Eating Vegan in Thailand
Helpful Thai Phrases and Tips
Thailand is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world and for a good reason. The affordability and ease of traveling the country coupled with the food, beaches, and friendliness of the locals make it a hot spot for many. In fact, Thailand was the first country I started my first major backpacking trip in 2013 and it’s a place I often find myself returning to.
So what is the deal with eating vegan in Thailand? How can you make sure that your vegan pad thai is actually vegan?
Before I left for my first trip to Thailand, I was warned by many that it would be hard to find food that was completely vegan because the Thais are obsessed with using fish sauce. It is literally used as the main flavoring in almost all dishes and is as common as salt is for us in the West.
Another issue is that meat and seafood are widespread in a lot of Thai food. Heck, even eggs are featured in many Thai dishes. So what’s a vegan visiting Thailand to do?
The Gin Jae Symbol
Enter the concept of gin jae. The term jae refers to Chinese Buddhism and is a vegetarian Buddhist concept that corresponds to the exclusions of veganism including all animals and animal by-products. Gin means I eat, hence "gin jae" translates to I eat vegan. I learned that being very specific with the correct Thai words and phrases would make eating vegan in Thailand a much less complicated experience. Essentially it is easiest to order the dish you would like and use gin jae. By using gin jae when ordering food, the locals will be able to understand that you don’t want them to add fish sauce, meat based broth, and other non-vegan ingredients to your food.
Also be on the lookout for the Jae symbol. The symbol looks like a 17 and is always written in red on a yellow background. This symbol really comes in handy when you are trying to buy something like soy milk at a 7-Eleven and everything is written in Thai. Many of the soy milks in Thailand actually have whey in them so they are not vegan. But as long as you find the Jae symbol you can rest assured that it is indeed vegan.
One of my favorite chocolate soy milks in Thailand is Jae. It’s the Vitamilk Double Choco Shake and is easy to gulp down in a matter of seconds, it’s that yummy. Along with finding the Jae symbol on certain food items, you will also find the Jae symbol on certain food stalls and at some restaurants.
In fact, many of the bigger food markets in Thailand have at least one vegan food stall and in certain areas they have markets that are completely vegan. These stalls are usually easily recognizable by the bright yellow and red color used for the gin jae sign.
Other Useful Thai Phrases
In addition, I recommend that when you order your food jae that you also always add the the following phrases, mai sai which means without, kai which means eggs, and nam plah which means fish sauce. So for example:
- mai sai kai - without eggs
- mai sai nam plah - without fish sauce
Gin jae is the most important phrase you need to order vegan since it excludes all animals and animal based products. I always recommend that you use “gin jae” instead of trying to use other Thai phrases such as I only eat vegetables or I am a vegetarian (“mang sa wee rat”) or I don’t eat meat, fish, etc. You will be taken more seriously using gin jae since it is a form of Buddhism and therefore they will be much less likely to sneak a little fish sauce in your meal. Religion is very important for the Thai people and they are keen to respect this part of Buddhism. There will also be less of a risk for misunderstandings.
What's practical with the Thai kitchen is that they use a lot of tofu and many dishes can easily be veganized by switching the meat for tofu, especially in curries.
Our Favorite Vegan Thai Food
The beauty with eating vegan in Thailand is that our favorite Thai dish is completely vegan on its own. It’s a dessert that is sold all over Thailand and is widely enjoyed by everyone. If you haven’t guessed it already, we’re talking about mango sticky rice and it consists of sticky rice and fresh mango with coconut milk drizzled on top. Yes, it’s delicious!
One of Adam’s favorite things to eat in Thailand is noodle soup. This dish is normally eaten for breakfast and comes in many versions. It is basically a bowl of hot broth with noodles and a bunch of different vegetables and mushrooms.
Another advantage with Thailand and the rest of the region is the abundance of tropical fruit that’s available everywhere. On most streets in the major cities you’ll find street vendors selling ready-to-eat fruit for about 20 baht - less than a dollar. On the Thai islands there are usually markets where you can buy fresh tropical fruits. We love to buy fresh pineapple, mango, and watermelon from these carts and it is a part of our daily routine when in Thailand.
Best of all, you can find enjoy many vegan fruit shakes in Thailand. Fruit shakes are very common in the country with just about every restaurant and many food carts offering these refreshing drinks. Often fruit shakes are made using water and ice, however, you can always request that fruit shakes like banana and mango are made with coconut milk instead of dairy milk. The Thais are happy to oblige and because the use of coconut milk is so prevalent in Thailand, it is something literally every restaurant and fruit vendor has on offer.
The Most Popular Thai Food Dishes
- Pad Thai - Pad thai is a stir fried noodle dish that is typically served with shrimp, egg, crushed peanuts, and a squeeze of lime. But a vegan pad thai can easily be made by omitting the shrimp and egg and using tofu instead.
- Fried Rice - This is a standard dish that can always be a safe bet as long as you order it gin jae - without fish sauce and egg. A popular version of fried rice in Thailand is pineapple fried rice served inside a carved pineapple.
- Green Curry - Curries in Thailand come in many varieties and the green curry is one of the most popular options. Green curry is usually sweeter in taste.
- Yellow Curry - Yellow curry is just as popular as the green curry and something you will definitely find at many Thai restaurants. Like most vegan Thai curries, it is almost always served with tofu and assorted vegetables.
- Red Curry - The red curry is usually the spiciest curry and a favorite among many. In Thailand you will also find penang curry and massaman curry which are also red in color but differnet in flavor.
- Green Papaya Salad - This classical Thai dish is usually eaten as a side with your meal. The papaya salad is naturally sour from the green papaya and the heavy use of lime and it can sometimes be served as a spicy salad.
- Spring Rolls - Who doesn't love spring rolls? In Thailand they are served almost everywhere and come usually stuffed with vegetables and can be ordered either fresh or deep fried.
- Satay - This dish is traditionally made using fried meat but nowadays many vegetarian restaurants serve a vegan tofu satay with peanut sauce.
Eating Vegan in Thailand Made Easy
Ultimately, eating vegan in Thailand doesn't have to be difficult. Chiang Mai is revered as a vegan food paradise and Bangkok as well as many of the Thai islands have a lot of great options as well. As in most places in the world the vegan movement in Thailand is growing rapidly and new vegan restaurants are opening up constantly. For example, when we visited Bangkok for the first time several years ago it could be quite hard to find vegan food, especially Western food. Today it is completely different and there are plenty of options, from all vegan Thai restaurants to vegan pizza with vegan cheese, burgers, waffles, tacos, and much more.
So, if you’re planning to visit Thailand you don’t have to worry about eating vegan. Being mindful of the correct Thai words and phrases when ordering food will ensure you have a great time in the land of smiles and that you get to enjoy all the amazing food that Thailand is famous for. And if you're wondering about staying longer in Thailand you can check out our post on how to get a Thai visa in Penang.