My husband and I have eaten a mostly vegetarian diet for many years, and we go through phases of being completely vegetarian, simply not wanting or needing to eat meat. In fact, it is usually when we experience difficulties in getting good vegetarian food that we start to eat a bit of fish or lean meat in addition to our basic diet of vegetables, eggs, and occasionally grains.
Travelling in Thailand was one of those times when eating vegetarian became quite difficult.
We started our first big Thailand trip on the tourist island of Koh Lipe, in the Andaman Sea, quite close to Langkawi.
On Koh Lipe, there were several places which understood the word “vegetarian”, and could provide dishes which didn’t contain any meat, or meat products. All of these places were owned and run by foreigners, though.
At this stage in our travels, we hadn’t learned more than a few phrases in Thai, so we could say “no meat” and “no MSG”, but subtleties like “please don’t use fish sauce in the stir-fry vegetables” were quite beyond us.
Fish sauce is a staple of Thai cooking, and it shows up in the most surprising places – for example, in the papaya salad!
On Koh Lipe, we found an Indian restaurant which was very good quality (and one which definitely wasn’t, but that is another story). Most Hindus in India are completely vegetarian, so Indian is always a good cuisine choice for tasty and filling vegetarian food. You won’t find Indian restaurants, or vegetarian restaurants, outside the tourist areas, though.
Our first exposure to the traditional Thai diet, and their awareness of vegetarianism, came when we went to a small village on the Andaman cost for a homestay visit.
This particular homestay was not the well-organised and regulated Thai homestay that will pop up on your screen if you Google “Thai homestay”. Those ones quite probably have a whole recipe book of vegetarian options!
No, we went to a village where foreigners simply never go.
We were fortunate to have this experience, because we made friends with a man from the village who was working in a resort of Koh Lipe, and he insisted that we visit his home village with him and see for ourselves just how wonderful the area was.
With our friend to translate for us, we were able to have much deeper conversations with the villagers than are normally possible on a homestay visit. He was keen to start bringing tourists to stay in the village, and he asked us to give our hosts feedback on everything we experienced, from the accommodation to the food to the activities.
Modern times have affected the lifestyles of Thai villagers, and these days, despite having large areas of land around their houses, most people grow very little of what they eat themselves. Instead, they go every day to the local market and buy fish, meat, vegetables, rice and spices.
As we were guests in the homes of our friend’s relatives, we simply ate what they ate for most of our stay.
We noticed that our hosts were quite concerned that we didn’t take more than one bowl of rice at each meal. The family members, including our friend, refilled their rice bowl at least once, if not twice, at each meal. We couldn’t imagine eating that volume of white rice every day – we would have gained weight at an alarming rate had we tried to keep up!
Thai culture equates meal with rice to such an extent that the Thai word for “eat” is actually “eat rice”. It is almost impossible for a Thai person to think of eating a meal without eating rice. Even when the meal is papaya salad, or roti, there will be rice available as well.
After an initial bout of alarm “if you don’t eat rice, what DO you eat?”, our hosts accepted that for us, at least 50% of our food volume would be pad pak (stir-fried vegetables).
Towards the end of our visit, with our friend translating, we raised the topic of food preferences and intolerances. If you are going to have homestay guests, we said, you will need to be prepared to cater for people will allergies, and vegetarians.
What is a vegetarian, they asked.
Someone who doesn’t eat meat, we explained.
But they eat fish, though, don’t they?
No, we said, many don’t eat fish either.
There was a bit of discussion in Thai. They don’t eat rice, or meat, or fish, or spicy food … what DO they eat, then?
The notion that someone might be quite happy eating only vegetables and eggs was clearly a new one.
We hope that their future guests who are vegetarians appreciate our efforts in bringing the notion to the Thai countryside!