By Kelly Iverson
I have been a vegetarian in the capital for some two years now and never have I mistakenly devoured meat since switching to my meat-free diet. While Thai dishes consisting of meat are certainly enticing, vegetarian Thai cuisine is arguably just as good, if not better.
With the Vegetarian Festival taking place this month, we take a look at how to survive Bangkok as a vegetarian and what to expect from the festival.
In Thai, there are two phrases one can use to express to someone that they do not eat meat. The first is mawng sa vee rat, meaning vegetarian. Diners can ask if something is vegetarian-friendly by using this phrase.
Gin jay refers to someone who is vegan, inclusive of dairy products, eggs, and honey, while mawng sa vee rat only refers to meat.
What are the challenges?
One of the biggest challenges meat-free diners face daily in Bangkok is the possibility of having some type of seafood sauce or paste added to their meals. This hidden ingredient has a sneaky way of making an unwanted appearance (at least for vegetarians) in many of Thai meals. Look at any Thai recipe, and it will normally calls for some sauce with an added seafood ingredient.
If you are eating on the go, one of the best ways to ensure it is not added into a meal is to simply watch your meal being made. When they reach for the fish-infested ingredient, simply ask the vendor not to. Another way in which to avoid an added fishy paste or sauce is to use the phrase gin jay instead.
Best Thai vegetarian dishes
There are very few Thai dishes that are made strictly vegetarian. There are plenty of dishes in which meat and seafood products can be omitted quite easily, however.
Yam som-o, or pomelo salad, is one dish that, without the added shrimp and fish sauce, is a vegetarian-friendly dish that is light and tasty.
Pad pak ruam, or mixed vegetables, is one of the easiest dishes vegetarians can order. Almost all side street vendor will happily fry it up for diners.
Po pia thod, or spring rolls, are a light and refreshing dish consisting of green onions, vermicelli noodles, mushrooms, shredded carrots and more.
Tom yam hed, or mushroom soup, is a spicy dish that is surprisingly filling and chock full of chewy and delicious mushrooms.
The Vegetarian Festival
The Vegetarian Festival, or Tesakan Gin Jay, is celebrated from Friday, October 20 to Saturday, October 28. Many cities recognise the holiday and the main places in which to observe it include Bangkok, Phuket, Trang, Songkhla and Chonburi. A clear indication if a restaurant or street food vendor is abiding by the jay festival is if they fly a bright yellow flag.
Otherwise known as the “Nine Emperor Gods Festival” the celebration is an annual festival that returns during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. The origin of the festival is unclear, though many believe it was brought to Thailand by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. The immigrants, who were thought to be a travelling opera group, became ill after moving to Phuket. Apparently, they all made a miraculous recovery after abstaining from eating meat. Now, Thais also participate in the festival in hopes of having good health.
If you are in the capital, be sure to visit Yaowarat Road in Chinatown during the festival. The yellow flags will proudly wave above almost all of the vendors, flagging down hungry vegans and vegetarians alike. Those lucky enough to find themselves on the island of Phuket are in for a surprise as well, as it is here that many festival-goers participate in gruelling ceremonies like firewalking in addition to abstaining from eating meat.