How to cook vegetarian Thai food at home
Travelling and eating as a vegetarian in Thailand can be a challenge. Outside the most western-oriented hotels, restaurants and cafés, the concept of vegetarianism itself isn’t always well understand – don’t be surprised if you order a supposedly vegetarian dish at a street food stall in Bangkok, only to find that fish sauce and meat-based stock still goes into the mix regardless.
You can also expect to hear horror stories form fellow veteran vegetarian travellers that range from rural upcountry Thais thinking vegetarians are fine to eat chicken, to ordering a vegetarian burger to find that it’s simply a regular burger minus the meat patty – in other words a few lettuce leaves and a slice of tomato sandwiched between a bun.
Admittedly, Thai food tends to be heavier on vegetables than some other cuisines, and meat alternatives like tofu are also prevalent. That means that, when you’re eating in Thailand, you shouldn’t expect the kind of meat-heavy stir-fries and curries that Thai restaurants are well known for serving abroad – the real deal in Bangkok and beyond sees smaller portions of meat playing second fiddle to delicious combinations of vegetables, in part to keep the cost of ingredients down at street food stalls and other eateries.
But all of that aside, vegetarianism remains relatively uncommon, even if it’s hard to deny that it’s growing in popularity thanks to overseas influences and other factors. The one exception, perhaps, is the annual Chinese-influenced Vegetarian Festival that springs up right across Thailand – but even that doesn’t align exactly with vegetarianism or even veganism, since the ‘jay’ diet that underpins it goes even further and sees devotees shun other pungent foods like garlic and onions.
All of this means, then, that following a strict vegetarian diet in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand can be a challenge, especially if you’re keen on eating at street food stalls like the locals – albeit that it’s not outright impossible. The good news is that it’s much easier to be a good vegetarian when you’re cooking Thai food at home. Making a few simple adjustments to ingredients and cooking methods puts homemade vegetarian Thai food within much easier reach – and here are a few examples of how to do just that.
Seasonings and sauces
Seasonings are where vegetarians eating out in Thailand tend to have the most trouble. Even well-meaning Thai cooks can easily overlook the fact that seasonings like fish sauce, oyster sauce, and shrimp paste – ingredients that are the holy grail of Thai cooking, and which most can’t imagine making a dish without – are animal-derived. Thankfully, when cooking at home, with a little thought it’s easy to substitute your way around these staple ingredients.
Shop-bought mushroom sauce – commonly stocked at Asian grocers and supermarkets – is a quick and simple substitute for oyster sauce. You can replace shrimp paste with pounded salted soy beans – just double the quantity (for example, replace 1tsp shrimp paste with 2tsp soy beans), and be sure to use only the pounded beans, not the juice of them. And fish sauce can simply be substituted with a vegetarian soy sauce. For added depth of flavour, some cooks like to make their own vegetarian fish sauce replacement that combines equal amounts of soy sauce and homemade, well-salted mushroom broth.
Powdered meat stocks are a favourite among Thai home cooks for simple seasoning of everyday dishes, while more high-flying home cooks and restaurant chefs adhering to traditional recipes might go all out with a homemade stock made from boiled down meat or fish bones. Achieving the same level of intense seasoning while adhering to a vegetarian diet can be a challenge, but don’t be afraid to simply substitute those stocks with plain water, water that you’ve boiled vegetables in, or even a good-quality shop-bought vegetable stock.
Vegetables are already a prominent fixture in Thai cooking, and that’s something that’s to be harnessed by vegetarian cooks. While in many overseas cuisines vegetables routinely take second place to meat and fish in the composition of meals – think of the stereotypical ‘meat and two veg’ way of cooking in many parts of the west – that’s simply not the case in Thailand. Vegetables are frequently the shining star in stir-fries, salads, curries, soups, and more, and it’s equally common for especially meaty varieties to be used to stand in for meat itself – mushrooms are perhaps the most obvious example.
You can extend that concept to make much of Thai cuisine’s extensive repertoire of dishes more accessible for vegetarian diners – you’ll almost certainly still have to make further adjustments to conventional recipes, in order to prevent animal-derived products from creeping in among stocks and seasonings, but it’s perfectly do-able. Think about getting started with existing vegetable-friendly Thai dishes like mushroom soup (we’re talking herby broth rather than the western-style creamy stuff) or stir-fried bamboo shoots.
It’s also easy to adapt conventionally meat-based dishes like the northeastern laab moo pork salad, simply by using mushrooms instead of the pork – this is one that works particularly well. And, while the new western fad of using jackfruit as a meat substitute hasn’t quite yet caught on in Thailand (although tum kanun jackfruit salad is a northern Thai favourite), this part of the world is where jackfruits come from and are most in abundance. That means there’s no reason to limit yourself to pulled jackfruit sliders and the like – Thai cuisine is the perfect place to experiment with this and other fruits as meat alternatives.
Tofu already figures heavily in the kind of mainstream Thai food eaten by the country’s most fervent carnivores – so it makes sense for vegetarians and vegans to make the most of it, too. Thai dishes like gaeng jued (literally ‘bland soup’, but don’t let that put you off!) already come loaded with pieces of tofu as a matter of course, albeit often alongside the likes of minced pork – so take this as your cue to load your Thai cooking with tofu in curries, stir-fries, soups, and more.
Tofu is also a core ingredient in even the everyday street food version of world-famous dishes like pad thai – simply substitute the prawns that commonly appear alongside with vegetables like mushrooms, and make the usual substitutes for animal-derived seasonings, and you have your own vegetarian-friendly pad thai!