Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Thai Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is exploring vegan Thai cuisine. 

Culture Tuesday –  Vegan Thai Cuisine

Thai cuisine is a compilation of the fresh, fragrant, and flavorsome traditional foods of Thailand. They are known for their unique combination and balance of the five flavor profiles: bitter, salty, sour, spicy, sweet, and bitter. The cuisine is influenced by migrants from neighboring nations as well as those a little further off in the provinces of China, India, Portugal, and Holland (the latter two being through missionaries and traders, respectively).

Within the country, there is a range of regional cuisines as well as Royal Thai cuisine. However, this article will give a more general description of the cuisine of Thailand. Future articles concerning Thai cuisine will give more information on the cuisine and the regional cuisines of the country.

vegan thai cuisine
Thai vegan food spread. Image credit: @pinganveggietime. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The Staple – Rice

Rice, also known as khao, is a staple in Thai cuisine to the point that it is synonymous with food and somewhat represents if a person is okay. There is a wide range of rice cultivated in Thailand. However, those most commonly cooked are khao chao (non-glutinous long grain rice), khao hom mali (Jasmine rice/fragrant rice), khao niao (long or short grain white glutinous/sticky rice), khao niao dam (black or dark purple glutinous/sticky rice), and khao huyết rồng (red bran rice). 

Traditional Thai foods are known for their unique combination and balance of the five flavor profiles: bitter, salty, sour, spicy, sweet, and bitter.

These kinds of rice are used to make khao suoy (plain rice), khao man (coconut rice), a wide range of khao phad (fried rice), khao khua (golden rice semolina), khao tom (a thin congee/rice soup), khao tom kui (an unflavoured thick congee), and chok (a broth flavored thick congee), and desserts such as khao niao mamuang (coconut sticky rice with mango). Rice is also used to make noodles including gwaytio sen mee (thin, brittle rice vermicelli), gwaytio sen lek (rice noodles slightly thicker and wider than vermicelli), and gwaytio sen yai (an even wider and thicker rice noodle) which are used to make deep-fried noodles, soups, and stir-fries.

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Kuay Tiew Kua Gai. Image credit: @kativeganthai. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Khao suoy is plain rice which could also be referred to as the staple of the staple as it is the base, main ingredient or common side dish for many meals in the Thai cuisine. It is the most important part of khao phad.

Khao phad, fried rice, is made by combining khao suoy with fruits, vegetables, aromatics, soy sauce, and/or any other suitable food a person might want with hot oil in a wok (a relatively deep conical pan). The ingredients that are fried with the rice can be sliced, cubed, diced, chopped, ground, crumbled, crushed, or left whole as long as they’re bite-size and with an adequate surface area to be cooked well quickly over high heat. Some common fried rice dishes include a simple khao phad with vegetables, khao phad kari (curry fried rice), khao phad khamin (turmeric fried rice), and khao phad sapparod (pineapple rice).

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Thai curry fried rice. Image credit: @kativeganthai. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Similar to khao phad is gwaytio phad (fried noodles). These consist of sen mee, sen yai, or sen lek stir-fried with oil, soy sauce, garlic, herbs, vegetables and seasonings.

Khao khua, golden rice semolina, is khao niao (white sticky rice) that is ground to a fine semolina consistency and toasted till golden in a hot dry pan. It imparts a toasty nutty flavour in food and can be used for this purpose, to thicken soups and sauces, to thicken patty mixtures and/or as a breading/coating for texture purposes.

Khao man (coconut rice) is long grain jasmine rice or sticky glutinous rice cooked in a mixture of coconut cream and water or coconut milk. It can be made into a savory dish cooked with a pinch of salt and savory toppings and/or sides or made into a sweet dish by incorporating a bit of sugar with the salt and other ingredients and topping with fresh fruit such as mangoes (which makes khao niao mamuang when made with sticky rice).

Vegan mango sticky rice. Image credit: @vegan_thai_kitchen_by_lisa. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Abundance of Coconuts

Coconuts are another important part of Thai cuisine. You can find it used mainly in the forms of coconut water, milk, cream, and oil. 

Coconut water is the almost clear liquid found within a coconut. It is drained before breaking a coconut open and served as a drink either on its own or with fresh local fruits. 

Coconut milk is made by soaking the grated flesh of a mature coconut in water (in a 3:5 ratio) and squeezing out the white liquid it forms. It can also be made by blending three parts ungrated mature coconut flesh with five parts water until the coconut becomes very fine and squeezing the mixture within a muslin cloth until a white liquid is fully extracted and a somewhat dry grated-appearing coconut is left within the cloth. 

In all its forms, coconut offers a nutty and subtly sweet flavor and can be used in savory dishes such as curries, soups, savory sauces, and non-creamy coconut rice as well as sweet dishes.

Coconut cream is made the same way as coconut milk. However, the ratio of coconut flesh to water is different. Coconut cream is richer and thicker than coconut milk. Therefore, it’s made by using a much smaller amount of water. It can be made by combining equal parts of coconut flesh and water or combining 3 parts coconut flesh with 2.5 parts water. When cold, this strained mixture separates into an almost clear liquid at the bottom of the container and a thick cream at the top. Without this last step of separating the water from the thick cream, the cream is lighter (although not as light as what is deemed as coconut milk) and pourable. However, after this step, the cream is very thick, scoop-able, but not pourable and it will have a more concentrated coconut flavor.

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Tom Kha. Image credit: @kativeganthai. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Coconut oil is made by extracting just the fat of coconut oil. The process of extracting the oil from coconuts is rather tedious to do without machinery. Therefore, it is often mass-produced and sold in shops and markets. It is clear, transparent, liquid and easily pourable when warm, but white, solid and requires some pressure to scoop when cold.

In all its forms, coconut offers a nutty and subtly sweet flavor. Therefore, it can be found used in savory dishes such as curries, soups, savory sauces, and non-creamy coconut rice as well as sweet dishes such as khao niao mamuang (sticky rice with mango), sang khaya (coconut custard, which can be veganised), kluey cheuam (coconut bananas), and khao niao nah krachik (sticky rice with coconut sauce). Some of the savory sauces it can be found in include nam tim sateh (satay sauce) and tao tiaw lon (fermented soybean and coconut sauce) while some of the soups it can be found in are hed tom kha (mushroom and coconut cream soup), and tom yam kalampli kathi (cabbage and coconut milk soup).

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Massaman curry. Image credit: @kativeganthai. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Non-vegan, But Potentially “Veganizeable”: Fish Sauce

Fish sauce, also known as, ‘nam pla,’ is to Thais, what salt is to most cuisines and what soy sauce is to a number of East, and South East, Asian cuisines. It gives a salty, ocean-y, fermented, and umami flavor to dishes. It is found in most Thai dishes (even when the name of the dish suggests the dish might be vegetarian or vegan-friendly. Some people omit fish sauce to make a dish vegan-friendly. However, others have opted for vegan versions of fish sauce which aim to meet the aforementioned four flavor characteristics of fish sauce.

Vegan Pineapple Fried Rice. Image credit: @vegan_thai_kitchen_by_lisa. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

There are a number of vegan fish sauces on the market (as well as publicized recipes from home cooks and chefs) with very different ingredients. However, one common ingredient in all of them is seaweed. Seaweed gives an ocean-y and subtle umami flavor. Either saltwater, soy sauce, or tamari tends to be used to fulfill the salty requirement, shiitake mushroom powder/broth, soy sauce, or tamari are used to amplify the umami property and soy sauce or tamari are used for the fermented quality. 

The combination of ingredients is condensed/concentrated and strained to give a flavor and quality as close to fish sauce as possible. However, despite them somewhat being suitable substitutes, they do not give the exact flavor of fish sauce. They do help those who prefer a vegan lifestyle to create dishes that taste and appear close to authentic non-vegan Thai dishes.

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Tom Yum. Image credit: @kativeganthai. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Vegetarianism and Veganism in Thai Cuisine

Despite how relatively new vegetarianism and veganism are to Western societies, both practices have been religious, cultural, and traditional elements of various Asian communities for over two thousand years. However, although the abstinence of animal products and byproducts was the shared characteristic, these practices were not termed as “vegetarian,” or “vegan,” until those terms became more popular to describe diets and lifestyles that exclude animal products and byproducts.

Buddhism is the largest religion in Thailand, therefore, the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism are normal to a lot of Thais.

The Indians introduced Theravada Buddhism to the Thais. Two of the five precepts (or virtues) of Buddhism are to abstain from harming living beings and taking what is not freely given while two of the eight points on the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment is to cultivate Right Action and Right Livelihood. These are interpreted by some Buddhists to mean that people should not harm any sentient being emotionally, physically, or spiritually and that they ought to make their living in a peaceful manner. This is emphasized by two of the four occupations Prince Siddartha Gautama (Buddha or the “awakened one”) listed as occupations that should be avoided due to their condoning and promoting of harmful behavior – dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter and fish mongering) and meat production (which includes butchery and fishing).

Buddhism is the largest religion in Thailand as it is believed to be practiced by about 95% of the population. Therefore, the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism are normal to a lot of Thais although they are not adhered to by every individual as some Thai Buddhists interpret the specified points of the precepts, Noble Eightfold path to enlightenment and unethical occupations to mean that they can take part in the consumption of foods with productions that go against those points as long as they are not the ones to directly commit the acts of dealing in, or harming, another living being or they can consume animal byproducts harvested without causing harm to animals.

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan pad mee sua. Image credit: @hotthaikitchen. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The Chinese also had an impact on vegan Thai cuisine through their introduction of Taoism with some aspects practiced by Thais who generally do not practice Taoism. 

For nine days of every year (in late September/October – during the ninth month of the lunar calendar), a large portion of Thailand’s population solely eats vegan foods in observance of Tesakan Gin Jay (meaning “the festival for eating vegan”), Jay Festival or the Vegetarian Festival which is a Chinese Taoism cleansing festival that celebrates the nine Taoist emperor gods. It is believed that in order to cleanse/purify the body, amongst other things, one must adhere to a strict vegan diet (they must abstain from eating animal products and byproducts), cook with utensils that have never been in contact with animal products/byproducts, and omit pungent alliums (such as Chinese chives, garlic, and onions) from their diet. 

During this time, many restaurants, including those that would otherwise not serve vegan-friendly meals, serve vegan versions of traditional meals from the cuisine with the incorporation of handmade meat substitutes/imitations (such as those made from wheat gluten) and tofu to increase the visual, textural and flavor similarities between the ahaan jay (vegan foods) and their more conventional non-vegan versions. The presence of a yellow flag or apron with a red Thai abugida script that says, ‘jay,’ signifies that vegan food is available in celebration of the Jay Festival.

vegan thai cuisine
Vegan Thai red curry prepared for the “Jay” eating festival. Image credit: @hotthaikitchen. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Thai Cuisine

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