BANGKOK – On our first evening in Bangkok, the street lights glowed yellow over the dusty tangle of electrical cables that garland every roadside. An elderly woman tended the charcoal burner perched on top of her ramshackle barrow, hardly bigger than a tea trolley, pushed to the edge of the pavement.
We paused, our group of seven, gathering shyly around our guide Gung, and watched while the woman heated a round dimpled pan, like a giant iron solitaire board, and deftly poured in white liquid from a metal teapot.
“Salted rice flour and coconut milk,” explained Gung, with the serious manner of a school prefect in charge of the newbies. Without breaking rhythm, the cook picked up a second teapot and began topping up the dimples with more milky liquid — sweetened coconut milk this time — before scattering over a few scraps of green spring onion.
It was only seconds before our cook tipped out the kanom krok, or coconut pancakes, tiny gold-crusted domes with a soft custard filling. We ate the creamy rich buns hot, with our fingers, and all our shyness was forgotten as we exclaimed at their deliciousness. And here it was, our first lesson in an essential component of Thai flavour: sweet, salty and savoury, layered rather than blended, building simple ingredients into a magical complexity of tastes.
Our group was just as varied, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 50s, and hailing from Melbourne, California, New York and England. We had just one common thread: we were all keen to explore the wonders of Thailand’s legendary food culture, but without eating any animal products. We were also all staying in rooms Lat Krabang, Bangkok.
Food vendor at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market preparing Thai style noodles, Thailand
Not so long ago a vegan food tour would have been unthinkable. But these days forswearing flesh is big business, with one in eight of us now vegan or vegetarian. Supermarkets are falling over themselves to launch vegan ranges and “plant-based” menus have entered the restaurant mainstream. With compelling environmental arguments for embracing a plant-based diet, even those who aren’t vegan are looking to cut down on meat. No wonder then that travel companies are getting on board, with specialized tours catering for the vegan traveller.
Or, in my case, the occasional vegan. Alone of the group, I’m omnivorous. But I did spend a decade during my teens and 20s as a vegetarian, and I increasingly find myself choosing a plant-based diet. I liked the idea of laying off all meat, fish and dairy for a week, while venturing north of Bangkok as far as Chiang Mai, an area I’d never been to before. If that couldn’t keep my mind off milky cappuccinos and roast chicken dinners, what would?
All the same, I’d had some misgivings. While Thailand might sound like a safe destination for vegans — all that coconut milk, those wonderful vegetable curries, the rice — Thai food relies heavily on nam pla, or fish sauce, the clear fermented liquid which they use with the same freedom that the Chinese use soy sauce. And then there are the shrimps, which are an intrinsic part of the curry pastes and even the salads, like the classic pounded papaya som tam. Would the food still taste truly Thai without the body and savoury note that these condiments give?
Over dinner of cassia leaf curry with lime, ginger and stir-fried shiitake stem in a Bangkok vegetarian restaurant, Gung, who is also a trained chef, explained the plan of campaign, while admitting that there would be challenges. It turns out that October is the best month for vegans to visit, when many Thais adopt a flesh-free diet, connected to the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
Tourists and local sellers in their boats with colorful fruits, vegetables, souvenirs and fresh food at a famous floating market near Bangkok in Thailand.
But then Asia is all about adaptability, as we found the very next morning when we headed to Maeklong market, a few miles east of Bangkok. There we found stalls crammed either side of a railway line, boxes of veg piled on to the sleepers, while shoppers filled the rails. A minute before nine and, in a brief commotion, the stallholders threw covers over the boxes on the ground, pedestrians scrambled to the side and the train ambled slowly past, the sides of the carriages overhanging their boxes.
Gung bought us fresh coconuts, which the stallholder whacked open with a heavy knife, so we could sip the cool, woody water inside as we stood under his awning watching the jolly red and yellow carriages clatter by. Then Gung showed us how to eat the flesh, telling us firmly that these were the finest coconuts, and “in other parts of the country they are not so sweet, not such a nice aroma. And the best flesh is right at the bottom”. So we scooped out the gelatinous coconut with metal spoons Gung had given us to keep, so that we didn’t have to use disposable plastic cutlery at street food stalls.
Coconuts were to feature heavily in our eating, along with rice and banana. We travelled up to Thekla floating market and drifted peacefully in a narrow canoe through verdant waterways to a tiny plantation where farmers were gathering coconut nectar and boiling it down to make coconut sugar. Back at the market we ate rice-paper dumplings stuffed with fragrant chives, and miang kham, betel leaves wrapped around a zingy mix of shallots, chopped limes, coconut and galangal, which Gung arranged to be made for us without the usual shrimp paste.
In the main cities, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it’s relatively easy to find restaurants with a vegan menu, mostly patronised by Westerners. But if you want to eat vegan with the locals, or go off the beaten track, or eat at the street food stall, a guide and translator who understands food is key. Thais are not used to adapting dishes to suit vegans, and meat and dairy can lurk in unexpected places.
In the Kitchen
Some of our favourite lunch stops were in the Jain cafes, vegan canteens found throughout Thailand, popular with locals and recognizable by their red and yellow signage, but even there we needed our guide to decode the myriad dishes devoid of English language description.
Some of the fun was more closely tailored to vegans. In the markets of Kanchanaburi, near the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, we shopped with chef Noi, an effervescent Thai woman with an irreverent sense of humor, and learnt how to recognize old-fashioned tiny Thai shallots and reject the modern, western fat bulbs which lack the intensity needed. She explained how we should eat them with garlic and small flexible dried chillies to burn fat and keep our blood pressure down, showed us how to pop purple mangosteen fruit open and eat the sweet white flesh and crunchy seeds without getting the magenta staining skin on our clothes, and to choose smooth-skinned ginger for slicing and the older roots for a fiery heat.
We piled into the back of an eight-seater tuk-tuk and headed back to Noi’s pristine cookery school on the other side of the River Kwai. First up was chilli paste — we were to grind salt, galangal, lemongrass, coriander root, cumin, coriander, shallots and plenty of chilli. “Chilli is good for cleaning,” Noi crowed, patting her bottom mischievously. “Keep pounding!” We bashed on, adding shallots, and lemon-scented “finger ginger”, inhaling the fragrance of the spices.
Our leisurely journey continued north to Ayutthaya, where in a dark basement we watched a young man with rippling muscles pulling ropes of hot sugar, folding and pulling again until the threads were candyfloss fine, ready to stuff into pancakes called roti sai mai. On wards we went, on the night train to Chiang Mai, waking in the dawn light as we chugged past paddy fields and temples. On the outskirts of the city we stayed in a traditional northern Thai wooden house, and cooked in an outdoor kitchen surrounded by banana trees, sleeping in the loft on mattresses swathed in mosquito nets.
It was a long way from that dark roadside stall, and I hadn’t missed meat all week. Instead, as we navigated our vegan adventure, new Thai delicacies I’d overlooked on previous trips had come into focus. More of those Thai layers of flavour, in fact.
Vegetarian Chiang Rai
There are a few vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Rai, but as most seem to be out of the center of town we only went to the one near the night bazaar – Oasis Vegetaurant. It’s a big place with plenty of seating and a huge choice of dishes. Oasis is a vegan, Thai and Chinese restaurant.
A plate of food above cost 55 baht ($1.80, £1.20). The restaurant has a selection of about 15-20 hot dishes, plus about 5 or 6 fake meats. All of this food is pre-cooked and on display. On the wall behind the counter they also have a list of other dishes that can be cooked to order.
The restaurant is on the street that links Sirikorn Market and the Night Bazaar. If you’re in the night bazaar food area, walk behind the stage, and you’ll see a row of small shops. Walk behind this row of shops, and Oasis vegetarian restaurant will be facing you at the end of the road. It’s about two minutes’ walk from the bus station.