Thai vegetarian food isn’t JUST for vegetarians!
Thai Vegetarian Food for ALL!
Food is such a big part of traveling. Many people think being a vegetarian will hinder this experience, and to be perfectly honest, it does a bit. When I lived in South Africa, having a braai (barbecue) with friends and family is a huge thing. I ate all the side dishes while people dug into their slabs of meat. There are cultural ways of enjoying a meal and traditional foods that I maybe we won’t be able to try. It’s a bit of a shame, but this is my personal choice that I follow for my own reasons, and that’s the way it is. This is the way I want to eat.
One thing is- I will try to get around this as much as I can. Thai food for vegetarians is not that far-fetched and definitely possible. When people hear I’ve been living in Southeast Asia, namely Thailand, for years, they gasp and say, what have you been eating?!
They think everything has meat and therefore I can’t eat it. On the surface, they are right! Most of the dishes do have meat, however, it doesn’t mean they can’t substitute some veggies in place of the meat, and that’s exactly what I do. That’s why I can essentially eat almost everything that a meat eater would eat but with veg in place of meat.
In fact, a lot of Southeast Asia countries as like this. Like Malaysia, you can swap out meat for veg or since there’s a massive Indian influence, there’s plenty of vegetarian food choices! In fact, Malaysia is one of the best places to eat in the world!
Particularly in massive cities like Bangkok, there’s plenty of veggie food to enjoy.
MEAT EATERS: You can still benefit from this article. All of these dishes traditionally come with a choice of pork or chicken (and beef if you’re feeling brave, but I hear beef is the sketchiest meat “out here.”) So please- you may start salivating at all of these delicious choices and for every time I say “vegetable” you may think of a juicy piece of chicken or a tender piece of pork.
SPICY FACTOR: I mention the spicy factor for each dish that requires it. Since we’re talking about Thai Vegetarian food, this is necessary as they love, love, LOVE chilies. One thing to remember, asking for it to be less spicy might be less spicy by Thai standards, but still flaming hot for us. So… Good luck with that!
Let’s start the epic food journey… Thai vegetarian food for vegetarians and non!
Thai Vegetarian Food Dishes You Must Try
Pad Ka Pow (Paak)
This is a simple dish that has basil and chili mixed with your choice of meat or veg. It comes with rice.
*This contains chilies, ask for it to be mild and maybe actually get your way.
Khao Pad (Paak)
Fried rice. Your choice: Meat or veg? Boom. Done. K, bye!
*Not spicy! You’re in the safe zone. Although that little jar of dry red chili on your table goes great on fried rice!
It’s so good! There’s crunchy shaved green papaya and sometimes other veg like shaved carrots, which are the main parts of this dish. The accessories are cut tomato, peanuts, chilies, palm sugar, lime and fish sauce for the non veggies. These ingredients are pounded out a bit with a mortar and pestle and best when you have some sticky rice to dip in the extra sauce (and to cool the small fire in your mouth). It’s not as sweet of a dish despite what the ingredients make you think, it’s definitely my go to dinner when I’m not too hungry. Crunchy, a tad sweet and sour, spicy, and YUM!
*Spicy as F*ck if you don’t watch out! Thais will shove in 2-3 chilies up in this b*tch. One is enough for me and I’m still sweating.
All the curries! No, seriously, every single damn one of them is delicious, but be careful! Some are spicy! But you’re in Thailand, what did you expect? The safest option, if heat isn’t your thing, is to stay away from green and red curries. It’s up for debate which is spicier, I think the red is. Then there’s the yellow curry which is milder. The spice level matters where you go, sometimes they might actually understand that you want about one 10th of the amount of heat they would eat and you’re OK! However, sometimes a bit to them is still a shit ton to us. Good luck, there is a definitely gamble.
Massaman and Panang curries are also super good, and are definitely the heartier of the bunch. I feel ridiculously more full off these. Their spicy level is safe in my opinion.
The curries come with veg or meat, and is best served with rice.
PS- The Thai way to eat this is to take the curry and spoon a bite or two at a time on to your rice. So, you eat off the rice plate, not pour your rice in the bowl of curry like a damn animal!
*Some of these are hot hot HOT… but sooooo good. Try to ask for it to be less spicy and see what happens.
Khao Soi (Paak)
This is my favorite Thai dish! Yeah, I said it. I often try not to play favorites, but this one… Yum! It’s an explosion in your mouth. So many textures and flavors. There are egg noodles with veggies or meat, swimming around a delicious blend of curry (like yellow/reddish mix kinda thing) and coconut milk. It’s topped with crunchy noodles and comes with raw onion and pickled cabbage on the side. Add the chili paste for extra spice. I love this soup more than I can tell you. If you don’t eat this while in Thailand, and stick to pad thai or fried rice, shame on you! Your loss.
Note: This dish is difficult to find outside of northern Thailand. Look out for an Issan restaurant and ask if they can make it if you’re not heading north. You will easily find it all over Chiang Mai and the surrounding northern cities and around Issan in the east.
* This can be a spicy dish! Sometimes they’ll notice you’re not from around here and maybe would like to keep your taste buds for your next meal. Warning: No guarantees.
Get.In.My.Belly. This coconut, lemongrass and ginger soup is traditionally served with chicken in it, but can easily be had in a vegetarian form.
*It can be spicy!
Laab (Tofu – “Tawhoo”)
This might be my second favorite dish, it’s simple yet so delish. This is another Issan specialty. It’s minced meat / tofu with mint and a selection of other spices and guess what? Chilies of course!. This is fried up so the tofu is a bit crispy, so the texture is great, and it has so much flavor. It’s best eaten with rice.
*This dish can be spicy unless requested otherwise….and even then, idk.
This is usually a big meat-eater thing, but you might get lucky and find a person selling veggie satay, mushroom satay, and more commonly, tofu satay. I like it! It’s a great snack or addition to my meal.
*You have a choice of adding sauce. Usually it’s a red sweet and spicy sauce, but it’s not that spicy in my opinion. If there’s a green sauce choice, that one is so good, but definitely a lot spicier.
Kai Jeow (Paak)
Love this dish! Maybe it’s because I’m a big egg eater? This is essentially a simple Thai omelet. You can get it with or without veg in it (or meat, commonly minced pork). Then have it served over rice and you have an awesome meal. This is what I eat for breakfast if there isn’t a western breakfast option around.
* Not spicy, but a bit of dry chili sprinkled on top is so good!
I feel obligated to mention this dish. I don’t get it. What all the rave about? It’s seriously a plate of fried fucking noodles, but whatever. It’s pretty good when done right. This dish usually has shrimp or chicken added to it. Just go sans the meat and you have fried noodles with maybe some green spring onion, egg, and peanuts. Not the most appealing dish out there, in my opinion.
*Not spicy! But I like to add the dry chili.
Thai Vegetarian Desserts You’ll Want in Your Mouth
Coconut Ice cream
Just get yourself some, especially if you’re in Krabi, my coconut ice cream man there will hook it up. It was my addiction when I lived there. Make sure it’s fresh, and even better- if it comes with fresh coconut at the bottom. Extra points if it’s then served in a coconut shell! That’s what you’ll get at my dude in Krabi. YUM!
Here is where I eat in Krabi if you’re headed there.
Sugar Palm Cakes
Yum! These are little fluffy buns of goodness! Light and sweet. Pretty simple.
There’s so much fruit, and when a little baggie of already conveniently sliced delicious fresh fruit is right there and about $.60, this maybe my favorite dessert! Also, this a safe go to food for vegetarians. I’ve eaten just fruit before when I didn’t like my other choices.
Weird thing you should try: Guava (green apple looking thing) with the sugar spice packet they will have for sale with their fruit. It’s actually good on guava! I don’t like it any other fruit.
Pomelo tip: Eat pomelo (looks like oversized grapefruit) when they have a strong pinkish color to them. The beige colored pomelo is less flavorful and can be bitter. The pink one is more grapefruit like tasting but without so much tang.
Thai Pancake (“roti”)
Everyone is obsessed with these. They are so amazing if done right. It’s drenched in margarine and or oil, but it’s amazing! It’s essentially a thin crêpe like thing with whatever the hell you want inside. Not like the fluffy pancakes that you had as a kid with maple syrup on top, nothing like it.
They got to make it crispy though, look for that golden brown touch. My go to filling: banana. Then topped with peanut butter and or nutella.
No, not the wannabe Dunkin Donut kinds, those are OK, but more often than not, they are so dry. Boo. I’m talking about the freshly little made donut things, they are either a dumpling of sorts or weirdly shaped stick figure looking. The person has a little frier on their cart, they just made them, and there’s usually a weird green sauce they will offer, but I always turn down because… it’s weird. Those donut are so good, so fresh, plump, and oily but you won’t care.
A SAFE HAVEN FOR VEGGIES:
If you’re still super scared… There’s one place that’s ALWAYS safe. Look out for this sign:
It’s a restaurant that strictly serves vegan food. There’s going to look like there is meat dishes, but it’s not. It’s made of veggie protein or tofu. The sign is literally the word for vegan. There is no going wrong with eating here.
Thai words for veggies:
So here’s the deal fellow veggies…
Being vegetarian out here isn’t really a thing. They often just don’t get it. Like…Are you sure you don’t want chicken with the fried rice?? It’s a bit foreign to them and therefore, this makes our job harder. You’d think simply stating that, “I’m vegetarian,” in Thai, would be enough, but it’s not. So you usually have to say something like, “I’m vegetarian. Please don’t put shrimp, pork, chicken, or fish sauce.”
Being very specific with these instructions is vital. I’m not kidding. You might get meat in your dish if you don’t specify that you actually don’t want chicken or pork etc. So. Here’s what we’re going to do…
I’m going to give you some Thai words to work on. What I recommend you do is use some app or Google to HEAR the way it’s pronounced. Thai is not the easiest language to learn and you saying a word that sounds pretty good isn’t going to be good enough. They won’t know what you’re talking about. Also- the dialect changes throughout the country, so yeah, good luck. Ideally, you should meet an English-speaking Thai friend who can help you with stating your needs properly.
Paak – Vegetables
Moo – pork
Gai – Chicken
Goong – Shrimp
Nam Blah – fish sauce
Gin Jay – Eat vegan (“vegetarian” doesn’t really exist in the language, the next best word is pescatarian which we don’t want)
Kai – egg
Mai sai – don’t put ( Mai sai nam blah – don’t put fish sauce)
So an example of what I would say when ordering fried rice:
“Swadeekaa. Ow khao pad paak. Gin jeah. Mai sai moo, mai sai gai, mai sai nam blah. Korp Khun Kaa”
Hello. I want vegetable fried rice. I’m vegan (“eat vegan”). Don’t put pork, don’t put chicken, don’t put fish sauce. Thank you.
It’s a bit tricky, but honestly, if you’re here for a few weeks you’re probably going to a touristy enough place where they will speak enough English. However, even in that case, I would explain in English that you don’t want *insert meat things* and that you are vegetarian, vegetables only please.
Also, just so you know, I’m not fluent in Thai. Don’t take my language tips and etch them in stone. But I do know a decent amount related to food because I’m a veg, so I’ve learned enough to get the food the way want it for the most part.
So enjoy eating in Thailand! Thai food for vegetarians doesn’t have to be that difficult. You’ll be fine!
Don’t be afraid and think you can’t eat anything. The food here is delicious! Sample as much as you can.
Curious about more food abroad? You can check out the nomadic food blog for even more on food and travel!
Where will you go after Thailand?
Any more questions before your trip to Thailand? What do you think about Thai food for vegetarians? What dish are you most excited for? What was your fav dish here?
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad since 2011 and blogging on Where in the World is Nina? for nearly as long. Nina helps people like you move around the world while making money. She loves talking about how to work abroad and online to travel longer!