Let’s not kid ourselves—it’s a bunch of PC nonsense to think that each of the world’s cuisines are comparably delicious. Thai food, loaded as it is with coconut milk and white jasmine rice, may not be healthful to eat frequently but the stuff is ridiculously appealing, especially if you favor spicier foods.
It is super easy to cook great vegan Thai food at home, but it’s one of the most consistently frustrating restaurant cuisines for vegans. That’s because, like most Japanese food, a tiny amount of seafood is incorporated into the seasonings that go into most savory dishes.
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.
The vast majority of Thai restaurants put shrimp sauce 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 sauce. They’ll also often squirt some fish sauce onto the noodles or into the coconut milk.
At Thai restaurants that don’t go out of their way to please vegans, your best choice may be to special order vegetables and tofu in plain coconut milk, seasoned only with salt and lemon juice, accompanied by jasmine rice. This should reliably be vegan, and 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.
The other ubiquitous Thai entree—probably the best-known Thai dish in the West—is called Pad Thai. This is a filling rice noodle dish made with a 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 other places will not be able to accommodate requests to make it egg-free, and the counter person will look 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. You may find they’ll serve you some anyway along with your entree.
Even at the least vegan-friendly Thai restaurants, there’s one vegan-friendly option. The most popular Thai dessert is “sweet sticky rice with mango” and it’s invariably vegan. This dish is made from white jasmine rice drizzled with sweetened coconut milk, and topped with mango slices. Obviously this dish’s success hinges on the quality of the mangoes, and if you get it with great mangoes it becomes one of the most delicious desserts in the universe.
As veganism continues to increase in popularity, more Thai restaurants are making a point of 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.
If all else fails you can always cook outstanding vegan Thai food at home. One of the bestselling Thai curry pastes is made by Thai Kitchen, and has no fish ingredients. It’s available in both green and red varieties; both 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 and you’ve got some seriously legit Thai food with minimal effort. Want to venture even further into Thai cooking? There 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 you’ll find that, despite its frustrations, it offers some of the most unique and unforgettable flavors in the entire realm of vegan cooking.