Jan 30 2012
Thailand is something of a meat-laden obstacle course for vegetarians and vegans — vegetable dishes are flavoured with meat, vats of pork broth bring meaty savouriness to otherwise vegetarian noodles, and everything is salted with a lashing of fish sauce. You’ve got to know your enemy to defeat it. Here in the kingdom “vegetarian eating” often means “well, there’s not that much meat in it, so it’s vegetarian“. Purism is rejected in all its forms in Thailand, be it gender identity or governance, so why would food be any different?
So how to stick to the ideological purity of eating choices when street eating in Bangkok? Enter a great guide written by Mark Wiens: The Vegetarian Thai Food Guide. Mark has been living in Thailand for three years and runs eatingthaifood.com, a website devoted to Thai street food.
This is the second e-book published by Mark about Thai street food (the first one was reviewed here last year), but this one focuses solely on eating Thai street food as a vegetarian. Born out of a commitment to try and eat vegetarian for a month, the book became a guide to eating normal street food adapted for vegetarians and vegans.
It’s a liberating work for people who are tired of seeking out specific “vegetarian” cafes or restaurants and instead just want some fried noodles on a street corner. Available in pdf format, the 81-page book is easy to print off or reference from a smart phone while travelling — it costs US$7.
Our quick Q&A with the author, Mark Wiens:
TF: What surprised you most about trying to eat only vegetarian in Thailand?
MW: I was pleasantly surprised that I could eat vegetarian and still enjoy quite a few of the signature flavours of Thai cuisine. As a lover of vibrant tastes, I was still able to take full advantage or sour limes, spicy chillies, and the host of fragrant spices and herbs available in Thailand.
Also, throughout the month I was surprised that I didn’t miss meat, I honestly didn’t even crave it because so many of the vegetarian dishes I ate were superbly flavourful.
TF: Can you summarise the difference between the “vegetarian” mindset in Thailand and the one in North America, Europe or Australia?
MW: In Thailand, there are two distinguishable vegetarian oriented terms. Mangsawirat (มังสวิรัติ) can be compared to an easygoing vegetarian (similar to an ovo-lacto vegetarian to get technical) — a person who eats eggs, dairy products, meat-based soups and sauce, but just refrains from eating visible chunks of meat.
Jay (เจ) refers to someone who eats no meat, no seafood, no animal products, no garlic, and not even a few herbs or vegetables that have too pungent of a flavor — more similar to veganism, but even a bit more strict.
Each of these terms have a Thai set of norms and rules associated with it. For instance, if you say you eat “mangsawirat,” to a Thai cook it would for sure mean you can eat fish sauce (even if you don’t). Likewise, if you tell a chef you eat “jay,” it means that you can’t eat any sort of meat or even garlic (again, regardless of whether you want it or not).
TF: When your month was over, what was the vegetarian dish that you discovered during the month that you keep going back to?
MW: Two dishes come to mind. The first is pad pak ruam prik gaeng (ผัดผักรวมพริกแกง), a mixture of vegetables stir fried in red chilli curry sauce. The second is pad gra pao het (ผัดกระเพราเห็ด), stir-fried mushrooms with holy basil.
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