Thailand is known for its colourful and spicy food. Most people reading this would have probably eaten Thai food in their home countries and would know what famous staples like Thai Curry (yellow, red, or green) and Pad Thai are. But Thai food is a whole lot more than those two dishes. Thailand has an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables. Its cooking style is also quite unique. For a vegetarian, Thailand can be a memorable place to really enjoy some distinctive and diverse flavours.
However, one thing to be careful about is the fact that Thai food is heavy on the use of meat, seafood, and fish/oyster sauces. Even though you might successfully use some basic Thai words to order food without pieces of meat in it, chances are that the dish would be flavoured with fish sauce. At times, ingredients like eggs, chicken stock, and meat stock may be considered vegetarian-friendly. So, if you truly want to enjoy proper vegetarian food in Thailand, then you need to be really specific on what you order and how you order it.
The following is a guide to eating vegetarian food in Thailand. It has helpful phrases, a list of some popular local dishes that can be served vegetarian, and some popular vegetarian restaurants in the major cities of Thailand.
1) Learn to say I’m vegetarian in Thai
To say “I am a vegetarian” in Thai, you have to say “chhaan maang saa wee rat” or write down in Thai characters – ฉันมังสวิรัติ
However, as pointed out above, vegetarian in Thailand can mean that meat stock, shrimp paste, and fish sauce is fair game. So, if you want to be really safe, then say “Gin Jay” (กินเจ). Women would normally say “Chan Gin Jay” while men would say “Pom Gin Jay”. The word “Jay” (เจ) is a term for a person who does not eat meat, seafood, animal byproducts, garlic, and herbs which have a pungent flavour. So, Jay food goes well beyond the restrictions of vegan food. The characters for Jay look like the number 17. You can also try to look for the sign shown below when you search for a restaurant that serves Jay food.
2) Print the following images and show them to your server while ordering
* if you have trouble printing the images below directly, then you can copy paste these images below onto a word document and then print*
Following are phrases that can be used to explain dietary restrictions, and what you can and cannot eat. They are written in English and Thai characters
3) Try these famous Thai dishes
Som Tam ( ส้มตำไทย ) – Som Tam is a green papaya salad. It is perhaps one of the most famous Thai salads. This salad has a nice zesty mix of papaya, tomatoes, lime juice, peanuts, and other veggies. Normally, Som Tam has fish sauce and dried shrimp. So, you would have to request for a vegetarian version when ordering Som Tam by saying “mai sai goong haeng” (ไม่ใส่กุ้งแห้ง) for no dried shrimp and “mai sai nam bplaa” (ไม่ใส่น้ำปลา) for no fish sauce. If you eat Som Tam from a street food vendor, then in almost all cases, the vendor will put fish sauce in the salad unless you ask the vendor not to.
Gaeng Om (แกงอ่อม) – Gaeng Om is a hearty stew or a soup-like dish with lots of vegetables and herbs in it. The conventional version has pork and chicken in it. Fermented shrimp paste is also not uncommon. As a vegetarian, you will want to order the Gaeng Om that is served without meat by saying “mai sai neua sat” (ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์) and without shrimp paste by saying mai sai kaphi (ไม่ใส่กะปิ).
Pad Pak Gachet (ผัดผักกะเฉด) – Ever heard of water mimosa? This dish is stir-fried water mimosa. This unique vegetable grows under the water and is tough and stocky. Just make sure you mention your no meat phrase “mai sai neua sat” (ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์) and your no fish sauce phrase “mai sai nam bplaa” (ไม่ใส่น้ำปลา) when you order the vegetarian version of this dish.
Pad Pak Ruam Prik Gaeng (ผัดผักรวมพริกแกง) – This dish is nice and simple. Stir-fried vegetables are cooked in a chilly curry paste with a kaffir lime leaves which give the dish a lovely fragrance. As mentioned above, just make sure you mention your no meat phrase “mai sai neua sat” (ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์) and your no fish sauce phrase “mai sai nam bplaa” (ไม่ใส่น้ำปลา) when you order the vegetarian version of this dish.
Pad Gra Pao Het Jay (ผัดกระเพราเห็ดเจ) – Pad Gra Pao Het is generally a stir-fried meat dish with holy basil. But you will order the “Jay” version (apparent from the “Jay” at the end of the dish name). Instead of pork or other meat, mushrooms will be used as a substitute. They will be stir-fried with chilies and flavourful holy basil. No fish or oyster sauce will be used in your Jay version of this dish either. Pad Gra Pao Het Jay will be served with rice. By the way, if you ever need to mention no oyster sauce for any of the dishes, you simply say “mai ow nam man hoy” (ไม่เอาน้ำมันหอย)
Sticky Rice with Mango (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง) – You cannot leave Thailand without trying the desserts. Sticky Rice with Mango or “khao neow mamuang” is a popular dessert. The rice is cooked in sweet coconut milk and then served with slices of mango. The use of coconut milk means that this dessert is vegan as it includes no dairy products.
Khanom Krok (ขนมครก) – These are coconut-rice pancakes often served as street food. The dough or batter of Khanom Krok is made with rice flour batter and coconut milk. They are cooked on an iron pan such that they are slightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Different toppings like taro, sweetcorn, shredded coconut, tapioca, or sugar can be added depending on the vendor who makes these pancakes.
4) Plan for a few options beforehand
While you cannot always expect to know exactly where and when you will eat, try to keep a list of a few vegetarian restaurants in the area that you are going to visit. To create a list, use the following websites/restaurants:
- http://www.happycow.net/ – This is perhaps the best resource online
- Vegan Food Quest – This blog has a list of many vegan restaurants across various cities of Thailand.
Top Vegetarian Restaurants in Bangkok
Chamlong Asoke (จำลอง สันติอโศก) is a unique food place. It is actually a collection of food stalls all serving vegetarian Thai food. The food is very reasonably priced here. You can read a full review and details about how to reach this place here.
May Veggie Home is a vegetarian restaurant that serves local Thai and south-east Asian dishes in a vegan format. The restaurant uses mock meat (completely vegetarian) and has a tag line “Vegan food for meat lovers”. You can get curries, fried tofu, Japanese dishes, Lao dishes, and much more at May Veggie Home. They even have vegan ice cream for dessert. No wonder this place gets very good reviews.
Na Aroon is a restaurant that has it all. The ambience is that of a 1940’s Bangkok Villa while the menu has plenty of local Thai vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes (veg options are far more than non-veg options). The pricing is a little bit on the higher side but the people who visit find the food to be well worth the money.
Broccoli Revolution is a well-known vegan restaurant with plenty of vegetarian food options. You can try their burgers, salads, local Thai dishes, and fusion dishes. They have cold pressed juices as well.
Dosa King is a pure vegetarian Indian restaurant. Great for south Indian staples like Dosa and Idlis. Dosa King has north Indian food as well. If you want Indian food while in Bangkok, then Dosa King is one of the top recommendations.
Govinda Vegetarian Italian in Bangkok is a great option. They have egg-free pasta and mock soy meat. You can try out their pizza as well as their other Italian main dishes. All vegetarian.
Veganerie is one of the best vegan dessert joints in Thailand. If you prefer eating eggless cakes and pastries, then this place is your best bet. Veganerie uses soy milk instead of regular milk to make its desserts. Its all vegan indeed.
Suki Jeh Ru Yi is a vegetarian Thai-Chinese food place. It has a yellow “Jay” sign outside as well. Even though their menu has dishes labelled with words like “fish” and “pork”, you can rest assure that all of those dishes are actually made with tofu and vegetarian ingredients. The noodles might be made with eggs but you need to check on that with the server. If you want to try some traditional Thai Chinese dishes in a vegetarian form, then this is the place to go.
Top Vegetarian Restaurants in Chiang Mai
May Kaidee is a well-known vegetarian restaurant chain and cooking school. They have vegetarian Thai restaurants in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Cambodia, and New York City. They also run vegetarian cooking classes. Their restaurant in Chiang Mai gets high reviews and dishes like Massaman curry, Pad Thai, and Spring Rolls are popular here. You can also try tofu and mango with sticky rice (for dessert). Overall a great vegetarian option in Chiang Mai.
Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant is one of the best places to eat completely vegetarian local Thai as well as south-east Asian food. Curries, noodles, rice dishes, and even crispy fried Thai snacks are all available here in a vegetarian format. Some dishes have eggs in them. So, ask the server if you are unsure about something on the menu.
Aum Vegetarian Food is another gem of a vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Mai. It has local Thai dishes including soups, noodles, stir-fries, rice, fried appetizers/snacks, and more. You can even get vegetarian sushi here. The dessert and beverages also get good reviews at this joint.
Taste from Heaven serves both Thai food and western food. So, if you are tired of eating noodles and rice, then try the burgers and sandwiches here. They even have waffles for dessert. The coconut ice cream and the vegan brownie also gets rave reviews. If you want to drink vegetable juices, then they have those as well.
Top Vegetarian Restaurants in Phuket
Yo Green (or Yo Vegan) at Patong beach is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Phuket. It has all sorts of local vegetarian Thai food that uses no animal ingredients except milk in some cases. Yo Green (or Yo Vegan, as it is now known) uses plenty of mock meat for its Thai dishes. But, if you do not like mock meat, you can ask the server to make your food without those ingredients or you can substitute the mock meat with tofu. The menu even marks dishes that have dairy/cheese or onion and garlic in them.
Atsumi Raw Cafe is a raw food cafe. It is an interesting concept where healthy vegetarian and vegan food is served. This food is not exposed to a temperature higher than 43 degrees Celsius. Local Thai dishes, pizzas, burgers, salads, and desserts are available. Juices and smoothies also tend to get positive reviews here.
Sai Than Boon is a local “Jay” restaurant. So, plenty of vegan food is available. You can get Thai soups, noodles, rice, and salads. But if you are tired of eating Thai food, then you can go for spaghetti carbonara or spaghetti with red sauce. The prices of the food at Sai Than Boon are pretty reasonable.
Mai Orathai is a vegetarian Thai buffet joint. It starts at 6 am in the morning and shuts by 5 pm. Go there early if you want fresh food. You can get a lot of food here for a nominal price like 100 THB. Lots of mock meat dishes will be available here.
Highway Curry is one of Phuket’s most popular Indian restaurant. If you are missing your biryani, naan, paneer, or non-veg Indian dishes, then head over to Highway Curry. Lots of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food is available here. You cannot go wrong with this one.
Make sure you visit Phuket when the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival is running. It normally happens around October. There are plenty of vegetarian food stalls during this festival and you will enjoy amazing local Thai food during this festival if you are a vegetarian.
5) If nothing works out, then eat at these types of restaurants
Indian Restaurants – Indian cuisine has lots of vegetarian options. You can never go wrong with this option, and the food can be delicious too.
Coffee Shops/Cafes – A sandwich, a cake, or muffins can often be found in cafes of small shops in Thailand. You might even be tempted to try out local tea and coffee flavours.
Italian Restaurants/Pizza Places – A simple pasta, a spaghetti, or a cheese/veggie pizza is a safe bet anywhere in the world, and Thailand is no different. Just make sure the pasta sauce has no meat and the white sauce has no eggs (if you do not eat eggs).
Supermarkets – Do a shopping run at outlets of Tops Market/TescoLotus/other neighbourhood supermarkets, as they would stock local produce and western/imported/packaged foods. Look for items that can be identified easily as vegetarian (e.g. fruits, veggies, bread, pasta, snacks, etc)