If there are two things I loved about Thailand, it is its culture and food. Walk down the streets and you can see fresh-cut tropical fruits in one cart, bananas being roasted in another and some grilling away sausages. There is always an aroma in the air, be that of basil or galangal or fresh turmeric added to hot oil. The sound of the stir fry or the ice cream guy mixing flavours over his cold table or the sizzling sound of pancake batter hitting the hot iron plate. And along with all this pops in a Thai guy singing away an SRK song and asking you to have food in his restaurant. Phuket especially seems to love Indians and there is no dearth for restaurants to try in Thailand. You can make a trip to Thailand just to eat. In touristy places like Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai, there are plenty of Indian restaurants to have food at. But what is the fun if you are not trying the local cuisine. All those exotic dishes on the Thai food menu and we choosing aloo parathas is no fun. I spent more than a month in Thailand touring all over the country and it was not so difficult to find vegetarian food in Thailand. You might be wondering what this nonvegetarian girl, who eats pretty much everything, going to know about veg food in Thailand. But trust me, no way I can eat fish or pork all day and there was so much food to explore that I had it happily. So this guide on Thailand Vegetarian Food is your handy guide to relish on all the Thai dishes.
How to Eat as a Vegetarian in Thailand
Unless you are touring towards the east side of Thailand there is no worry about communication or finding veg food. East Thailand is crazy about their chicken and pork and there is a language problem to convey the right stuff. The common worry that Indians have in Thailand is the fear of adding fish sauce to the dishes. Which is valid cos invariably many of their pre-prepared sauces or curries have fish oil added to them. Egg and fish sauce or chunks of chicken are pretty common. And also adding dried shrimp powder or paste for the extra xing happens. The point is, Thais love their meat and we cannot ask them to change their food practices for our convenience. I was pretty surprised to see that while I was on an alms-giving ceremony to Buddhist monks, the monks took chicken rice too. Yup, a Buddhist country does not translate to vegetarian food. But fear not, you can definitely survive and relish on all these Thai dishes, well most of it. Not all dishes are made with fish sauce and you can always say, "mimi nam pla", which means no fish sauce..
- Pla - fish
- Ki (gai) - chicken
- Neux hmu (no mu) - pork
- Kai - egg
- Kunghaeng (Goong hane) - Dried Shrimp
So these are the words you might want to keep away from. For some reason, Thais are not fascinated about lamb so no need to worry about it. You can also say, "Chan pen mangsiwirati" which stands for "I am a vegetarian". Mangswirati, pronounced as Mung see wi ratee.. And if that is not so reassuring say "pak", pak means vegetable and you can insist them to use only pak. And a safer option is "gin jay" which is am a vegan. But I think pak would do.
Now that you are settled with how to order vegetarian food in Thailand, here is the list of famous veg food in Thailand.
Must have Vegetarian Food in Thailand
Am going to list down the main courses and Thai veg starters first and then lets end it with a bunch of desserts.
Som Tam - Thai Papaya Salad
The most popular and everybody's friendly food is the Som Tam aka the raw green papaya salad. Som tum is made by shredding the green papaya, adding crushed bird's eye chili (very spicy), garlic and other spices to it, along with sugar and lime juice. Mostly topped with crushed peanuts for the crunchy element. Som tam was my staple every time I had no idea what to order or if the menu looked confusing. Please do remember to say no fish sauce or dried shrimps. Traditional Som Tam has fish sauce in it. So the eastern side of Thailand you can still feel the taste of fish oil added to it. Places like Bangkok and Phuket are fine to have papaya salad. And most of the time they make it in front of you, so you can instruct them as to what should be added.
The safest bet, Pad Pak is the stir-fried vegetables. When you say you are vegetarian, even the restauranteur would immediately suggest Pad Pak. It is a melange of vegetables stir-fried in oil and topped with salt pepper and some soy sauce. Simple to the point dish. Whenever you are taking boat tours away from Phuket and Phi Phi or Krabi, they usually ask if you need vegetarian food or chicken works. On one such day, I was the only one eating vegetarian in that boat and a feast was made just for me. And the hero of that veg feast was definitely Pad Pak.
Tom Kha Soup - Thai coconut soup
It is not actually a soup. It is in between a soup and curry consistency and many a time it was served with rice. Tom Kha Soup is made by boiling coconut milk along with lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms or vegetable of your choice. It has a high taste of Kafir lime that it was too much for me. A very mild soup that goes well with rice.
Gang Hed - Thai Mushroom curry
I love mushrooms and Thailand had plenty of options for it. Not just the button mushroom or the oyster mushroom that we get in India. There were about 3 to 4 varieties and all get into the curry or gets grilled. On days when I wanted comfort food, I opted for this bowlful of mushroom curry. Rich spices of chilly and galangal are ground together and sautéed in oil, to which stock is added and plenty of mushrooms added in. Plenty is the keyword :D
Morning glory is a leafy vegetable and you will find it more in the islands cos it grows easily in swamps. It is easy to grow and like how palak is common for us, morning glory is common in Thailand. This is an easy stir fry recipe made with crushed garlic and chilies. They add the stem as well and it goes well with rice and roti. Oh, Thai people have roti too. So the main dish is always set.
Jim Jum - Thai Isaan Hot Pot
Well here is a dish that you can be super sure of to be vegetarian because you are going to cook it ;) Isaan hot pots are a fun community kind of dish, all friends get together, put stuff into the pot and cook it. The basic gravy or the water with spices cooking in it comes in a pot placed on a hot stove. As the hot pot simmers you start adding stuff into it. Like the hard vegetables first then the softer ones and then goes in the noodles and once it is cooked we all scoop in and fill our bowls with hot healthy food. I loved this concept.
Thai Vegetable Spring Rolls
The tasty yummy starter that we all can rely on upon without a doubt. The crunchy spring rolls are filled with cabbage, onion, carrots and loads of ginger too. Goes well with ketchup, our desi style. Or dip it into the chilli oil sauce that is known for in Thailand.
Select your stick of mushrooms and ask them to grill it for you. Pick a sauce if you want some more flavour and brush it on or just walkway with the stick and much on.
Mind you, if you ask for Pad Thai vegetarian, they would add an egg. So do tell them not to add an egg if you are particular about it. Pad Thai is another common dish to be found in Thailand. It is thick flat noodles stir-fried with vegetables, soy sauce, and tamarind pulp. They add crunchy peanuts on top along with sprouted beans. I stopped by many street vendors and pointed out what needs to go into the kadai and had yummy Pad Thai. If you like egg, they make a kind of gooey omelet and place it on top of Pad Thai. That adds more to the taste.
Thai Pea Eggplant
Okay, if you know Sundakkai in Tamil also called Turkey berry then that is what pea aubergines are. But we mostly have Sundakkai in dried form and make spicy curries out of it. However, in Thai dishes, we have pea eggplant in raw green form and it is stir-fried or added into Thai green curries along with the green eggplants. The bitterness and crunchy bits of pea eggplants add a different element of flavour to the curry. Don't think it as peas and pop in a spoonful in your mouth :P
Khao Soi - Chiang Mai Curry Noodles
The curry noodles that makes even the Indian cry! Super spicy noodles filled with chillies and small onions, topped with crispy noodles makes one yummy meal. And to add on to that spiciness they give some more raw onions and gherkins along! Not even a cold coffee would cut down this level of spiciness. There are many variations to this dish and the simplest is the vegetarian version of it. Have fun drinking lots of coconut water along with it.
Thai Tofu Coconut Curry
There is not much passion for paneer but there is a lot of tofu in the town. And tofu can be added into a green curry or red curry. But the most common recipe is to make coconut curry and fill it with tofu. As though the tofu is meant to soak up all the coconut milk and spices. Paired with it are carrots and potatoes. Somehow tofu and potato made a good combination.
Thai Rice Vermicelli
This is a more common dish in North Thailand. They make rice vermicelli and they induce colors into it using pea flower or turmeric or rose and it looks exotic. You can decide what it needs to be stir-fried along with and it makes one light simple dish to fill you.
Thai Massaman Curry
You have heard of the green curry and red curry and yellow curry of Thailand, right? Have you heard of the Massaman curry? It is the Indian version of making you cry your eyes out curry. It stems from Musalman curry, meaning a curry commonly made by the Muslims. It has most of the spices ground and added to thick coconut gravy. And also surprisingly you can find the vegetarian version of it. They add fried ladies finger or brinjal to it. Best to have it with crispy rotis.
Salapao - Thai Steamed Buns
It is like a stuffed closed pao bun. It comes in many variations and you need to look for one filled with the black bean filling. That is the vegetarian version and you will love it. It is hot, steamy, softttttt and a nice pasty black bean filled in it. There are also sweet buns, paos filled with sweet cream called sai kriim. And pork buns are a morning staple breakfast. So be sure you ask for the "sai tua dam", the black bean filling.
Thai Bean Thread Glass Noodles
These glass noodles are made of mung beans. So no wheat or rice which implies one of the gluten-free dishes that they relish in. These noodles when soaked in water and cooked it becomes translucent and hence the name glass noodles or cellophane noodles. Thai have this special yellow curry powder which I loved and these glass noodles stir-fried with yellow curry powder is just yummy. I purchased a bundle of glass noodles and the curry powder. I made it bad :)
Khai Jeow - Thai Omelette with Rice
I added the egg into this list. And I hope am not offending anyone :) Thai omelet is not like our Indian version. It is pretty much like a deep-fried omelette. And they serve it with rice and salad. As such their rice is little sticky. So a bit of this oily omelet with rice makes a good combination and you do not really need a curry to go along with it.
Thai yellow Noodles
Thai yellow noodles are stir-fried with vegetables and eggs. If you are okay with the egg then it is one of the dishes that I would highly recommend to have. The noodles itself is made of egg and hence it gets the yellow color and the unique flavour.
With that let us move on to relishing on traditional Thai desserts.
Mango Sticky Rice
Though mango sticky rice makes a mention in the dessert section, I would say it is the main course by itself. The rice is cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with sugar. The tropical sweet mango rests on top and fried sesame seeds topped on it. This is a must-have dish when in Thailand
The ones in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are far better than the one in Phuket :D I said that! The other parts of Thailand have this nice parotta like roti made a bit thick, fried in oil, and stuffed with banana, Nutella or caramel whatever you ask for. It is so yummy. Every day I would go for a night walk after dinner and stuff my face with banana Nutella rotis. In Phuket, it is a lot thinner and crispier like a crepe consistency. I loved the thicker version of it. But this is a must-have whichever part of Thailand you are in.
Tender Coconut Ice Cream
Another one found all over the islands of Thailand. The tender coconut is scraped, blended with ice, frozen and topped with chocolate and nuts. It is not ice cream made of milk and cream to have a rich texture. But a refreshing simple dish served right out of the tender coconut.
Thai Fried Banana Fritters
Bananas bananas all around ;) So yay.. Dunk them into a batter, deep fry them and dunk into a bowl of caramel or honey or ask for some ice cream along.
Khanom Buang - Thai crepes
Tiny crepes filled with custard or sweetened carrots or pumpkins or coconut. It is fascinating to see the Thai street vendors make many of these tiny pancakes on a huge hot Tawa and flip these at super speed. None of them gets burnt, and they quickly fill these tiny little things with the fillings and I can finish many of it in a minute.
Khanom Pang Wan
The first time I came across it was when I saw a huge crowd in front of a stall and I joined the crowd. A lady was cutting pieces of bread in top speed and another was filling the buns with different fillings. When I asked for one of these Thai custard buns, she handed me a card which was all written in Thai. I had to tick what flavours I want and pass it on to a guy who collects money and then he passes it on the cook. All this in front of a tiny street vendor. Well, the Thais helped me tick chocolate and another was a random tick. Which turned out well too.
Lod Chong Thai
Traditional Thai dessert made of mung bean noodles. The noodles are cooked and added to coconut milk mixed with palm sugar and jasmine water. It is usually served along with a thick mound of shaved ice. Most of the ice occupies the space and you scrape a little of it and a little of the Lod Chong.
Khao Tom Mud
Sticky rice puddings wrapped in a plantain leaf is a yummy quick snack. Sometimes I skipped the main course, bought variants of this and ate to my heart's content. The sticky rice is cooked in coconut milk and sugar. And usually has a banana stuffed in or coconut or black bean. Sometimes pork, so make sure you buy the right stuff.
Khanom Piek Poon
Also seen is the picture above is Khanom Piek Poon, the dark one with shredded coconut on top. It is flour, coconut and sugar mixed and burnt slightly and left to made into a jello.
Rice flour stuffed with coconut and jaggery and nuts and deep fried but not so crunchy and then coated with shredded coconut. Such a fine delicacy. I was sitting by waiting for the rain to subside and a boat to pick me up and one of the boat men offered it and with no hesitation I took one from the bag and shamelessly asked him for another :D
Thai Iced Coffee / Thai Tea / Iced Caramel Milk
My love for Thai Iced Coffee is immense. I love coffee and the cold coffee here makes you go high. Look at that tall glass!! So full. They make it by mixing hot black coffee with condensed milk and once mixed properly they add it to a tall glass filled with ice. And you can sip it and sip it and sip it forever. The chai is not hot either. But that mild tea flavour is so refreshingly cool. And milk! Ever since I came back from Thailand, I have been having cold milk. And a dollop of caramel sauce is mixed into this milk before pouring it over ice. Every time I stayed in a homestay or was close to a farm, I stopped for a tall glass of thick milk.
Exotic Tropical Fruits
While bananas, mangoes, papayas, and watermelons are in abundance, there are some more exotic fruits that you should not miss. One is Durian. Please try that. It doesn't smell. It tastes like a milder version of jackfruit. And I loved it. One of the durian sellers told me that and made me do it too, she removed the fruit, filled the shell with water and made me drink it and rinse my mouth with it. She said this removes the smell of Durian and doesn't make you stink either. Either it is a fact or all the Durian sellers pulled out a dirty joke on me :P And then there is mangosteen, though it is available in India, it is much fresh there as it is cultivated more in Thailand. Dragon fruit has never been my favourite. And then there was a new love for Logan. Also rambutan, lovely litchi flavour they have.
Where to find vegetarian food in Thailand
If you are not fussy, you can live on street food in Thailand. There are streets dedicated to street food, even otherwise there is always some street vendor or the other popping out around the corner. Selling from grilled banana to something as exotic as Pad Thai. The safer side of street food is you know exactly what goes into your food as they prepare it right then, the downside is there is going to be no washing of the vessel/ kadai between veg and non veg food cooking. Then there are always Indian restaurants. Especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya, you can find plenty of them. Vegan restaurants are also popping up in many parts of Thailand. You can use the happy cow app to figure out the restaurants in your area. If nothing works, every street has a 7 - Eleven store and there are packaged food available for you to buy. And I am not talking about biscuits and nuts, there are sandwiches, rice and curry, everything packaged. You can be sure of what has gone into your packed food and they heat it in their oven and you are good to go.
With that extensive list of vegetarian food available in Thailand, hope you are all ready to dig in to some yummy Thai veg food. Nom Nom..