When I was asked to write a feature about being a vegetarian in Thailand, I imagined I’d come up with vaguely witty anecdotes about the times people have told me a dish “only has a little bit of meat”, or the times when I’ve been in a group and we’ve split the evening’s food bill (for which I have tucked into a plate of wilted pak choy with soy sauce)and it’s come to THB400 each, or the time when I accidentally chomped down a pork ball after getting confused during the je festival (I must admit, I did enjoy it before I knew).
But, my first attempt at writing this made me sound like a moaning veggie. The kind you imagine preaching to you about the benefits of spirulina.
In fact, I’m not. I don’t care what anyone else eats, but I am somewhat obsessed with my own belly. The thought of breakfast gets me out of bed in the morning. I think of my next meal while I gulp down porridge and I discuss dinner plans over lunch.
But, as controversial as this is, I don’t really like Thai food that much. Or let me rephrase: I can’t find the variety of Thai food I want as a vegetarian who doesn’t eat meat, fish or fish sauce. Instead, as far as main meals go, I generally munch on pad thai, som tam without shrimp and fish sauce and stir-fried vegetables – sometimes with egg, sometimes without. As much as I enjoy it, I feel as though I’m missing out somewhat on Thai food, and there are a lot of days when in order to save the stress of the usual “Is that fish sauce?” and “Can I see some gung heng poking out under that tomato?” problems, I often opt for… western food.
There, I said it.
I’m much poorer for it and probably a little fatter too, but sometimes I just have a craving for beans, seeds and pure stodge. I know what you may think; there’s a whole world of veggie Thai food out there. Well, not so much if you don’t eat fish sauce. Of course, I’ve learnt how to ask for what I want and what I don’t. I knew all the words for shrimp paste (which is basically the same word as my name, so it’s super easy to remember), oyster sauce, fish sauce, and shrimps before I knew exactly how to say the name of the area I live in (true story). But, just last night I ordered a som tam without fish sauce. It came with.
Thai food is fiercely protected, I think, and when philistines like me try and adapt it, it’s often politely ignored. I assume som tam without fish sauce or morning glory without oyster sauce is a fiasco to a refined Thai palette, and they don’t want to compromise their cuisine. So, while veggies can be taught how to ask for exactly what they want, there are no guarantees you’ll get it.
Before I moved to Thailand, I was a little naïve about Thai cuisine. I thought it was all rice, galangal, coconut milk and lemon grass. I thought I’d be feasting on healthy veggie Thai food day and night, and that I’d never even consider venturing into an Italian restaurant, or a sandwich shop for lunch.
Long before I knew what je and mung sawarat meant, my only experiences of Thai food had been in London and Dubai restaurants, which all had menus with a large “vegetarian” page offering green curry, spring rolls, and lots of tofu-laden delights. Now I’ve been in Thailand a year, the novelty of the green curry has faded somewhat, and I only seem to buy spring rolls when I need refueling after a really long night on Khao San Road.
The frustrating thing is, I have had a little tease of what Thailand has to offer. During the Vegetarian Festival, I ate Thai for breakfast lunch, dinner and snacks etc (I have a large appetite). I ate everything I could lay my hands on: faux meats, tofu curries, spicy salads, coconut desserts and even meat-flavoured pao from 7 Eleven. But, once the yellow flags come down, the streets were full of duck and beef, and fish sauce reigned supreme again.
Sometimes, I strike lucky and find a delicious wing bean or banana flower salad. Or I venture into a mall to hunt down their vegetarian section. Or I stumble across a veggie restaurant serving up Chinese mushrooms or those fake chicken wings on sticks. But, unless I actively seek out vegetarian-friendly places or give up and go for a sandwich, I find it really hard to pinpoint exactly where all this vegetarian food is that people tell me is out there.
Am I missing something?
My theory is that most people assume vegetarians in Thailand will just eat up their fish sauce and stop whining about it. If you’re pretty relaxed about fish sauce, meat broth, and the odd shrimp here and there, I guess eating green in Thailand is easy. But if the thought of fish sauce makes you come over all queasy, it’s much more of a minefield.
I know it’s a food prison of my own making. And, as a veggie I always expect to find it a little harder than others when they’re abroad (although when I lived in the Middle East, I was practically made of hummus, falafel, fatoush, and manakeesh and put on about 5kg as a result). But, apart from a few veggie-friendly countries, it’s fair to say that most vegetarians have to make the choice between loosening up their morals or not eating as adventurously as they’d like, which is a shame. So, as fish sauce is out for me, I will embrace mykhao pad pak.
But, it’s not all “woe is me” for us tofu troublers. Some of the perks I enjoy are the availability of fresh, cheap soy milk, coconut-based vegan desserts, blocks of tofu for next to nothing and vegetables in the markets that are cheap, exotic, and delicious; and which – lucky for me – my Thai landlord knows how to turn into something tasty.
I love Thailand. Just don’t expect me to get too excited about veg in soy sauce.