Packing an astonishing diversity of flavors, Thai food is a cuisine that every vegan ought to explore. Unfortunately, while it’s easy to cook excellent vegan Thai food at home, dining out poses challenges. That’s because, like most Japanese cooking, a tiny amount of seafood is incorporated into the seasonings that go into most savory dishes.
That said, it’s still well worth the effort to try this cuisine. It’s certainly true that Thai food is among the world’s less healthful cuisines, since it often features a lot of coconut milk and white jasmine rice. But the cuisine is ridiculously appealing and brings a world of sublime flavors, especially if you favor spicier foods.
The most popular Thai dishes are stir-fried veggies with either tofu or meat, served in a curried coconut milk over rice. Unlike Indian food, where curries are made from a mix of dried spices, Thai curries are moist pastes. These Thai curry pastes come in numerous varieties: red, yellow (panang), green, and massaman. Each of these varieties is based on different spices, offering radically different flavors. Yet they all pair perfectly with coconut milk.
Ordering Vegan Thai Food at Restaurants
The vast majority of Thai restaurants put ground shrimp into each of their curries. Since the curry pastes mixed into each meal are pre-made, there’s really no way you can order a standard curry item from these restaurants and get them to withhold the shrimp. They’ll also often squirt some fish sauce onto the noodles or into the coconut milk.
At Thai restaurants that don’t cater to vegans, your best choice may be to special order vegetables and tofu in plain coconut milk, seasoned only with salt and lemon juice, and accompanied by jasmine rice. Since coconut milk is so ridiculously delicious your meal will still have plenty of flavor even without the curry seasoning. Alternately, you can go super basic and ask for plain stir-fried vegetables seasoned with soy sauce rather than fish sauce.
Popular Thai Menu Items
At Thai restaurants worldwide, the most famous entree is Pad Thai. This is a filling rice noodle dish made with tamarind sauce and garnished with crunchy mung bean sprouts and chopped peanuts. Unfortunately, Pad Thai traditionally includes eggs. Some restaurants can leave the egg out and still produce a delicious dish while others won’t accommodate requests to serve it egg-free, and the counter person will glare at you like you’re insane.
The two most popular Thai soups are tom yum and tom kah. Both feature vegetables, the former in a clear yellow broth and the latter in a base of spicy coconut milk. These soups are pre-made so, once again, it’ll be impossible to order yours without the fish or shrimp sauce they typically contain. So if you’re in the Thai restaurant that isn’t the least bit vegan friendly you’re best off skipping the soup. Unfortunately, they’ll often serve you some anyway along with your entree but if you graciously reject it when it arrives, at least it won’t go to waste.
Even at the least vegan-friendly Thai restaurants, there’s one option that’s always vegan. The most popular Thai dessert is “sticky rice” and it’s invariably vegan. Just three ingredients deliver a classic combination: rice drizzled with sweetened coconut milk, and topped with mango slices. Obviously this dish’s success hinges on the quality of the mangoes. Made with perfectly ripe mangoes it becomes one of the most delicious desserts in the universe.
As vegan diets continue to increase in popularity, more Thai restaurants are banishing the shrimp and fish sauce from at least one of their curry options. But since seafood-based sauces vanish undetectably into Thai food, there’s a big element of trust when it comes to ordering vegan Thai food from non-vegan restaurants.
Cooking Vegan Thai Food at Home
If all else fails you can always cook outstanding vegan Thai food at home. Thai Kitchen makes excellent green and red curry pastes, and both products are vegan. Just add a tablespoon of curry paste to a can of coconut milk and you’re in business. Serve it over stir-fried veggies and jasmine rice, then squirt on some lime juice, and you’ve got some seriously legit Thai food with minimal effort. Want to venture even further into Thai cooking? Here are two great vegan cookbooks primarily based on the food of Thailand:
- Buddha’s Way: Thai Street Food VEGANIZED, by Ariya Netjoy
- Buddha’s Table: Thai Feasting Vegetarian Style, by Chat Mingkwan
Despite its challenges to vegans, don’t be shy about seeking out Thai food. If you haven’t yet explored this cuisine, don’t delay any longer! The challenges you may encounter when eating out are surmountable. And Thai food offers some of the most unforgettable flavors in the entire realm of vegan cooking.
For further reading, check out our directory of vegan-friendly world cuisines.