Eating vegetarian in Southeast Asia
November 28, 2017 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Headed to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand) for the first time in March. Everyone says that vegetarian food is plentiful in the region, but seeking your tips on how best to eat vegetarian while there. (I'm okay with fish sauce.) Thanks!
posted by DavidNYC to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was just about to say WHOA NO vegetarian food is damn near impossible to find in those areas, but you said fish sauce is okay so I'm assuming that shrimp paste and other seafood-based seasonings are also fine - that opens up your options quite a lot.

The quickest tip I can offer you is this: ask for Buddhist food, or say you're Buddhist. Everyone understands that this means vegetarian.
posted by MiraK at 12:57 PM on November 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

In Thailand the word you are looking for is Jai (pronounced like the letter J/Jay) which I gather actually translates as vegan - since dairy is uncommon outside of a few sweets the big difference would mostly be eggs. You don't say where in Thailand you will be but in my experience eating at food courts/stalls/halls there are generally dedicated veggie vendors selling meat/fishless versions of various noodle/rice/curry dishes.

In Bangkok every mall has a food court, many are really excellent, atmosphere/prices vary by how swanky the mall is, from Emporium on the high end (though there are probably fancier ones now) to MBK at the low end (I love this place - ignore the western food court and chain restaurants on "Fifth Food Avenue", you want the one on the 6th floor that now looks like it goes by the name of MBK food island).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:24 PM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Specific destinations: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Bangkok, and then an as-yet-to-be-determined beach location in Thailand.
posted by DavidNYC at 1:27 PM on November 28, 2017

Assuming that if you are ok with fish sauce, you are like me and are really trying to avoid visible pieces of meat/fish, rather than checking the ingredients list too closely for hidden animal products: I found that every menu had multiple vegetarian options. You can ask them to leave the shrimp off the pad thai, there were several vegetable curries and sides on most menus...

I’m sure some of the curries used meat stock, I’m sure some used fish sauce. But I couldn’t tell you which ones, because there wasn’t anything detectable.
posted by tinkletown at 1:33 PM on November 28, 2017

I just checked and two of the places we loved in Siem Reap say they can/will accommodate vegetarians. The Sugar Palm has numerous salads, noodles, and curries that can be made veg, and Cuisine Wat Damnak (which was exceptional) only offers tasting menus (though they are hardly expensive - 26-31 dollars) and specifically says to contact them about vegetarian tastings for those who do not do fish sauce. They do a really interesting mix of French technique with local ingredients, it was a very memorable meal and they should be able to confirm by email before you go that they can accommodate you.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:45 PM on November 28, 2017

MBK is fantastic! Thanks for reminding me of that, Excepional_Hubris.
posted by MiraK at 2:20 PM on November 28, 2017

This app is supposedly worth it, although I can't attest to those specific cities:

HappyCow Find Vegan Food App

posted by bluecore at 2:38 PM on November 28, 2017

Thai is one of the languages that Select Wisely offers on their vegetarian card.
posted by Lexica at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2017

The only part of SE Asia I've been to is Vietnam; I can't promise this is the same in other countries, but my sense was it's similar.

There's a lot of Buddhists in Vietnam, and while they'er not all always vegetarian, it's pretty common for Vietnamese Buddhists to eat vegetarian a couple days a week. Anyway it's enough to support a bunch of vegetarian-only Buddhist restaurants all over the place.

I had very good luck finding them by using Trip Advisor.

I ate a lot of tasty things throughout the trip (and AFAIK none of it even had fish in it), but the best was in Ho Chi Minh City, at Hum (the name comes from "om mani padme hum", because it's Buddhist). I didn't realize until now they had multiple locations; the one I ate at and super duper mega-recommend is their "lounge and restaurant".
posted by aubilenon at 3:42 PM on November 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, asking for Buddhist food will probably work fine. I don't live in any of the 3 countries you listed (I'm in Singapore), and I've only been there a few times, but in general most people will know one person or another who is a staunch Buddhist that only eats vegetarian food. So there is a market for it, and you'll find places to eat. However, expect to find that a large majority of eating places are *not* vegetarian, particularly street food. But that's more a function of there being a very large number of places to eat in general.

WRT "Jai", I'm not Thai but I suspect the word is related to the Chinese word 斋 (zhai), which is used to refer to Buddhist food. It's not vegan, and has a different set of prohibitions. In particular, they don't use onions and garlic (and other members of the allium family).
posted by destrius at 8:13 AM on November 29, 2017

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