Thai cooking packs an astonishing variety of flavors, and is certainly among the world’s most delicious vegan-friendly cuisines. It’s one of the most satisfying cuisines for vegans to make at home, but dining out poses challenges. That’s because, like most Japanese cooking, a tiny amount of seafood is incorporated into the seasonings that go into most savory Thai dishes.
That said, it’s still well worth the effort to explore this cuisine. It’s true that many Thai restaurant dishes aren’t terribly healthy, since they prominently feature coconut milk and white jasmine rice. On the other hand, one of the great virtues of Thai cooking is that few other cuisines can match its quantity and variety of vegetables. Regardless of whether you select the healthier items from the menu, Thai cuisine is ridiculously appealing and brings a world of sublime flavors, especially if you favor spicier foods.
The most popular Thai dishes are stir-fried veggies with either tofu or meat, served in a curried coconut milk over rice. Unlike Indian food, where curries consist of a mix of dried spices, Thai curries are moist pastes. These Thai curry pastes come in numerous varieties, including red (panang), yellow, green. There’s also a popular curry called massaman, which contains spices originally from Malaysia, Iran, and India. All of these curries pair perfectly with coconut milk.
Ordering Vegan Thai Food at Restaurants
The vast majority of Thai restaurants put ground shrimp or fish sauce into each of their curries. Since the curry pastes mixed into each meal are pre-made, it’s impossible to order a standard curry item from these restaurants and get them to withhold the shrimp. They’ll also often squirt some fish sauce onto the noodles or into the coconut milk.
At Thai restaurants that don’t cater to vegans, your best choice may be to special order vegetables and tofu in plain coconut milk, seasoned only with salt and lemon juice, and accompanied by jasmine rice. Since coconut milk is so ridiculously delicious your meal will still have plenty of flavor even without the curry seasoning. Alternately, you can go super basic and ask for plain stir-fried vegetables seasoned with soy sauce rather than fish sauce.
Popular Thai Menu Items
At Thai restaurants worldwide, the most famous entree is Pad Thai. This is a rice noodle dish seasoned with tamarind sauce and garnished with crunchy mung bean sprouts and chopped peanuts. Unfortunately, Pad Thai traditionally includes eggs. Some restaurants can leave the egg out and still produce a delicious dish. Other restaurants won’t accommodate requests to serve Pad Thai egg-free, and the counter person will glare at you like you’re insane.
The two most popular Thai soups are tom yum and tom kah. Both feature vegetables, the former in a clear yellow broth and the latter in a base of spicy coconut milk. These soups are pre-made so, once again, it’ll be impossible to order yours without the fish or shrimp sauce they typically contain. So if you’re in the Thai restaurant that isn’t the least bit vegan friendly you’re best off skipping the soup. Unfortunately, they’ll often serve you some anyway along with your entree but if you graciously reject it when it arrives, at least it won’t go to waste.
Even at the least vegan-friendly Thai restaurants, there’s one option that’s always vegan—but unfortunately it’s a dessert rather than a main course. The most popular Thai dessert is “sticky rice” and it’s invariably vegan. Just three ingredients deliver a classic combination: rice drizzled with sweetened coconut milk, and topped with mango slices. Obviously this dish’s success hinges on the quality of the mangoes. Made with perfectly ripe mangoes it becomes one of the most delicious desserts in the universe.
As vegan diets continue to increase in popularity, more Thai restaurants are banishing the shrimp and fish sauce from at least one of their curry options. But since seafood-based sauces vanish undetectably into Thai food, there’s a big element of trust when it comes to ordering vegan Thai food from non-vegan restaurants.
By far the most popular salad served in Thailand is made from unripe grated papaya, which is a little crunchy and not sweet at all. Since it’s usually topped with peanuts, it’s more filling than most salads from other cuisines.
It’s filling enough to eat as a main course, and it’s probably the non-dessert item in a non-vegetarian Thai restaurant that’s least likely to touch any animal products. In Thailand, the restaurants also serve a variety of other salads making use of vegetables that are rarely grown in Europe or the Americas.
Cooking Vegan Thai Food at Home
If all else fails you can always cook outstanding vegan Thai food at home. Thai Kitchen makes excellent green and red curry pastes, and both products are vegan. Just add a tablespoon of curry paste to a can of coconut milk and you’re in business. Serve it over stir-fried veggies and jasmine rice, then squirt on some lime juice, and you’ve got some seriously legit Thai food with minimal effort. Want to venture even further into Thai cooking? Vegan Thai Kitchen, by Sarah & Renoo Jansala, is a gorgeous title exclusively devoted to the topic.
Despite its challenges to vegans, don’t be shy about seeking out Thai food. If you haven’t yet explored this cuisine, don’t delay any longer! The challenges you may encounter when eating out are surmountable. And Thai food offers some of the most unforgettable flavors in the entire realm of vegan cooking.
Eating Vegan in Thailand
If you can get yourself to Thailand, you will gain an unmatched opportunity to experience the nuances of authentic Thai cooking. You can find terrific vegan restaurants in any good-sized town in Thailand, with Chiang Mai far out in front. Chiang Mai has far more vegan restaurants than Bangkok, despite having less than five percent of its population.
Thailand grows quite a few fresh herbs that you just can’t get outside of Southeast Asia. So when you go to a Thai restaurant in Europe or the Americas, they won’t be able to offer the full spectrum of flavors no matter how well-trained the cook. Additionally, restaurants in Thailand have easy access to the freshly-harvested coconuts they use to prepare their coconut milk, and canned coconut milk just cannot compete.
If you enjoy cooking, the meals you’ll eat at Thailand’s vegan restaurants will doubtless inspire you to try your hand preparing them at home. In several cities, you can even take vegan cooking classes that will teach you how to prepare authentic Thai meals.
Some of the nighttime “walking streets” and night markets feature vegan food stalls with remarkably cheap foods. The weather has often cooled down at night, and you’ll be able to find street food favorites like sticky rice, Thai pancakes, plates of sliced mango, and steamed sticky rice and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves.
Iced Coffee and Alcohol in Thailand
One benefit I get from visiting Thailand is that I typically stop drinking during my stay. Southeast Asia is no place to grow wine grapes, and the beers are likewise disappointing. The top brands are Leo, Singha, and Chang. Leo is the best, but it’s merely OK. Singha is a small step down from that. And I think Chang tastes like embalming fluid. However, at any night market you can buy cool looking Leo, Singha, and Chang cotton t-shirts, and I highly recommend those.
Thailand has hot afternoons almost year-round. Some Thai bars offer beer frozen in a machine so it gains the texture of shaved ice. Both Thai and Vietnamese bars commonly serve beer on ice. The extra degree of cold helps hide the mediocre taste of Thai beer.
Even though Thai beer disappoints, the country produces some exceptional coffee. On oppressive afternoons, you can cool down with some delicious iced coffee served at any coffee shop. You’ll also find 7-Eleven convenience stores on practically every corner in Thailand, and they all carry delicious vegan durian and coconut milk ice cream bars in their freezers.