Although not easy, particularly when one ventures out of cities heavily trafficked by Foreigners, eating both vegan and vegetarian are possible in Thailand. The following refers to traditional Thai food and culture, not Western restaurants. Often the latter will employ English speaking staff which will render your request of omitting ingredients much simpler should there be no available options on the menu.
Traditionally Thai food doesn’t contain dairy, this includes desserts. Dairy is usually consumed as sterilized milk, yogurt, ice cream and other forms of Western confectionery (i.e. chocolate).
From my experience, your average roadside market and cook will often be left confused by requests to omit ingredients. Sometimes they will simply refuse. For example, at a market in Buriram, Isaan, I requested my meal without the accompanying sauce. The woman refused to sell it to me on the grounds it wouldn’t be as delicious without it. Despite my coaxing and assurance that I’d in fact enjoy it, I left empty handed. To avoid this, or any other mishap (i.e. someone sneaking a small amount of fish or oyster sauce in your order), I suggest informing whomever you are dealing with that you are the Thai word for vegan (vegetarians, pay attention and do the same):
The literal translation is to eat vegetarian, but the Thai vegetarian diet corresponds with with vegan restrictions.
The G is pronounced as it is in the word ground. Check this link to hear how to pronounce jae. Practice this until near perfection at worst and pay attention to tone. The tone is necessary.
Alternatively, you can print out the following:
Your average person can read, but not always. However, between the two, you should fare well.
Being vegan in Thailand is often deeply respected as there is a link to Buddhism embedded within the practice. Despite being a predominately Buddhist country, the majority of Thais are omnivores. Being vegan is often viewed as an elevated way to live. Stating you are vegan (again, yes you too vegetarians), is a more fruitful and a better received way to go about things rather than asking for something to be omitted, a.k.a. changing someone’s recipe or possibly viewed by some, the Thai way of doing things.
Search out this symbol.
This is the national symbol for vegan. You will find it emblazoned outside of restaurants, at market stalls, and on food packaging easily found at common food retailers such as Big C and Tesco Lotus.
Food specifically prepared for vegans and vegetarians is always (or rather should be / is meant to be) MSG free, this includes prepared sauces used in the recipe.
The prevalence of soy products. Different brands of soy milk are easily found throughout the country. From a 7-Eleven in Bangkok to a muay thai bout deep in the sticks, it is likely you won’t go thirsty. Tofu is widely available at roadside restaurants, markets and grocery stores. To cut down on time, I suggest looking into a roadside/street restaurant’s glass front to spot a brick of tofu. Non dairy creamer is also available for you coffee drinkers.
Grain milks including brown rice, corn, job’s tear and multi-grain are available and usually stocked at major food retailaers and 7-Elevens. They are generally sold in individual serving box form.
Gluten products are available, to a lesser degree, but are easily found at restaurants and products market vegan.
It is possible to find independent retailers similar in function to Western health food stores. From my experience they are welcomed surprises and their presence anywhere should not be assumed.
Fish sauce is used in Thailand roughly as frequently as salt is used in Western countries.
A friend warned me about the practice of food stall owners substituting vegetable oil for what they called, pig oil. Pig oil is less expensive than vegetable oil and is sold in bags in markets. Some vendors will originally purchase vegetable oil for the container, then refill with pig oil. Both oils are similar in colour. She recommended going to physical restaurants and not the more budget friendly street restaurants and vendors, most often frequented by students at time of writing (i.e. pay the 60 baht for a meal as opposed to the 30 baht if you are concerned).
Anything to add? Please do!
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