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The vegetarian's guide to Thailand travel
Fish sauce and dried shrimp be damned. How to stay animal-free and enjoy Thai cuisine
Thailand is a country blessed by an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Navigate a local market and you’ll find a diverse selection of fresh produce in massive quantities.
Sounds like a dream destination for vegetarians, right?
Not so fast. Once you sit down and browse a Thai restaurant menu, you'll soon realize that pork is an obsession in Thailand and fish sauce is a main flavoring ingredient in many dishes.
But don’t worry, one of the great things about Thailand is that in most restaurants your food isn’t cooked until you order it. This means that you can specify exactly what you want to exclude from your dish before it is prepared.
I wrote the Vegetarian Thai Food Guide to show travelers who don't eat meat exactly how to take advantage of the famous tongue pleasing flavors of Thai cuisine. Here are a few tips from it.
The Thai meaning of 'vegetarian'
To stick to your vegetarian or vegan diet in Thailand, it’s helpful to understand the Thai view of vegetarianism.
"Vegetarian" loosely translates to "mang sa wirat" (มังสวิรัติ), a word that specifies you don't eat noticeable pieces of meat or seafood.
Everything else -- including eggs, meat stock, fish sauce or other animal products -- is fair game. Just not chunks of meat.
Vegan translates similarly to the Thai word "jay" (เจ), referring to a person who eats no meat, no seafood, no animal byproducts, no garlic, and even excludes a few herbs and vegetables that have too pungent of a flavor.
How to order vegetarian/vegan Thai food
The first thing you’ll need to do is tell the cook or waiter that you are vegetarian: "ben mang sa wirat" (เป็นมังสวิรัต). To play it completely safe, you can say "gin jay" กินเจ).
When you order your dish, emphasize again that you are vegetarian and make sure to mention that you want your food without any form of meat ("mai gin neua sat" ไม่กินเนื้อสัตว์).
After that you can give further personal requests like no fish sauce ("mai ow nam bplaa" ไม่เอานำ้ปลา) or no oyster sauce ("mai ow nam man hoy" ไม่เอาน้ำมันหอย).
To get you started, here are five popular Thai dishes and tips on how to order completely vegetarian versions of them.
1. Som tam
Som tam Thai (ส้มตำไทย), green papaya salad, is quite a healthy dish, but it happens to include a few non-vegetarian ingredients in the mix.
To order the vegetarian version, you’ll need to ask for it without dried shrimp (mai sai goong haeng ไม่ใส่กุ้งแห้ง) and without fish sauce (mai sai nam bplaa ไม่ใส่น้ำปลา).
2. Gaeng om
Gaeng om (แกงอ่อม)is a delicious stew made with lots of earthy herbs, vegetables, pork or chicken and often a dab of fermented shrimp paste.
But vegetarians can enjoy gaeng om too, by ordering it without any kind of meat (mai sai neua sat ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์) and without shrimp paste (mai sai kaphi ไม่ใส่กะปิ) .
3. Pad pak ruam prik gaeng
Pad pak ruam prik gaeng (ผัดผักรวมพริกแกง) is a dish of stir-fried mixed vegetables, but instead of being cooked in plain soy sauce, the vegetables are fried in chili curry paste along with kaffir lime leaves.
But just to be safe, specify that you don't want any meat (mai sai neua sat ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์) or fish sauce (mai sai nam bplaa ไม้ใส่นำ้ปลา).
4. Pad pak gachet
Pad Pak Gachet (ผัดผักกะเฉด), stir fried water mimosa, is one of the most interesting and delicious vegetables in Thailand. It’s a stocky tough vegetable that grows underwater.
But the usual rule applies. Specify that you don't want meat or fish sauce, as they have a way of showing up in seemingly vegetarian Thai dishes.
5. Pad gra pao het jay
Pad gra pao het jay (ผัดกระเพราเห็ดเจ) over a plate of rice is one of my absolute favorite vegetarian Thai foods.
Instead of pork, mushrooms are used in this vegetarian friendly version of the dish. The mushrooms are stir-fried on high heat with chilies and a handful of flavor bursting holy basil.
Because you're ordering it as a "jay" dish, you'll automatically get it without meat, fish sauce or oyster sauce.
For more tips on vegetarian eating in Thailand, download the "Vegetarian Thai Food Guide," a US$7 e-book.