The Vegetarian’s Guide to Thai FoodAnne Merritt
A beautiful asset to world travel is the chance to try exciting new foods. Of course, Thailand boasts a famous cuisine; healthy, full of exotic new flavours, intricately spiced. Any traveler worth his chopsticks will tell you it’s some of the best in the world.
But while most people can dive right in to local fare, tourists with dietary restrictions must weather a gamble each time they place an order. As a vegetarian, I’ve endured my share of food slip-ups. People who don’t know about the meat-free food movement often mistake my plea for, “no red meat – bring on the chicken,” or “I just really like vegetables – put some extra ones on top of the meat.”
Luckily, once you overcome small hurtles, Thailand is a vegetarian’s dream. Tasty local fruits and vegetables, delicious tofu, and thanks to Buddhism, some familiarity with meat-free cooking. Below is a guide for hungry vegetarians traveling in Thailand and ready to sample local fare:
Where to Get Food
To find the tastiest Thai food, get off the backpacker trail and go to where the Thais are eating. This can mean night markets, food stalls on the street, or food courts in tiny local malls. Guesthouse restaurants boast English menus and some comforts from home (baguette sandwiches, full American breakfasts). However, unless you pop into a vegetarian cafe, the meat-free options are usually slim. Markets are cheaper, fresher, and the food isn’t catered for western palettes (no diluted spices here!). Also, you can watch the cook prepare the dish before you, so it’s easy to indicate what you do and don’t want in your meal.
Travelers don’t need to worry about protein. Most Thai vegetarian dishes come with egg, mixed into the meal or else fried and placed on top of the dish. Also, Thai cuisine boasts a few different kinds of tofu; the firm type that’s common in the west; a looser egg-based tofu (usually the tastiest for tofu-skeptics), and a greyish fish-based tofu, often sold on skewers in market stalls.
If Thai tofu and fried eggs aren’t your style, pop into a local market (or any 7-Eleven) and load up on nuts and seeds to carry in your bag. Then, you can order lots of veggies at meals and on islands and beaches, guesthouses will offer barbecues with fresh fish. Vegetarians should load up on baked potatoes (a tasty rarity in Thailand), vegetables, rice and eggs. Also, most restaurants will keep their kitchen open during the barbecue, so there’s no harm in topping up your grilled veggies with a noodle or rice dish.
Travelers don’t need to worry about protein. Most Thai vegetarian dishes come with egg, mixed into the meal or else fried and placed on top of the dish. Also, Thai cuisine boasts a few different kinds of tofu; the firm type that’s common in the west; a looser egg-based tofu (usually the tastiest for tofu-skeptics), and a greyish fish-based tofu, often sold on skewers in market stalls
What to Say
“I don’t want meat” – “mai sai neua-sa”
“I don’t want fish” – “mai sai plah”
” – with tofu” – “sai tao-hoo”
“-with egg” – “sai kao”
“with vegetables” – “sai pak”
Some Favourite Vegetarian Dishes
phad thai -fried noodles, a basic Thai staple (note, to order without shrimp, simply ask for “phad thai jae”)
phad see ewe – wide, flat noodles, fried with egg and soy sauce
kao phad pak – vegetable fried rice
phad pak jae – simple fried vegetables in a mild sauce
phad kapow – spicy Thai basil fried with chilies
som tam jae – green papaya salad in a tangy, spicy peanut sauce
kai yad sai pak – an omelette with vegetables
yam kai dow – a tangy salad with boiled eggs, onion, and tomato
tom yam hedt – a spicy tomato-based soup made with mushrooms
tom khaa hed – coconut soup with mushrooms
phad priow waan pak – sweet and sour mixed vegetables
Vegans fare well in Thailand, because dairy is rarely used in Thai cuisine. Most creamy soups and sauces are cooked with healthy coconut milk. However, eggs are prevalent in main dishes like phad thai. Many Thai noodle dishes use egg for texture. Saying “mai sai kao” to the cook will ensure that your dish is egg-free. To play it safe, vegans should stick to rice dishes with vegetables and tofu.
Also, be wary of the soy milk sold in Thai convenience stores. Some brands use soy for the nutrients, but mix it with dairy milk for flavour. If you’re ordering a fruit smoothie or dessert in a restuarant, “mai sai nome” means “no milk.”
When looking for restaurants, keep an eye out for Buddhist eateries, which use zero animal products. The signs are bright yellow with bright red lettering, and you can judge by the dishes of other customers whether the vegan food looks tasty (trust us, it usually is).
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.