Being a happy vegetarian in the Costa del Sol

March 9, 2024

I thought being a vegetarian in the Costa del Sol would be easy. In Spain, where so many dishes revolve around rice and olives (oil or not), and where food is so particularly healthy, being vegetarian should not be difficult – but it actually is. And I don’t mean it because I can’t resist the jamón or anything like that; it is because the food culture is very oriented to meat and (especially) to sea food, and restaurants often lack proper vegetarian options. There are ways around it, though, and some restaurants are more inclusive. We’ll see them in this post, as well as some good shops and a few thoughts on the matter collected over the years.

Vegetarians x Vegans

Theres is a lot of confusion about who eats what, and I suspect the dictionary definition is not used so often. For the most part (myself included) people understand vegetarians as those that don’t eat meat, but do eat eggs, milk, honey and other animal products – just not the meat. Pretty much, as long as the animal is not killed in the production of the meal, game on. That’s where I fit and, strictly speaking, this is called ‘lacto-ovo vegetarian’, a term I avoid to prevent confusion (and to prevent being taken for snob). For this post, that is what I’ll mean by vegetarians.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
Radish in a vegetable distributor in Spain. Photo by Mama Málaga.

Vegans are more strict. They don’t consume any animal product, which makes life quite harder. No pizza, unless it is made with vegan cheese, meaning cheese made with vegetal milk – milk made from almonds, coconuts, rice, etc – or with tofu. No chocolate or ice cream, unless it is made with vegetal milk. No cakes, because they have eggs. It’s a tough life, which restricts severely the possibilities of eating out. Strictly speaking, vegans are the real vegetarians, no extra-words needed. But, probably to avoid confusion, they opted to make their own term (thank you, vegans, for letting me keep the word!)

Omnivores are the ‘normal’ people, that eat or drinks both products of vegetal and animal origin; a carnivore would be someone that eats meat products of animal origin only; I don’t think these exist among humans, but if they do, I suppose they don’t drink anything other than milk and water (maybe not even water).

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
Bell Pepper in a vegetable distributor in Spain. Photo by Mama Málaga.

Are Vegetarians snobs?

Vegetarians don’t look down on anybody, and I believe neither do vegans. I do look up to vegans, though; they sacrifice a lot for ethical reasons. I understand we may come out like a bit snobbish in saying we are vegetarians/vegans – an information I just share if necessary, precisely to avoid this bad impression. I don’t know why omnivores assume vegetarians or vegans think they are better than others. We don’t; restricting a diet is as personal a choice as can be. A possible reason, I suspect, is that the person asking assumes we (vegans or vegetarians) believe we are right and that “meat eaters” are wrong.

Another reason to look snobbish may be that we are bored, because we know all to well the sequence of events that happen when we say we are vegetarians; been-there-done -that waaaay too many times. For your amusement, this is the dialog sequence: “Are you vegetarian?!” Yes. “How long have you been vegetarian?” About 30 years. “Don’t you miss meat?” No. “Why did you become vegetarian?” Because I don’t need to kill an animal to survive. “But you are killing the lettuce!” The lettuce doesn’t feel pain or know they are alive; I find it less bad than killing an animal. “How do you know the lettuce doesn’t feel pain? “No neurons, no brain = no pain.

Then comes one of these two: “I’d be too, but I love meat so much!” or “I’m vegetarian too, I only eat fish, no other meat”, and finally: “Can you eat (name here anything imaginable)?” Yes, I can. I can eat the person that is asking too, but as I said, I’m a vegetarian. By the way, fish and chicken don’t grow on trees. I’m sorry to state the obvious, but no, this doesn’t fit the possible definitions for vegetarians, which are already confusing as they are. Someone that eats just fish is an omnivore that avoids a certain kind of food – like people that don’t like beetroots, broccoli or liver.

So, for a change, I’d suggest good questions to ask a vegetarian or vegan: where do you buy your food? Or where are the good vegan or vegetarian restaurants? Please don’t assume we are snobs; assume we know about healthy, good quality food! 😉 We kinda need to. I’ll answer both in this post.

Being a vegetarian among omnivores (in Spain)

I have been a vegetarian for almost 30 years. My parents, Hubby and Kiddo are not any kind of vegetarians; the last two actually use the opportunities of going to restaurants to eat all the meat I don’t cook at home. But we get along well. Each person in this family has the freedom to choose their diet (ok, Kiddo a bit less, or he would eat only candy); I don’t try to convince them to be vegetarians, and they don’t try to convince me to eat meat.

Hubby has a barbecue on the terrace. When he and Kiddo grill meat, they grill me some potatoes and garlic bread; I make a vinaigrette salad and rice, and we are all happy. Sometimes we make hot dog or burgers night at home (and mine have vegetal sausage or burger); other times we make two types of sauce for the pasta – the veggie and the meaty. We can work around it.

Outside home things get more complex. Buying groceries involve visits to several different shops, for different needs – but they are not all done in the same day, and it doesn’t go so far as to be a burden, in Spain. There are several small shops where we find quality stuff, like the one shown below, in Torremolinos.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Once we know our favorite places to shop for food, a routine settles in naturally. Of course, if vegetarian food variety was bigger and better at supermarkets, our life would be easier as the number of shopping trips would be smaller; but it is always a happy day when we find a new shop with good food.

For those that may think that vegetarians eat only salad, please rethink. There is a world of pastas, lots of possibilities with eggplants, soybeans and chickpeas, there are whole cuisines made around vegetables – as the Indians, Lebaneses, Arabs and Italians show so well. Despite that, quite often the only vegetarian options in restaurants in the Costa del Sol are either French fries or a salad of lettuce and tomato. Sometimes not even the salad!

That is a bit of a burden. I check the menu online before going, when available; if we don’t find the menu, I am in for the adventure, while Hubby prefers to choose some other place, fearing I won’t eat anything. But I think that, like in Estonia (see below), things are changing. It seems to be starting from the big fast food chains: Burger King has a veggie option, and, since January 2024, KFC Spain has a vegetarian menu!!!

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol

Things are improving for vegans too. About a month ago, sometime in February 2024, El Vegans opened in Malaga. They sell all kinds of vegan versions of meals – sausages, ice creams, cheese, etc. They brand themselves as the meat shop of the future, and I think they have a good point.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
El vegans shop in Malaga. It’s all vegan here, can you believe?! And they are easy to find, very close to Málaga – María Zambrano Station. Photo by Mama Málaga.

It involves some visits to supermarkets, fruits and vegetables shops and (now) the occasional vegan shop trip to stock the house with a variety of healthy and fresh vegetarian options; it is doable, but it does take a bit of work. The restaurant scene seems to be improving for vegetarians too, even though, up to now, I’ve only noticed it on fast food chains. The other restaurants along the Costa del Sol, which are usually small family businesses, are yet to catch up, but I am hopeful they’ll get there eventually.

Being a vegetarian around the world

Brazil

In Brazil, being a vegetarian was very easy – supermarkets had plenty of fresh vegetables, restaurants had plenty of veggie options and self-service restaurants (those where you serve your plate from portions of a variety of pre-prepared options of your choice and pay by weight) are everywhere there. These are great, because each person can choose what to eat; two people can eat together and have completely different meals. Cooking on my own or even going to a regular restaurant, I could never have the same variety of ingredients a self-service / pay-by-weight restaurant provides.

I didn’t even cook at home most of the days; eating at self-services was cheaper than cooking for one (no Hubby and Kiddo back then) and provided much bigger nutritional variety. My all-time favorite self-service restaurant in Brazil was (is!) Amor à Natureza (shown below). On the left, part of the serving area of the restaurant; on the right, an example of a normal (and affordable!!) vegetarian plate from them. Simple place, elaborate food, delicious. There was a time I ate there 5 days per week.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
Amor à Natureza, Brasília, Brazil. Picture by Amau Brito, on Google.
vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
A plate in Amor à Natureza. Picture by Boris Lessa, on Google.

Estonia

Out of Brazil, being a vegetarian has gotten more difficult. In Estonia, when I arrived, vegetarian oriented restaurants didn’t exist (or I couldn’t find them; not speaking the language didn’t help me either), but I found good vegetarian options on most restaurants, and the supermarkets were good as well. Eventually, I found Bliss, a health-oriented restaurant that had lots of vegetarian options. And it was a self-service!!! Then a nice vegetarian bistro opened right by my workplace, then several others around the area. By the end of my time in Tallinn, there were so many vegetarian, vegan or healthy restaurants opening that I didn’t even get to try them all – the irony.

USA

Then I moved to Texas, USA. Eating well there is difficult, whether one is a vegetarian or not. Once, when looking for a school for Kiddo, I asked what kind of food they fed the kids there. They answered: ‘pizza, hot dogs, candies…'(I swear it happened). When my soul came back to my body, I asked: but… what about vegetables? And they: ‘Corn. And corn only. Because kids don’t eat any other vegetables anyway’. After that, Kiddo’s school was chosen based solely on the menu. He was 3 years old, I figured educational quality was secondary to food in that context. And Kiddo loves vegetables.

Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to eat well in Texas, but it is quite expensive and time consuming. While our family ate in Bliss (in Estonia) for about 20 or 30 euros, a similar meal in the USA was around 100 – 150 dollars; it wasn’t something that we would afford every day. I didn’t eat meat in the USA, but that doesn’t mean I was eating good quality food either. The hardship was not being a vegetarian, but eating well overall.

Supermarkets were far, everywhere had to be gone by car, everywhere was too big, everything took hours. Fresh vegetables were a bit of a chimera, few and far. I didn’t find anywhere really good to buy food – the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s seemed to me more marketing than reality (maybe it’s just my thing, but I don’t believe organic vegetables would be packaged in plastic bags). There were rumors of some organic market hidden somewhere in the city, at some time, on some day; who knows.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
Oranges in a vegetable distributor in Spain. Photo by Mama Málaga.

My favorite restaurant there was Dimassi, a Lebanese almost self-service restaurant quite far from our house. It was more affordable than most restaurants, too, partially because, as there were no waiters, there was no need to add 20% as tips.

Both me and Hubby worked out of home full-time; we could shop only on weekends. There was no nearby vegetable shop, no self-service restaurant that we knew of. We stashed frozen food. I had just an hour for lunch, and just a cafeteria in the building, which meant that either I’d take food prepared by me on the eve, frozen food, or a baked potato from the small cafeteria. It was tough but, at least, Kiddo was eating well at his school, which lasted from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm – longer than work.

Ironically, Covid improved our quality of life dramatically. The fact that we were all staying home allowed us to order food from the supermarket online, as we would certainly be home when the delivery arrived. We ordered more often than we used to go before covid, therefore we had fresher vegetables. On top of that, flexible work time meant I could prepare proper food at home and eat it on the same day! Yay!

Where to buy vegetarian food in the Costa del Sol?

Mercadona and Carrefour

The place where we buy most of our food, like everybody else, is in the supermarket – Mercadona (mainly) and Carrefour, in our case, which are the closest to our home. I find Mercadona vegetable variety a bit poor, quality ok; in terms of grains and cereals – an extremely important part of a vegetarian diet, because that’s where most of our protein comes from – I find Mercadona good. We buy oats, rice, quinoa, beans (of every color and variety), lentils and chickpeas from there. I wish they had soybeans, but I haven’t seen it there.

In terms of ‘vegetal meat’, Mercadona has my favorite product of the kind: Tívall’s breaded vegetables. It is tasty and the omnivores at my home like it too. I have mixed thoughts about vegetal meats overall, though, but this one I like a lot, both for the taste and, in no small part, because it is not called ‘vegetable chicken’.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol

The things I don’t like about vegetal meats are: one, most of them taste like cardboard; two, it is a processed food, and I’d rather eat the vegetables in natura. If I’m gonna eat saturated fat, it better be for great taste. Moreover, when processed vegetables are disguised as vegetable meat, buyers are expecting the respective meat taste; when they don’t find it, it is disappointing. Even when the processed vegetable tastes ok, the fact that it doesn’t resemble meat makes it poorly accepted. If I were eating a banana but it tasted like strawberries, I’d also dislike it.

But there are positives too. I buy ‘vegetable sausages’ sometimes, so I can be part of hot dog nights at home. Same for burgers, which also allows me to grab a burger with Kiddo (in Burger King). Some vegetable burgers may be worthy of the saturated fat. The Impossible Burger, that I tried in the USA, is up to the challenge, proving that the years we spent eating cardboard-like processed vegetables were not in vain. In Benalmadena, Florence Café also has a very good veggie burger. It is clearly a work in progress, but processed vegetables are increasing in variety and improving in taste, as the El Vegan sausage proved once again (I’ll talk more about it in the Vegan Shops, a bit below). I’m happy about it.

Back to Mercadona, another item that I like is their Guacamole, a preparation of avocado, onion, garlic and cilantro. Carrefour has a similar one, not bad; I just like Mercadona’s better. As buying fresh avocados is frequently a risky game (every now and then, they are either raw or already brown), I switched to Guacamole!

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol

Carrefour vegetables are worse than Mercadona’s, both in variety and quality (at least comparing the two shops I go to). The grains are similar, I buy from there too. The good thing about Carrefour is that they have material to prepare Sushi (nori leaves), which Kiddo and I like – we make cucumber sushi. 🙂 Carrefour has the Carrefour Veggie brand, that produces the sort of vegetal meat we talked previously about. I don’t really like any of their products, and I think Carrefour Veggie could have made this brand vegan and reach a wider public – but I’m glad there is such a brand and that they acknowledge the need and relevance of attending to the vegetarian public, at least.

Fruit shops and distributors

Here lies the key to vegetarian happiness. Fruterías and Verdulerías (fruit shops and vegetable shops) usually sell both fruits and other vegetables, regardless of how they opt to call themselves. They tend to have a large variety of produce, good quality – always fresh – and are cheaper than the supermarkets. Better yet are the distributors – the kind of Verdulería that caters to hotels, restaurants and even supermarkets. These have the freshest vegetables and the cheapest prices. 🙂 They don’t advertise much, as their focus is to sell in bulk, but I know one in Benalmadena that also does retail: Frutas Gallego, where the veggie pictures around this post were taken.

How to find a distributor? Start paying attention to trucks around restaurants; the trucks usually have the company name and info about what they distribute. Take a picture or write that name down, then google it. You may find a good one! The distributors tend to have their produce stacked in boxes, rather than neatly organized and exposed to the customers, as the fruit shops do. And they may be out of the main commercial areas, so it feels a bit adventurous, too.

Better than that, only if you plant yourself. 🙂 I do! In my terrace I have a few plant pots with garlic, onion, chives, mint, basil, thyme, parsley, broccoli and a few cherry tomatoes! I like plants, and I like to instill that in Kiddo, too.

He also loves planting, it is a great activity to do together, then watch the flowers grow and transform. He takes care of his plants unbelievably well. Moreover, we are so proud of our tiny home production! We have plans to grow lemons this year; in our scale, it means one tree, but a beloved one.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
Photo by Kiddo, July 2023.

Vegan shops

There aren’t many yet, but I’m glad there are some, even though I’m not a vegan myself. I know of the Green Grocery, that I’ve never tried, and the recently opened El Vegans, both in Malaga. I visited this last one, and came back home with a chorizo sausage (which Kiddo, in particular, loved) and hot dog sausages – quite good, in my opinion. For me, the taste issue is not about trying to simulate the taste of an animal meat, but to taste good on its own, and both items I tried fit the bill. Way to go!

For people that are trying to start as either a vegetarian or vegan, though, I believe giving up the taste of meat may be an issue. I’d recommend focusing on other tastes you also like, instead of trying to find it in products that are, after all, not made of meat. Shops like El vegan do a good job in both approaching the taste of meat and offering new ones; I think trying their products is a good idea. Actually, even if you don’t ever want to give up on meat, but maybe would like to reduce meat consumption a little, El Vegans is a good shop. Below, a few pictures related to El Vegans:

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
The two sausages I got from El Vegans
vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
A view of the shop, that also sells grains or cereals by bulk – an excellent way to cut on plastic.
vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
A vegan Kit Kat, which I didn’t know existed!

Where are the good restaurants with vegan or vegetarian options?

I say vegan or vegetarian options because, in a family like mine, these are more popular than the strictly vegetarian or vegan restaurants. Going with friends is easier too when the restaurants are more inclusive. That being said, I also should clarify that I know more restaurants in Benalmadena than in the other Costa del Sol towns, as this is where I live.

My safest pick are the Indian restaurants, as they do offer a great number of options. Among these, Tandoori Grill is our all-time favorite, in particular because they serve Indian and Mexican food, which Hubby and Kiddo prefer. The King of Curries is also good, as is Harrys Restro, though this last one is a bit more expensive.

As the Indians, middle Eastern restaurants, such as Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish and Arabs tend to be safe options. In the Costa, though, most of them are specialized in Kebab, so I didn’t try many. One that I like is A la Turca, in the Avenida de la Constitución.

If you are looking for other restaurants with vegetarian options in Benalmadena, and I’m not talking lettuce and tomato salad; real options that will make a vegetarian happy, try these: Florence café, which is a small cafeteria with many vegetarian options of poke bowls, where I had a very good veggie burger; Daneku Ecológico in Puerto Marina, specialized in organic food; Zukithai Fusion Bar Restaurant, an Asian restaurant with many vegetarian options and a lot of tofu; and the delicious Yucas, where I had the gorgeous vegetarian brunch (the green one) pictured below.

vegetarian in the Costa del Sol
I went there in November 2023, and to this day I try to replicate this toast at home. It was so good! The prices on their site are outdated, though. Each brunch, then, cost € 17,00.

In Fuengirola, I didn’t visit any yet, but these restaurants have good online reviews on the Happy Cow, a site specialized in find vegan and vegetarian friendly restaurants worldwide: Jazzy Bar, Restaurante Vegetalia (a true vegetarian restaurant!) and Club del Mar Fuengirola. In Torremolinos, check The Wala Room, Casero and Ellen Restaurant.

Conclusion

I’m a firm believer that the world is becoming a better place, and maybe in part it is because I see improvements in vegetarian food options and knowledge. I think it is now easier than ever to become vegetarian. Back in the day, people used to say that meat was needed in order to provide proteins, essential for muscles; today it is laughable (think of the biggest and / or strongest mammals on dry land: giraffes, elephants, horses, hippos, cows – they are all vegetarians). I have no clue about how this myth remained for so long, but it is no more.

I saw the vegetarian lifestyle improve dramatically in Estonia, and i think I’m seeing it starting in Spain, too. There are places to go both to buy or to eat quality vegetarian food, and some are just starting now. It is a move in the right direction, both for our health and for the health of the planet. Finally, please don’t think vegans or vegetarian are snobs; be kind and you may find out where the other food distributors are. 😉