Thailand is known for a great variety of delicious tropical fruits, and when you go to a Thai market, they are bursting with piles of colorful fruits and vegetables. But few vegetarians, if any, live off fruits alone.
There is such a thing as a fruitarian, but it is way out on the extreme side of vegetarianism, and very few people try to follow this for an extended period of time.
Are all vegetarians health conscious?
The availability of produce in Thailand is definitely a plus for vegetarians. However there is another side to the story. Although most people think that all vegetarians are extremely health conscious, this is not necessarily so.
India is one good example. There are many millions of vegetarians in India, but there is lots of white sugar, white rice, heavy milk products and sweets, and deep fried food in their diet. Many Indian vegetarians are seriously overweight.
But let’s talk about health conscious vegetarians/vegans who prefer whole grains, nuts and seeds, avoid fried foods, and shun sugary foods. Here we run into our first challenge in Thailand.
Unless you live in a major city like Bangkok or Chiang Mai, your choices are rather limited. Let’s say you like a variety of nuts and seeds and whole grains. In most parts of Thailand you will be limited to brown rice and cashew nuts.
The battle against MSG, fish sauce, and cheap oil
If you go out to eat at a restaurant, you will have to fight a regular battle of telling the waiter that you don’t want MSG and fish sauce in your food. If you don’t bring it up, you will get it in most dishes, guaranteed. Actually two of the first phrases I learned when I came to Thailand were “don’t put MSG in my food” and “don’t put fish sauce in my food”.
The other issue is that cooking vegetables in Thailand generally means to fry them in the cheapest oil available. Much of Thai food can be on the greasy side for health conscious vegetarians. If you look at any Thai menu, there is always a long list of fried foods. The alternative is a number of soups which often do not really correspond to our western idea of a real meal.
Thailand’s addiction to chili peppers
The Thais are very proud of their spicy food. Most dishes are liberally laced with hot chilis. If you ask a Thai waiter if the food is spicy, their usual answer is “a little bit”. The correct translation is that it might burn a hole in your tongue if you are not used to spicy food.
Even if you tell a waiter that you don’t want any chili in your food at all, they will still put some in it since they cannot imagine cooking without it. Your “not spicy at all” request is interpreted as you wanting only half as much chili in your meal.
Thailand’s vegetarian oasis
If you live in a major tourist center you will find restaurants with quite a few vegetarian options. The best city for vegetarians in Thailand is Chiang Mai which boasts dozens of vegetarian restaurants.
Even most non-vegetarian restaurants will have a number of vegetarian options on the menu. Chiang Mai is the holistic capital of Thailand with lots of courses in various massage modalities, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, qigong, energy work and plenty others.
The best island for vegetarians is Ko Phangan which has also developed into a major center for yoga, massage and various spiritual practices. Since a high percentage of the western visitors who practice yoga either are vegetarians or like to eat vegetarian meals, many restaurants on Ko Phangan have adapted to this trend and offer a good variety of veggie food.
You can have any vegetarian food as long as it is rice with fried vegetables
But here is the challenge. If you are a health conscious vegetarian/vegan and you travel around in Thailand outside of the above mentioned places, you will often have a hard time finding decent vegetarian food.
In many restaurants they will look at you incredulously and tell you that they cannot come up with any vegetarian food. But more often than not, they will tell you that they have vegetarian food. However it is always the same dish: white rice with fried vegetables.
This can get old very fast. Your main choices in most restaurants are white noodles with fried vegetables and white rice with fried vegetables, laced with MSG and fish sauce unless you make it clear that you don’t want it.
Most Thai restaurants have endless pages of dishes on their menus, but the vegetarian choices are mostly limited to the above two items.
Markets and fruits to the rescue
If you browse around in the markets, you can often find some vegetarian snacks or sweets. Markets can often be better choices than restaurants, but unless you speak some Thai it will often be impossible to determine what it is that you are looking at.
Eating well as a vegetarian in Thailand is easiest in places like the city of Chiang Mai or the island of Ko Phangan. If you travel or live outside of such places, you will not find it so easy as a health conscious vegetarian/vegan.
But at least you will generally find lots of great fruits. One good word to know is the Thai word for ‘vegan’: it is “jeh”, pronounced somewhat like the English name “Jay”.
Other options for vegetarians
If you want to add some more variety to your diet, you can find a lot of options in the chain of TOPS supermarkets which are located throughout the country in many major malls.
They stock many items which appeal more to western tastes, like a variety of seeds and nuts, nut butters, sugarless jams, tahini, vegetarian sausages, good dark bread, (which is generally almost impossible to find in Thailand), whole grain products, organic products, and imported foods. In Chiang Mai there are also several Rimping supermarkets which are similar to the TOPS chain.
The author, Shama Kern, is a long-time resident of Thailand, and is married to a Thai woman. He is the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org