Large amounts of Thai cuisine are vegetarian, but that is especially true during the annual Vegetarian Festival, when the streets are literally lined with stalls selling entirely meatless dishes. In the West, vegetarianism, although growing in popularity, is still very much a minority choice, but in Thailand it is common, and the yellow signs and flags outside restaurants, declaring them to be a meat-free zone, are a regular sight.
Known in Thai as mung-sa-wi-rat, it is practiced by most Thais from time to time, sometimes as a way to cleanse the body after a long period of feeling unwell, sometimes simply in order to improve one’s Karma. Thais of Chinese descent will often take things further, practicing something closer to veganism, and eating no animal products. This is known as gin jay. They also avoid eating plants such as onions and garlic, partly because the eating of these requires the plants to be uprooted and therefore killed.
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Vegetarian Ingredients in Thai cooking
There are, of course, many, many vegetables to choose from. In general, Thai people consume more fruit and vegetables than meat. When it comes to ingredients for Thai cuisine, the variety is also huge - soy sauces, soy bean paste, tofu, fresh chilli and chilli powder, garlic, lemongrass, coconut milk, mushrooms, galangal (or kha, a relative of ginger), coriander, red onions, kaffir lime, and so on.
Many of these ingredients are not only delicious but also have medicinal properties. Here are some examples:
- Chilies are believed by many people to help normalise blood pressure and blood flow in the body. Chilies also contain significant amounts of magnesium.
- Galangal acts as a stimulant and is believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
- The juice of kaffir lime is good for promoting healthy gums and is recommended for use when brushing one’s teeth. The rind is believed to be good for the blood and is used as an ingredient in medical tonics.
- Lemongrass and galangal, are known to be beneficial for the digestive system.
- Krapao (Thai basil) is a good source of Vitamin C, iron, calcium and phosphorus. It is also believed to improve the eyesight.
Some studies shows that a vegetarian diet, combined with exercise, can make a person healthier than if they eat meat. A vegetarian diet may also reduce the risks of contracting conditions such as heart disease, kidney stones, lung cancer, and breast cancer.
Recommended Thai Vegetarian Dishes
- Pad tau-hu priew waan (sweet and sour fried tofu)
- Tom yam hed (sour & spicy mushroom soup)
- Pad Thai (Thai fried rice noodles)
- Pad pak ruam (mixed fried vegetables such as baby corn, carrot and snow peas)
- Po pia thod (fried spring rolls)
- Pad krapao tau-hu (yellow tofu fried with basil and chili)
- Pak thod (deep fried vegetables in batter - similar to Japanese tempura)
Where to Eat Vegetarian Food
Chadaporn Wattanasinn opened Herson vegetarian restaurant in Phuket City more than seven years ago. She herself has been a devoted vegetarian for over 20 years. Her place has a variety of vegetarian dishes. Every day she cooks and prepares over 30 different dishes, ranging from curry to deep-fried food. Prices are very reasonable; my lunch, which included a plate of glass noodles fried with vegetables and a bowl of sweet corn soup and mushroom, plus a plate of rice, cost me less than one US dollar.
“I became vegetarian because I studied Buddhism. I learnt that taking the life of animals, even for food, is evil. I open this restaurant partly because I wanted to promote vegetarianism to everyone. I hope that they will like it and eat less meat, which means that I can help to save some animals’ lives,” says Khun Chadaporn. Those who still hanker after meat in their diet will find passable replicas of fish, red pork and seafood, all made from vegetables. On top of this, Khun Chadaporn also has Thai hot noodle soup for sale - vegetarian, of course. Her shop opens daily from 06:00 to 17:00. It is on Ranong Rd in Phuket City, not far from the fresh market and the Thai Airways office. Tel: +66 (9) 76 256 611.
Within walking distance on the same road, you will find several other vegetarian restaurants such as b restaurant and Nong Jay restaurant. More vegetarian restaurants can be found elsewhere in Phuket City. These include Num Hen on Chana Charoen Rd, Jay Pa Leam Restaurant on Bangkok Rd, Yo Pochana and Lotus restaurant, both on Yaowarat Rd. The two big shopping malls on the island, Central Festival Phuket on the edge of Phuket City and Jungceylon in Patong, also have vegetarian food outlets. If you feel like staying in your hotel to eat, all 4- and 5-star hotel kitchens can produce vegetarian food and understand the difference between the standard Thai mixed fried vegetables dishes (which often include fish sauce or oyster source as ingredients) and truly vegetarian dishes. In fact, they may be able to offer more variety in vegetarian dishes than some small restaurants outside the hotel.