Although eating vegetarian and vegan food in Thailand is unusual, with the right preparation it can be done. As a vegetarian when I started traveling to Thailand and a vegan now, I’ve done all my research and this “survival guide” is what I came up with. With this information a whole new world of culinary delight in Thailand will open up to you! Take advantage of it!
Before we start, I would first like to talk about loss of face, i.e. public humiliation so strong it harms your reputation and social standing. The concept of losing face is deeply embedded in Thai culture, which means that Thai people will do just about anything to avoid it. Even lie.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, imagine ordering something from the menu and communicating your preferences (vegetarian, no fish sauce etc. etc.) in English. You then ask the waitress if she understands and if it’s possible.
The answer to that will always be: “YES”
But in Thailand “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes”, so you might still have a surprise coming your way. It’s like Russian roulette. “Will the dish be vegetarian or not?”
I should point out here that the average Thai person does speak some English, but not a lot. So if you don’t like surprises, the best thing to do is to learn a few words of Thai yourself.
The magic words
There are two Thai phrases which will make clear that you don’t eat meat and fish:
- “Jae” (เจ) – vegetarian/vegan
- “Mang sa wirat” (มังสวิรัติ) – no meat
Just study them until you know it by heart! Piece of cake, right?
Wrong… if only it was that simple.
As it happens, there is no word in the Thai language for our type of vegetarianism (no meat and fish, egg, dairy and honey are allowed). Moreover, Thai people are real meat-eaters and will find the concept of not eating meat or fish difficult to grasp.
Let’s have a closer look at the phrases:
“Mang sa wirat” means no meat; i.e., that the dishes are served without meat (or that the meat is carefully removed after it’s done). However, meat broth, fish sauce, lard and gelatin do not fall in this category and are sure to make their way onto your plate.
The other term, “jae”, is Chinese and denotes something very similar to veganism. Not only does it mean renouncing on meat, fish and animal products, but also on onion, garlic and other strong herbs and vegetables. So don’t be surprised if the flavor strikes you as being somewhat bland…
Being “jae” also entails not drinking alcohol, so you might get some strange looks when ordering a beer to go with your meal!
Despite its original meaning, real “jae” food in Thailand is rare. I’ve been served fish sauce and shrimp paste all the time. I also regularly find pieces of chicken and/or meat broth on my plate. So be sure to check everything that has the word “vegetarian” on it: even at the yearly Vegetarian Food Festival dishes with shrimp were served!
Still, I would advise both vegans and vegetarians to use to the term “jae” whenever possible. Many Thai people have a deep respect for vegans, as in Buddhism it’s seen as one the purest and most praiseworthy ways to live. Therefore, don’t just ask if they could remove certain ingredients (more about that later), but rather, tell them you’re a vegan: “jae”.
Crash course in Thai
Are you ready?! Of course, what you say depends on your preferences. That’s why I included a crash course in Thai.
As “jae” is a Chinese concept, chances are that in more remote areas people won’t understand what you mean. In that case, replace the word “jae” in the sentence with the phrase “mang sa wirat”.
I’m a vegan
- Deechan kin jae kha (for women)
- Pom kin jae krab (for men)
- Deechan kin mang sa wirat kha (for women)
- Pom kin mang sa wirat krab (for men)
Women say “I” with “deechan”, men with “pom”.
Women end their sentence with the word “kha” and men with “krab”.
Got it? Good, let’s move on…
May I have the vegan option, please?
Another way to order vegan or vegetarian food is by adding the term “jae” to the name of the dish:
Kor … jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian alternative for [name of dish], please?
Kor khao phat jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian fried rice, please?
Kor pad thai jae kha/krab – Can I have the vegetarian pad thai (noodle dish), please?
If you get a confused look as a response, you’ll have to be more precise.
I don’t eat…
If you want to stress the fact that you don’t eat certain ingredients, you can use the negative “mai kin”:
Mai plah kha/krab – I don’t eat fish
- beef – nua saat
- chicken – gai
- crab – pu
- dairy – champhuak
- duck – ped
- egg – kai*
- fish – plah
- fish sauce – nam plah
- garlic – gar-tee-um
- honey – nam-pung
- meat – noo-ah
- milk – nom
- onion – hom
- oyster sauce – nam man hoy
- pork – moo
- seafood– a-han talay
- shrimp – goong
- shrimp paste – kapi
- sugar – nam tam
- vegetables – pak
* Note: the pronunciations of egg (kai) and chicken (gai) are very similar. Make sure you always mention the word “egg” as well.
By saying “mai sai” you make clear that you would like your dish to be served without a certain ingredient
Kor pad thai jae, mai sai nam plah kha / krab – Can I have the vegetarian pad thai without fish sauce, please?
Kor khao phat jae, mai sai kai kha / krab – Can I have the vegetarian fried rice without egg, please?
Most of the time the fish sauce will be replaced by soy sauce (see ew). You can also ask for soy sauce specifically by saying “sai see ew kha/krab” (with soy sauce please).
Do you serve vegan food?
If this is too confusing, but you still want to know if a place serves vegan or vegetarian food, you can ask:
A-harn jae mee mai? – Do you serve vegan food?
You’ll get one of two answers to that question:
- Mee – Yes, I do
- Mai mee –No, I don’t
Most restaurants will serve fried rice or vegetables for vegetarians and vegans, despite it not being on the menu.
In case there are no dishes without meat or fish on the menu and you would like them to prepare one for you, ask:
Khun tum eng a-harn jae dai mai kha / krab? – Could you prepare a vegan meal for me?
The answer will be one of two things:
- Dai – Yes, I can
- Mai dai – No, I can’t
Fish sauce – In Thai cuisine fish sauce is used just like we use salt in western kitchens. It’s easy to make a mistake, so don’t be surprised if you still end up tasting fish sauce. It’s not uncommon for things like oyster sauce and meat broth to make their way to your plate either.
Smile – Smiling always helps. Think about it: for whom would you prefer to go the extra mile? For someone with a smile on their face or for someone with a frowning face…?
Street food – Vegetarian street food is very hard to come by, as pretty much every stall is all but guaranteed to be using either chicken or pork broth. In addition, most vendors only provide a bottle of fish sauce, rather than soy sauce. Also, most of them use pork oil for cooking instead of vegetable oils; it’s cheaper. Some vendors might even refill empty bottles of vegetable oil with pork oil – the two are indistinguishable by sight as they have exactly the same color. Make sure you are aware of these things. If you don’t trust it, eat elsewhere!
Nice vegan dishes
Although traditionally most Thai dishes aren’t prepared without meat and fish, 99% of the time it will be possible to order vegetarian or vegan versions of these meals.
Pad thai jae – fried noodles (pad thai)
Pad see ew – fried, thick noodles with soy sauce
khao phat pak – vegetable fried rice
Pa pia sot mai sai goong – fresh/soft spring rolls without shrimp
Som tam mai sai nam plah lai goong – spicy papaya salad without fish sauce or shrimp
Finally: a personal note
Searching the internet for nice restaurants that serve vegan and vegetarian food before leaving is advisable. HappyCow is a great website for doing just that.
And lastly, don’t get discouraged! I’ve been traveling through Thailand for three years and I still don’t know the right words for certain things. The other day for example, I was served a dish with chicken instead of egg. Just remembering the word “jae” will go a long way. There are times, however, when people just stare at me not understanding a word of what I’m saying. Keep calm, smile and try again…
And yes, sometimes you’ll fail, despite all your efforts. Whatever you do (eat anyway or send back), keep calm. Getting angry won’t help, as this will cause loss of face. Smile, shrug and say “mai pen rai” (doesn’t matter). Then order your meal again.
Again… some Thai people will think you’re very strange for not eating meat or fish. Still, they’ll be happy to prepare anything you want! Don’t be afraid to ask for what you like!
Photo credit header: Johan Fantenberg