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Navigating Thai Culture as a Vegan or Vegetarian


Eating out in Thailand as a vegan is fraught with some unseen challenges. Animal-derived ingredients are often sneaked into the seemingly most undeserving of dishes. Hidden within the complex spicy, sweet, sour and salty rich flavors, the fragrant and flavorful lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf herbs, lurks, when you least expect them, furtive ingredients, such as shrimp paste, shrimp and fish flakes, fish sauce, anchovies, chicken stock, clam sauce and eggs... Armed with vigilance and understanding, you can elevate your confidence when navigating the market stalls, street food vendors and restaurants with greater peace of mind.



About Face: Trust Me, You're Going to Want to Read This Part


Face loss and face gain are important psychological operating systems to understand when navigating Thailand while espousing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. The concept of face gain or credibility is deeply embedded into the roots of Thai society. Thai people do things with face in mind in an obsessively preoccupational fashion. This cultural code is essential to keep in mind when on a quest to procure victuals to assuage your hunger pangs.

Traditionally dressed Thai woman, flashing a "Thai" smile.

Face is quasi-equivalent to a person's reputation, credibility, honor or social standing, the self-image a person has and is deeply concerned with maintaining and upholding within the society. Face is about being polite, considerate, inoffensive and unobtrusive, even-tempered, with good emotional regulation. "Kreng jai" is the descriptive Englishified and latinized term for this trait, which transcends politeness and consideration for others, and encompasses the Thai relationship with face, which literally translates to "awe of heart."


Thai people will do just about anything to avoid committing and offense or inconvenience and incurring the scourge of public humiliation--even lie.


One can see how this might be problematic when ordering at a restaurant:

"Is this vegan?" "Can I order this without fish sauce?"


The answer will often be a resounding, "Yes!" However, this "yes," does not always necessarily mean, "yes" -- at least, not from a Western perspective. Brace yourself for Russian roulette. That veganized pad Thai you just ordered may very likely contain fish sauce.


 

A basic understanding of Thai language can also go a long way in communicating your meal preferences and improve your odds of being understood.


Some magic words to keep on your radar:


“Jae” (เจ) – Vegetarian / Something-like-vegan


“Mang sa wirat” (มังสวิรัติ) – No Meat



“Mang sa wirat” signifies dishes are served without meat. Pay attention to the semantics here--"served without meat," allows for a viable possibility meat may be carefully removed after the meal's been prepared or meat broths, fish sauces, lard and gelatin are fair game in the cooking process.



The Chinese term, “jae,” denotes a lifestyle and belief structure similar to veganism,

practicing a strict adherence to the principle of non-violence. Not only does Jainism exclude meat, fish and animal products, but also onion, garlic, potatoes and some other root vegetables or fruits which grow underground or kill the plant when harvested. Jains do not consume food in the shape of animals either --and most definitely no animal crackers or vegan dinosaur-shaped nuggets!


The flavor of Jain cuisine may sometimes strike one as somewhat bland or heavy in oil to compensate for lack of other ingredients; yet, I've also tasted some incredible Jain dishes, prepared with konjac, tofu and pea proteins which were marvelously flavorful and cruelty-free.


Jae also entails abstinence from drinking. You may land a peculiar look or two if ordering a glass of wine, mixed drink or beer to accompany your meal if invoking the name.

Many Thai people have a deep respect for vegans, as in Buddhism, it’s seen as one the purest and most praiseworthy ways to live.


As “jae” is a Chinese concept, chances are that in more remote areas people won’t understand what you mean. In such a case, replace the word “jae” in the sentence with the phrase “mang sa wirat”.


I only eat vegan/vegetarian food:


Deechan kin jae kha (What a woman would say = W)

Pom kin jae krab (What a man would say = M)


I don’t eat meat:


Deechan kin mang sa wirat kha (W)

Pom kin mang sa wirat krab (M)


A female would refer to herself with “I” by saying, “deechan”, and a male would use the term, “pom”.


Women end sentences with the word “kha,” and men with “krab."



Another way to order vegan or vegetarian food is by adding the term “jae” to the name of the dish:


Kor … jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian alternative for [name of dish], please?

Kor khao phat jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian fried rice, please?

Kor pad thai jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian pad thai (noodle dish), please?


If you want to stress you don’t eat certain ingredients, you can use the negative:


Kin = eat, Mai = not, Dai = can



Mai kin… [what you don't eat]

Mai sai (without)

Sai (with)


Below is a list of ingredients commonly avoided by vegans.

  • beef – nua saat

  • chicken – gai

  • crab – pu

  • dairy – champhuak

  • duck – ped

  • egg – kai

  • fish – plah

  • fish sauce – nam plah

  • garlic – gar-tee-um

  • honey – nam-pung

  • meat – noo-ah

  • milk – nom

  • oyster sauce – nam man hoy

  • pork – moo

  • seafood– a-han talay

  • shrimp – goong

  • shrimp paste – kapi


By saying “mai sai” you make clear that you would like your dish to be served without a certain ingredient

Kor pad thai jae, mai sai nam plah kha / krab – Can I have the vegetarian pad thai without fish sauce, please? Kor khao phat jae, mai sai kai kha / krab – Can I have the vegetarian fried rice without egg, please?

Most of the time the fish sauce will be replaced by soy sauce (see ew). You can also ask for soy sauce specifically by saying “sai see ew kha/krab” (with soy sauce, please).

Do you serve vegan food?

If this is too confusing, but you still want to know if a place serves vegan or vegetarian food, you can ask:

A-harn jae mee mai? – Do you serve vegan food?

You will receive one of the following answers in response:

  • Mee – "Yes, I do."

  • Mai mee – "No, I do not."


Most restaurants do serve white rice, fried rice or vegetables for vegetarians and vegans, even if not listed specifically on the menu..

Fried rice without egg.
A simple fried rice sans egg.

Don’t forget…

Fish sauce – In the wild world of Thai cuisine, fish sauce is the wildcard, the culinary equivalent of that one unpredictable character in every sitcom. It's used much like salt and pepper in Western kitchens, which means the odds of mistakes being made increase exponentially. Don’t be surprised if, in spite of your hypervigilance, you end up tasting fish and oyster sauce or meat broth at some point on your travels.

Smile – Smiling always helps. Think about it: For whom would you prefer to go the extra mile? Someone with a humble smile or with a sourpuss face?

Street food – Vegetarian street food is relative difficult to stumble upon, but not impossible, as pretty much every stall is all-but-guaranteed to be using chicken or pork broths. And a great many vendors tend to provide only a bottle of fish sauce, rather than soy sauce or chili oil for added flavoring. And let's not forget to mention the fact pork oil is often a preferred cooking oil over vegetable oils, as it's far cheaper. To make matters worse, some vendors may even refill empty bottles of vegetable oil with pork oil, and the two are indistinguishable by sight. Beware!

 

Happy Cow Logo

Searching the internet for nice restaurants that serve vegan and vegetarian food beforehand is advisable. HappyCow is a great web site for doing just that.


 

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