On our first evening in Bangkok, the street lights glowed yellow over the dusty tangle of electrical cables that garland every roadside. An elderly woman tended the charcoal burner perched on top of her ramshackle barrow, hardly bigger than a tea trolley, pushed to the edge of the pavement.
We paused, our group of seven, gathering shyly around our guide Gung, and watched while the woman heated a round dimpled pan, like a giant iron solitaire board, and deftly poured in white liquid from a metal teapot.
“Salted rice flour and coconut milk,” explained Gung, with the serious manner of a school prefect in charge of the newbies. Without breaking rhythm, the cook picked up a second teapot and began topping up the dimples with more milky liquid — sweetened coconut milk this time — before scattering over a few scraps of green spring onion.
It was only seconds before our cook tipped out the kanom krok, or coconut pancakes, tiny gold-crusted domes with a soft custard filling. We ate the creamy rich buns hot, with our fingers, and all our shyness was forgotten as we exclaimed at their deliciousness. And here it was, our first lesson in an essential component of Thai flavour: sweet, salty and savoury, layered rather than blended, building simple ingredients into a magical complexity of tastes.
Our group was just as varied, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 50s, and hailing from Melbourne, California, New York and England. We had just one common thread: we were all keen to explore the wonders of Thailand’s legendary food culture, but without eating any animal products.
Not so long ago a vegan food tour would have been unthinkable. But these days forswearing flesh is big business, with one in eight of us now vegan or vegetarian. Supermarkets are falling over themselves to launch vegan ranges and “plant-based” menus have entered the restaurant mainstream. With compelling environmental arguments for embracing a plant-based diet, even those who aren’t vegan are looking to cut down on meat. No wonder then that travel companies are getting on board, with specialised tours catering for the vegan traveller.
Or, in my case, the occasional vegan. Alone of the group, I’m omnivorous. But I did spend a decade during my teens and 20s as a vegetarian, and I increasingly find myself choosing a plant-based diet. I liked the idea of laying off all meat, fish and dairy for a week, while venturing north of Bangkok as far as Chiang Mai, an area I’d never been to before. If that couldn’t keep my mind off milky cappuccinos and roast chicken dinners, what would?
All the same, I’d had some misgivings. While Thailand might sound like a safe destination for vegans — all that coconut milk, those wonderful vegetable curries, the rice — Thai food relies heavily on nam pla, or fish sauce, the clear fermented liquid which they use with the same freedom that the Chinese use soy sauce. And then there are the shrimps, which are an intrinsic part of the curry pastes and even the salads, like the classic pounded papaya som tam. Would the food still taste truly Thai without the body and savoury note that these condiments give?
Over dinner of cassia leaf curry with lime, ginger and stir-fried shiitake stem in a Bangkok vegetarian restaurant, Gung, who is also a trained chef, explained the plan of campaign, while admitting that there would be challenges. It turns out that October is the best month for vegans to visit, when many Thais adopt a flesh-free diet, connected to the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
But then Asia is all about adaptability, as we found the very next morning when we headed to Maeklong market, a few miles east of Bangkok. There we found stalls crammed either side of a railway line, boxes of veg piled on to the sleepers, while shoppers filled the rails. A minute before nine and, in a brief commotion, the stallholders threw covers over the boxes on the ground, pedestrians scrambled to the side and the train ambled slowly past, the sides of the carriages overhanging their boxes.
Gung bought us fresh coconuts, which the stallholder whacked open with a heavy knife, so we could sip the cool, woody water inside as we stood under his awning watching the jolly red and yellow carriages clatter by. Then Gung showed us how to eat the flesh, telling us firmly that these were the finest coconuts, and “in other parts of the country they are not so sweet, not such a nice aroma. And the best flesh is right at the bottom”. So we scooped out the gelatinous coconut with metal spoons Gung had given us to keep, so that we didn’t have to use disposable plastic cutlery at street food stalls.
Coconuts were to feature heavily in our eating, along with rice and banana. We travelled up to Thekla floating market and drifted peacefully in a narrow canoe through verdant waterways to a tiny plantation where farmers were gathering coconut nectar and boiling it down to make coconut sugar. Back at the market we ate rice-paper dumplings stuffed with fragrant chives, and miang kham, betel leaves wrapped around a zingy mix of shallots, chopped limes, coconut and galangal, which Gung arranged to be made for us without the usual shrimp paste.
In the main cities, in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it’s relatively easy to find restaurants with a vegan menu, mostly patronised by Westerners. But if you want to eat vegan with the locals, or go off the beaten track, or eat at the street food stall, a guide and translator who understands food is key. Thais are not used to adapting dishes to suit vegans, and meat and dairy can lurk in unexpected places.
IN THE KITCHEN
Some of our favourite lunch stops were in the Jain cafes, vegan canteens found throughout Thailand, popular with locals and recognisable by their red and yellow signage, but even there we needed our guide to decode the myriad dishes devoid of English language description.
Some of the fun was more closely tailored to vegans. In the markets of Kanchanaburi, near the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, we shopped with chef Noi, an effervescent Thai woman with an irreverent sense of humour, and learnt how to recognise old-fashioned tiny Thai shallots and reject the modern, western fat bulbs which lack the intensity needed. She explained how we should eat them with garlic and small flexible dried chillies to burn fat and keep our blood pressure down, showed us how to pop purple mangosteen fruit open and eat the sweet white flesh and crunchy seeds without getting the magenta staining skin on our clothes, and to choose smooth-skinned ginger for slicing and the older roots for a fiery heat.
We piled into the back of an eight-seater tuk-tuk and headed back to Noi’s pristine cookery school on the other side of the River Kwai. First up was chilli paste — we were to grind salt, galangal, lemongrass, coriander root, cumin, coriander, shallots and plenty of chilli. “Chilli is good for cleaning,” Noi crowed, patting her bottom mischievously. “Keep pounding!” We bashed on, adding shallots, and lemon-scented “finger ginger”, inhaling the fragrance of the spices.
Our leisurely journey continued north to Ayutthaya, where in a dark basement we watched a young man with rippling muscles pulling ropes of hot sugar, folding and pulling again until the threads were candyfloss fine, ready to stuff into pancakes called roti sai mai. Onwards we went, on the night train to Chiang Mai, waking in the dawn light as we chugged past paddyfields and temples. On the outskirts of the city we stayed in a traditional northern Thai wooden house, and cooked in an outdoor kitchen surrounded by banana trees, sleeping in the loft on mattresses swathed in mosquito nets.
It was a long way from that dark roadside stall, and I hadn’t missed meat all week. Instead, as we navigated our vegan adventure, new Thai delicacies I’d overlooked on previous trips had come into focus. More of those Thai layers of flavour, in fact.
Thai food glossary
Pad Thai: Fried noodles
with shrimps and egg, introduced by Thai leader Plaek Phibunsongkhram to promote eating noodles instead of rice, and quickly assimilated as a national dish. Noodles — pad — can also be spelt pat or phat.
Som Tam: Hot and sour
Pounded green papaya and dried shrimp salad. Northern or Isaan versions include pungent salted crab.
Most rice in Thailand is either sticky rice or Jasmine rice, but look out for the delicious black and red varieties too.
Duck and hen’s eggs are common. White eggs with a slightly chalky shell are salted, while pink shells indicate “century” eggs, cured with alkaline.
Tao Hu or Dao Hu: tofu
Sold freshly made in huge bowls in Thai markets. The same sellers often have fresh soy milk as well.
See Ew Khao: Thai light soy sauce
Used in many Chinese-influenced dishes, it is less strong and salty than regular soy sauce. Look out too for see ew waan, which is thick soy sauce with a black treacle flavour.
Nam Pla: Thai fish sauce
Used everywhere as a seasoning. Nam is broth, while pla means fish.
Vegan trips around the world
A feast of new flavours and experiences awaits the meat-free adventurer
■ German-based Vegan Cruises sail all over the globe. A trip up the Mekong to Cambodia and Vietnam takes in Phnom Penh and the temples of Angkor Wat, with just 14 on board. All ships’ staterooms have private bathrooms with vegan toiletries, and you’ll enjoy vegan fine dining on board.
■ VegVoyages is US-based but recommended by the UK Vegan Society, and has plenty of British travellers on its regular tours to India, Malaysia, Nepal, Laos and Sri Lanka. Its Bali tour offers a huge range of activities such as cookery classes, treks through coffee fields and rice paddies, a night at a local inn or home on the less visited west coast and three nights in the luxury Balinese Garden.
■ Travelling alone, but not sure if a tour is for you? Kindred Traveller offers tours where your days are your own but hosted dinners let you socialise with the group. All food is vegan. Optional day excursions are available, such as, on the trip to the Ionian island of Zakynthos, a country hike or a boat tour with turtle-spotting.
■ Dutch-based Samsara Travel has tours to the Far East including Japan, Burma and Vietnam, with a vegan tour leader and local English-speaking guides. The Japanese tour includes Mount Fuji and Tokyo before a bullet train trip to Kyoto to tour Fushimi Inari Daisha temple, above, and Himeji Castle.
■ Vegan Epicure Travel’s tours are for serious food lovers. France can be tricky for vegan travellers, but this Riviera tour includes regional cookery, market visits, bubbles in Monte Carlo and a trip to Italy.