A vegetarian paradise? The lush, loamy soils of Thailand produce huge crops of every kind of hothouse fruit and vegetable. Visit any market in Thailand, and you’ll find a huge amount of fresh produce. The stalls are piled high day in and day out. The market is a great place to start if you’re a vegetarian and new to the country. You can stock up on some of the nature’s most exotic bounty for very little money.
So far so good. But once you find yourself eating out, you’ll see that pork, chicken and beef seem to be present in about half the dishes. Then there’s the seafood. Plenty of it, too. But don’t despair and above all don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re doomed to eating nothing more than rice, noodles, fruit and veg. It can be a little tricky getting the hang of vegetarian food in Thailand, but if you persevere you’ll have plenty of variety in your diet.
A lot of food in Thailand is cooked from scratch at the time of ordering. There are many advantages to that, not least that the food is totally fresh. But for vegetarians it can be an extra boon, since you can explain to the waiter or waitress exactly what you want in the dish and what you don’t want. A good restaurant should then be able to take all your wishes into
consideration, and produce the dish that you’d ideally like. There can however be a bit of a language problem to explain all of this, but in most cases, people understand. On Samui, as with all areas that have many holidaymakers, restaurants are used to vegetarians and can usually cater for them. With a few tips under your belt, you’re in for a good time as a
vegetarian or vegan.
So how to survive, stay animal and fish free and enjoy the experience? The first thing is to understand what vegetarianism means in the Thai view. There are virtually two kinds of concepts regarding vegetarianism here, and neither corresponds exactly with the western idea.
The English word vegetarian can roughly be translated into Thai as ‘mang sa wirat’, but it doesn’t take into account the cross-cultural perceptions. In Thai the expression simply means you don’t eat visible pieces of meat or seafood. Tell that to your waiter or waitress and you won’t receive any chunks of meat or fish. But you’ll be given dishes that contain eggs,
meat gravy, fish sauce or other animal products. It kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it?
It’s clearer if you use the word, ‘jay’, which refers to not eating meat, seafood of any kind, any animal or fish by-products – no matter how small. The definition also goes further and refers to eating no garlic at all. Some herbs are also excluded, as are some vegetables – because they’re too pungent. So if you’re a vegetarian you have to go the whole way and often have
to forego garlic. ‘Jay’ food, or ‘aharn jay’ in Thai, is an approximation of vegan food with meat substitutes generally made from tofu, mushrooms and wheat gluten.
On Samui you’ll find there are plenty of vegetarian options, and it’s relatively easy here to get by without meat, fish and animal products. If you head along the lake road in Chaweng from Central Festival towards the ring-road, you’ll come to two vegetarian restaurants, Vegan Khunnay and one simply marked ‘17’ further along. (‘17’ isn’t a number, by the way, but an adapted Chinese character for vegetarian food.) Both have a plethora of Thai food at very cheap prices. You’ll also find
other small places here and there offering vegetarian fare that’s distinctly Thai. And then there’s Lamphu, which stocks health foods and also has a café that uses Samui-grown organic produce (opposite Tesco Lotus in Lamai). For vegans there’s Lamai Veggie, close to the ring-road that offers buffet style food, and which sometimes has a menu of Thai dishes including
dishes that use meat substitutes. Sweet Sisters Cafe in the south of the island has both vegan and vegetarian dishes on their menu, while June’s Art Café on the ring-road in Bophut, has plenty of vegetarian options and is a popular place for island residents to chill out.
Thanks to there being so many spas on Samui, the number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Samui has grown over the years. Many residents of the island also want a healthier lifestyle, and for many that includes vegetarian and vegan food. Unfortunately a few places are cashing in on all of this and offering food at way over-the-top prices, so always check out prices before you order.
The majority of the wellness spas offer their own vegetarian menus in their restaurants. At Radiance Restaurant, on the ring-road in Lamai, you’ll find vegetarian, vegan and raw food dishes, though they also offer dishes using meat and fish. They also have a second Radiance Restaurant in the hills just to the north. Yoga centres on the island also have very good
vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants, such as Marga Yoga, in Ban Taling Ngam.
Mostly though, what you’ll come across are restaurants that offer vegetarian options. Very often you’ll find also there are descriptions of what goes into the dishes and the dishes are clearly very clearly marked as being vegetarian. There are many, many restaurants, cafes and resorts that adhere to this system and it’s easy for vegetarians to dine well.
Demand is high for vegetarian food the world over. Some 375 million people are vegetarians; it’s not a trend but a global way of life. And though Samui and its neighbouring areas are distinctly carnivorous when it comes to menus,the island is very mindful of all its guests and so there are plenty of choices if you’re vegan or vegetarian.