This guest post was written by The Intrepid Herbivores, Sadie and Joe, who recently spent some time in Thailand studying local cooking techniques and filming the pilot episode for their vegan travel TV show.
Traveling vegan style has so much potential for adventure. You get to bend your expectations and challenge yourself in regards to pretty much all of your senses. For my favorite sense–taste–Thailand has been a goldmine of sensory rewards.
We’ve had the opportunity to take three different day-long cooking courses here in Thailand. Two of them–May Kaidee’s in Bangkok and Taste From Heaven in Chiang Mai–were specifically vegetarian. The other–at Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai, was not geared directly for the vegetarian or vegan cook but was smoothly adaptable. As someone who loves food and loves to cook, these classes were such an invaluable complement to my experience of traveling around Thailand sampling different kinds of food. Besides getting new ideas on preparation and cooking techniques (like how DO you actually make sticky rice? And whoa, it never occurred to me to cut a lime THAT way!), the classes provided so much insight on the theory of Thai food. Why certain ingredients are used, what flavors are important and how to orchestrate them with other important flavors to create that symphonic harmony in your mouth that is so unique to Thai cooking. This has only enhanced my appreciation for everything I’ve gotten to eat here.
It’s relatively easy, in Thailand, to find food that appears to be vegetarian. As in, there is no meat in its description on the menu. But if you were to look closer you’ll learn that fish sauce, with its flavor of pungent saltiness, or in some cases oyster sauce or shrimp paste, is used in pretty much everything. “Salty” is one of the four major flavors that are always present in a Thai dish, along with “sweet,” “sour” and “spicy.” These four players work together to create a full, balanced experience for your taste buds. If one is coming on too strong, the others have to amp it up to keep everything in check. This is one of the major theoretical elements we’ve learned from taking cooking classes. So, if you want to make a Thai dish that is completely vegetarian–that does NOT contain fish sauce, oyster sauce or shrimp paste–you have to replace the salty flavor with something else. In our courses we’ve used things like soy sauce, miso, and a fermented mushroom sauce I’d never experienced before to provide the salty element. If you’re going to a restaurant that is not specifically vegetarian (and there are lots of them, but that’s another story), the standard practice is going to employ fish sauce or the like in pretty much every dish.
It’s easy to regard the ubiquity of fish sauce as an enormous challenge that renders all available food inedible to a vegetarian. Happily this is so, so, so not the case. If you’re going to a restaurant in Thailand (or even a Thai restaurant anywhere in the world) and you don’t want to eat anything that used to be a little sea creature, you just have to be a little bit proactive and ask for it not to be used. We’ve outfitted ourselves with a few simple phrases and learned how to ask the cooks in any restaurant to prepare our dishes vegan. Here in Thailand we say, first up “row kin jay,” which basically means we’re vegan. Usually that is understood, but because I like to be thorough in this case, I will add “mai kin nam pla,” which means “I don’t eat fish sauce” or “mai sai nam pla” which means “don’t use fish sauce.” Oyster sauce is “nam mon hoy” and shrimp paste is “ga be.” As long as you’re polite about it we’ve had no problems having this request be understood.
Taking these cooking courses has really crystallized my understanding of why that particular ingredient is so prolific, and really made me understand how to achieve a similar balance of flavor with something else. It’s also helped me a bit to understand the perspective of the person preparing my food and why it’s important to be so specific when asking for something special. AND, the classes were super fun.
We’ll show you some more of what we’ve learned and discovered on “The Intrepid Herbivores,” a travel show about vegan and vegetarian food. We just finished filming the pilot episode in Thailand with hopes of getting backing for a series. You can learn more, get updates, and support the project over at www.intrepidherbivores.com.