that are considered a must when experiencing French cuisine. Of course, there are smaller options for lighter meals that focus on vegetables, such as ratatouille and soupe à l’oignon, but even this last might use a meat stock. Indeed, ingredients such as broth are things that constantly frustrate vegetarians in their efforts to find foods that they can eat while traveling, unless they are traveling in parts of the world where meat consumption is significantly lower, such as India. Tradition and religion have a considerable influence on the number of vegetarians in India and illustrate the role of a country’s history in what is offered in a typical meal.

The Number of Vegetarians in France Remains Low

Statistically, the number of vegetarians in France remains low, at 2%, according to Le Monde in 2017 and 3-5% in 2018, according to The Telegraph. Yet interest in a vegetarian diet seems to be growing in France, with more and more vegetarian restaurants and information available about vegetarian diets. There are events such as Veggie World, a fair that displays vegetarian food options and offers visitors literature on becoming vegetarian, which was hosted in Paris just this year. There is even Veggie Pride, also hosted in Paris, which promotes vegan lifestyles. The rising profile of those who eschew the consumption of animal products is changing the gastronomic landscape of France ... at least in Paris. It’s true that finding vegetarian options is easier in the more urban areas of France, as these are more likely to be influenced by people coming and going and bringing new ideas about cuisine with them.

As with other cultural issues, it is important to be aware of customs and developments in regional cuisine, especially since your first perceptions might not always be that accurate. For instance, I knew someone from France who said he had a tough time finding vegetarian options in Taiwan, when actually Taiwan has a much larger percentage of vegetarians than France (worldatlas.com places it at 12-13% as of 2017). In fact, I met a student who had studied in Taiwan and spoke Chinese who mentioned the abundance of vegetarian and even vegan establishments offered throughout Taiwan, related in part to the presence of certain religious traditions which, interestingly, are related to those practiced in India. The issue with finding vegetarian cuisine for my French friend seemed to be related more to language than to the availability of vegetarian options. A similar thing happened with another friend of mine, who commented on not finding enough kosher options while traveling in Paris, at which a friend of hers who spoke another Romance language (Spanish) laughed, saying, “Do you know how many kosher restaurants there are in the Marais?”

7 Things to Remember If You Are a Vegetarian in France:

1. Finding vegetarian cuisine is easier in urban areas. As mentioned above, there is a growing number of restaurants in Paris that are vegetarian, which is a logical development in areas where there are more people who are vegetarian. There are also vegetarian restaurants in other large French cities, such as Lyon and Nice. Cuisine in more rural parts of France, or even in smaller cities, might stick to more traditional fare.

2. As in other countries, such as the U.S. and U.K., where traditional cuisine is meat-based, vegetarian restaurants in French cities are in the trendier areas. The Marais, Bastille, and Canal Saint-Martin areas of Paris have quite a few vegetarian options, including some that are Vietnamese and Indian, as well as French. The Marais, as my friend’s friend mentioned above, has many kosher restaurants that won’t serve meat in the same place as dairy, which can be helpful if you are just looking for a place that most definitely will not serve meat, or anything served on dishware that has had meat on it, for that matter. Middle Eastern restaurants seem to provide quite a few good vegetarian options and different cultural cuisines in general are great influences on the ways in which vegetarian dishes are prepared in France.

3. Certain phrases are helpful. The phrases “Je suis végétarienne” or “Je suis végétarien” will help to describe your gastronomical preferences. And it is perfectly fine for you to ask about the contents of a dish, e.g., “Est-ce qu’il y a de la viande dans ce plat ?”, “Est-ce qu’il y a des restaurants avec des plats végétariens dans ce quartier ?”, and “Je ne mange ni viande, ni poisson”.

4. Terminology for vegetarianism includes the words végétarienne, végétarien, feminine and masculine forms of the term that indicates an absence of meat or fish. You may add the prefix pesco- to these in order to denote a person who eats fish but not the flesh of other animals. Végétalienne, végétalien refer to individuals who abstain from all animal products, including eggs and honey which, although not flesh, are produced by animals. The more recent term végane can also be used, with végan as an alternate masculine form, although the former is epicene.  

5. Familiarize yourself with food vocabulary. This can be tough, since you might have learned some basic words for cuisine in your French classes, especially words that are related to the traditional cuisine. But once you’re eating less traditional foods, there might be gaps in your vocabulary. I myself would hesitate over French translations of words for certain foods I eat such as daikon, enoki, wood ear mushrooms, baozi, pot stickers, bubble tea, and hot pot. (A good app on your phone might help.)

6. Viande refers to meat that you would find at a butcher’s shop. So unless you are pescatarian, specify that you eat neither meat nor fish. It might help to remember France’s Catholic history (this will cause France’s secular population to have smoke coming out of its ears), and the practice of meatless Fridays, which imply a fish course as the main Friday fare.

7. Make the most of the open-air markets that are widespread. Although eating in restaurants is nice and more convenient when you are traveling, being attentive to the ingredients in your meals can provide you with an opportunity to visit a market that offers some of the great produce that France has to offer, due to its Mediterranean climate. In Paris, the very well-known Marché de la Rue Mouffetard is popular, and not far from many facultés, the Marché Belleville has a wide variety of foods, including ingredients used by local Asian and African restaurants, and the Marché sur l’Eau brings in local produce on a boat!        

Things are always changing, in every part of life, in French cuisine and in the French language itself. Why should the elimination of meat from French cuisine be surprising when the 1990 réforme de l’orthographe eliminated the hyphen from the word portemonnaie? In addition to the constant change that occurs in cuisine, in language, and in other aspects of life, there are always surprises that can add to cultural experiences and that may stand in contrast to what is typical or stereotypical of the customs, habits, and values of a particular culture. I knew a French woman who gave the clearest, most concise explanations of French grammar you’d ever heard in your life. She rode a Harley and exercised three hours a day. She had grey hair and wore no makeup. And she was vegetarian, of course.


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