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Traveling to Thailand and maintaining a vegetarian diet is not only manageable, it can be quite easy! Thai food draws many of its unique flavors from the fresh herbs and spices used in cooking and served as garnishes, so you can observe your vegetarian diet without missing out on any of the experience.
Vegetarian food is much easier to find in Thailand than in other countries and there are a good number of specifically vegetarian restaurants. The country is also famous for its seafood, so if you are a pescatarian or a flexitarian you can be sure your dietary requirements will be equally satisfied. For full vegetarians (and even vegans), almost all traditional Thai dishes can be ordered with vegetables only.
If you live in a western country you are probably used to meat being the main staple of most meals or at least the flavor around which the rest of a meal is planned. In Thailand, this is not so much the case which provides for a truly exciting palate of flavors and makes vegetarian dining accessible from the moment you step foot in the country.
In some way ALL Thai food shares its flavors with the vegetarian dishes you will be seeking out. Thai food focuses on a combination of sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter tastes (Notice the absence of savory or umami? This is due to meat rarely being used for flavoring!). The best part for vegetarians is that most of these flavors are derived from non-meat sources.
The sweet flavor typically comes from palm sugar. Sour is brought in with lime, tamarind and other sour fruit. Spicy comes from the many peppers and peppercorns favored in Thai cooking, while bitter is drawn from the raw leaves of plants and from melons. The salty flavor is usually created with natural sea salt!
In addition to the flavors above, you can expect a few common themes in your exploration of vegetarian Thai. Starches are, perhaps unsurprisingly, rice and rice noodles, so do not expect to be eating too many tuberous roots. The rice is typically steamed so you do not need to be concerned about meat based oils.
Garlic, coriander, cilantro, fresh mint, lemongrass, and shallots are common, both fresh and cooked, and you will almost never find dried herbs. Chilies of many varieties are crushed into a thick paste which is stirred into noodles or broth for extra flavoring.
Steamed, boiled, or fried! Thai cooking can be difficult to master because there are multiple cooking methods for each dish. If you order a rice dish, the rice might be first steamed and then reheated in a pan with sesame oil and vegetables. If you order a bowl of Pho it will likely be boiled, but fried noodle dishes are just as common!
Vegetarianism in Thailand has its roots in the local Buddhist culture which dictates that food be prepared in a simple and clean fashion. Food that would otherwise be cooked using animal products such as fish sauce, substitutes by soy sauce, chili sauce, and sea salt to ensure it is vegetarian from top to bottom.
The list of vegetarian dishes you might encounter could fill a website of its own but there are a few you simply cannot miss:
Mung Bean Noodle Salad, Papaya Salad, and fresh spring rolls are all excellent for a starter. All are typically served cold, but papaya salad often packs a spicy punch! Spring rolls can be served with shrimp but are easily ordered meat free.
For lunch, vegetarian curry or vegetarian Tom Yum (spicy red soup) can hardly be overlooked. Tom Yum is one of the staple and signature foods and everyone has heard of Thai curry. Many restaurants offer vegetarian options for these dishes to appease their local customers, so traveling vegetarians can easily enjoy these dishes too.
For dinner, consider stir-fried noodles (Pad Thai), grilled mushrooms, Gaeng Aom, and some fruit to chase it down - well, expect fruit at every meal!
Ordering food in Thailand varies depending on the location. At street food vendors and stalls you will want to walk up to the vendor, order and pay all at one time. If there are plastic stools you can sit and wait until someone asks what you want or you can order and take the food to your seat yourself.
In Thai restaurants, big meals are usually served family style. The table will collectively order a few dishes to share and you can serve yourself into the bowl of rice, provided along with the meal. A typical meal might include a curry, a cold salad, and a stir fry which would be shared and enjoyed by all!
If you are feeling up to the challenge you can try to indicate your vegetarian needs using the words kin chey or mangsavarat. Mai kin translates as ‘I do not eat’. Moo means pork, gai means chicken, neua is beef and pla means fish. Combining these should help you order dishes without specific meats.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai, you will find plenty of restaurants capable of catering to a vegetarian diet. With so many options it can be difficult to decide where to begin. At Asia Highlights we have narrowed down the list, based on best features, flavor, and service.
The service at No Aroon is overshadowed only by the depth of the meat-free menu. You can enjoy a literal feast of vegetarian dishes such as curry, salads, and the classic Pad Thai. The setting is peaceful and quaint and the mix of indoor and outdoor seating makes it a delight in any weather.
The Tom Yum soup is another specialty and the mix of flavors seems to suit the bustling city that surrounds this quiet restaurant. For desert try the chocolate tart, before continuing to explore the rest of the Sukhumvit area Na Aroon is located in.
Location: 65 Sukhumvit Soi 1 Klongtoey Nua, Wattana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Opening hours: 6:30am - 10:00pm
If you are feeling hungry and need to refill the tank after a long day of exploring, then stop at AUM. Their portion sizes are sure to impress you, and the menu offers a mix of traditional vegetarian dishes and traditional Thai dishes cooked without any meat.
Crowd favorites include the veggie dumplings, the Tha Phae Gate, and the fresh spring rolls. If you need something a little closer to home, veggie burger and fries is another healthy but familiar option.
The restaurant features low tables and even lower prices, especially considering how much food you get. The alleyway setting contributes further to the overall feeling of ‘being away from it all’.
Location: 1/4 Suriyawong Alley near Chiang Mai Gate Hotel
Opening hours: 10:30am - 8:30pm
At De Lanna you can sit right along the river front and enjoy unbeatable service at very reasonable prices. The VERY vegetarian-friendly menu offers both Thai and western dishes and a full drink and coffee menu.
The glass exterior and star-like lighting give the restaurant a modern yet comfortable feeling and the outdoor seating area is especially pleasant at night. The green curry, mushroom soup, braised cabbage, and pan friend beans are all to die for, but you also can’t go wrong with a bowl of their Pad Thai. Ask one of the very attentive waitresses if you need help deciding!
Location: 211/7 Moo 20, Kwae Wai Rd., Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand
Opening hours: 9:00am - 10:00pm
Traveling with a restrictive diet can be stressful, even in a country like Thailand where it is relatively easy. If you travel with Asia Highlights, our well trained and seasoned staff will work tirelessly to find culinary delights that fit your and your family members’ needs.