Vegetarian food in Thailand is great, tastes amazing and is one of the many highlights of visiting the land of smiles. However Thailand’s obsession with adding fish sauce to *everything* combined with the language barrier can make it seem a bit daunting for any visiting vegetarian. Sure the food looks tasty and seems vegetarian, but how do you know it doesn’t have meat stock or other animal products in it?
But in reality it’s easy to find great vegetarian food in Thailand if you learn a few simple phrases and know what to look for!
There is no reason for a vegetarian to miss out on Thailand’s amazing tastes and flavours and this article is designed to help you enjoy them without worry!
Just a note for vegans – milk or cheese isn’t really used in Thai cooking, so the only real difference when I talk about strict vegetarian (no fish, no meat) vs vegan food is eggs.
Lingo to know:
To start with here’s some really basic Thai words to help you when ordering food.
“mang sa wirat” (มังสวิรัติ) kind of means vegetarian in Thai, in that it means no solid pieces of meat or fish, but this doesn’t exclude meat stock, fish sauce or other animals products.
“Kin jay” (เจ) (I eat Jay) is a form of Buddhist veganism, to simplify as well as absolutely no animal products it also means no garlic, chilli or alcohol.
‘’mai sai nam pla’’ means no fish sauce.
Important: remember Thai language is tonal, a slight mispronunciation can change a whole meaning! Generally though Thai’s are understanding and if you make an effort in the local language complete with some pointing then they will figure out what you mean.
With a combination of these 3 phrases i’ve personally been able to get on fine in Thailand as a vegetarian.
These phrases aren’t precise Thai, just wandering up to someone and saying them will draw a confused look! But in the context of being in a restaurant looking at a menu they are easy to remember.
Generally ’Kin Jay’ is the default to use but it’s not always understood, it’s a Chinese concept in origin and sometimes Thai’s won’t know it. In that case i’d explain ‘’mang sa wirat’’ followed by ‘’mai sai nam plah’’ and almost every time the person serving me realises what I mean. It’s worth remembering if you eat eggs that ‘Kin Jay’ technically will exclude that, though often you will be asked to clarify whether you want egg or not (i.e. unless you are Thai or Chinese yourself the person will figure you are some form of vegetarian rather than actually Jay). If you are vegan it’s always worth confirming no eggs – ‘mai sai kai ‘.
Also ‘’Khop knun ka/krap’ means ‘Thank You’ with either female (Ka) or male (Krap) added for politeness at the end of the sentence. Krap is sometimes pronounced Krup…it varies across the country.
So once you’ve established how to get yourself vegetarian food in Thailand, where should you actually look for it?
Street food is not great for vegetarians – if the meal has been pre-made then it’s highly likely that it will contain fish sauce or meat stock, particularly the noodles.
But equally if you can see that they prepare it upon order, for example a Pad Thai, so you can specify to them that you want it vegetarian. This is quite dependent on whether they have pre-cooked the noodles or not – if you can see that they will boil them before frying then a request for them to be ‘Jay’ should ensure no fish or meat stock is used.
If you want vegan you will also need to order out the egg, however often these stands won’t have tofu at hand so it might be best to head to a restaurant so you can get some protein in your meal.
Likewise vegetarian spring rolls often have egg in them too so if you are vegan then best avoided unless the street vendor can assure you they don’t.
Be aware that if they don’t speak English you may need to observe to confirm – most Thai people are very understanding and are used to tourists and their ‘foreign’ eating habits so it shouldn’t be a problem.
I wouldn’t get any curry for a street stall unless it is specifically being advertised as vegetarian.
‘Jay’ restaurants serve the Buddhist community that follow ‘strict’ vegetarian practices of Chinese origin. Look for the เจ sign (it’s like a 17) in big red letters on a yellow background. The great thing about these restaurants is that as well as having vegan dishes that both taste good and are high in protein they are also crazy cheap! These places normally have virtually no presence online so you will have to find them for yourself. I have personally come across them in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Krabi Town, Pai and Chumphon, though watch out for odd opening hours, they might just do lunch for example or close by 6pm. They are often nameless as well, just the เจ sign for decoration.
Note: Sometimes เจ is translated into English as ‘Jai’ rather than ‘Jay’
Vegetarian restaurants exist as well, especially in areas where there are a lot of tourists. A search on google may bring some up but the best practise is to keep an eye open as you explore somewhere!
What to eat?!
Once you’ve found somewhere that does vegetarian food, here’s some recommendations on what to order.
I must emphasise that many of these dishes come with fish sauce or meat stock as standard in ‘normal’ restaurants so you really need to follow the above advice before you order to ensure the food is made as vegetarian.
Pad Thai is a standard choice across Thailand and as you have read i’ve used it above as the classic example of street food. If you can find somewhere that will do it vegetarian then it’s a good meal, particularly if they add tofu to it. It’s fried noodles with peanuts and egg.
Thai curry comes in many different forms and is normally served with rice. You can discuss the level of spice that they add – be aware they when they say spicy they mean spicy! When a curry is made as ‘Jay’ it uses tofu instead of meat and contains no fish sauce. Green and red curry tends to be the norm but you can find various regional variations, particularly in the North or in Isan.
Vegetarian spring rolls are a good side dish to add to any meal.
Papaya Salad is associated with fish sauce and shrimp but can easily be made without it. Accompanying the papaya will normally be peanuts, garlic, green beans and chilli. See if you can have tofu added to get that protein!
Morning Glory is a stir fried vegetable dish often eaten as a side. It’s a sort of water spinach/cabbage with added chilli and very common across South East Asia. As always make sure it has no fish (or Oyster) sauce added to it, as that is standard practice.
Tom Yum and other soups are popular and usually can be made vegetarian with little hassle. Tom Yum itself is very spicy!
Sweet and sour vegetables with rice is a ‘safe’ option to order if you are having problems confirming something’s vegetarian, this is because if sweet and sour sauce is used then fish sauce or meat stock won’t be (or at least shouldn’t be! Nothing is 100% of course).
You can also find various other combinations of fried vegetables with noodles or rice, often with added tofu and/or egg.
When you eat in the Jay เจ restaurants you will notice they used meat and fish substitutes designed to look like the real thing.Often they will even describe it as so. Don’t panic – that’s what the เจ sign is for!! Seitan is a common ingredient, it’s made from Wheat Gluten and very common in the Vegetarian Buddhist community.
In terms of breakfast food pancake with bananas are a very common choice amongst backpacker venues across South East Asia! As is of course the standard ‘toast and tea’ that hostels often provide for free.
Any visitor to Thailand will notice that the country is covered in 7-Eleven’s. Unfortunately these don’t have great choice for vegetarians but you can pick up snacks like cashew nuts or chocolate bars for cheap. So that’s worth it particularly if you have a long journey ahead.
They are also an amazing amount of fruits to be found in Thailand – try Dragon Fruit, Lychee and Sticky Mango as they are common faves! Dried Mango is often sold in small plastic bags by those who work the transport routes, these are cheap and come with chilli!
Be aware that Durian fruit is infamous for it’s stink and many hostels explicitly forbid you to bring it inside.
Want Western Food? Pizza restaurants are popular across Thailand, expect to pay between $5 and $10 per pizza. Otherwise check out the big city shopping malls or the tourists strips to find the standard western fare.
And to end this article here’s some vegetarian restaurants in Thailand that i’d personally recommend:
Chiang Mai – Taste From Heaven
My favourite restaurant in the entire world! The range of curry is amazing!
Check out their website here: http://taste-from-heaven.com/Taste_From_Heaven/Home.html
Kanchanaburi – On’s Thai Issan Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurant
Really good Vegetarian food and plenty of options. The green curry was my fave! They also do cookery classes across the road (don’t get confused if that place is shut!)
Check out their website here: http://onsthaiissan.com/
Krabi Town – Hongming Vegetarian Food (a เจ restaurant)
This is on a side street near the town’s central market. There is another เจ place nearby too. May take you a little while to locate it but persevere and you can meals at a very low price. 35TBH for rice and 2 main servisings! And 10TBH per spring roll!
Koh Phayam – Cha-Chai Home
Run by an English woman and her Thai husband. A vast array of vege and vegan dishes. Fairly central on the islands motorbike paths.
Pai – Chew Xin Jai
Pai is great for vegetarian options, it’s a backpacker town so has a lot of vegetarian visitors. This restaurant is a เจ place as it’s name suggests so you can pick up cheap tasty food designed to give vegans the nutrients and protein they need. 22 Moo 4 | Wiang Tai, Pai 58130, Thailand
Bangkok – May Kaidee 2
This particular one is located nearish to the famous backpacker street Khao San Road. They have 3 vegetarian restaurants in Bangkok in total.
Check them out here: https://www.maykaidee.com/
The following are not exclusively vegetarian but have good options:
Tonsai – Mamma’s Chicken
Obviously from the name you can tell this is not a vegetarian restaurant. But they have vege options of basically every dish and understand ‘kin jay’. In fact the vege options are usually marked as Jay on the menu. It’s probably the best choice for a vege in the village. The Green Jay Curry is very good! It’s located on the path on the east side of the village. It’s the one that if you follow will take you through the jungle and eventually to East Riley.
Sukhothai New Town – Dream Cafe
Probably the best option in town for a any vegetarian traveller. Bit more pricey than others listed here. Located at 86/1 Singhawat Rd.
I hope all of the above information helps you enjoy some amazing Vegetarian food in Thailand! It’s all up to date as far as i’m aware. I’ll add to it whenever I visit again in future.
As a disclaimer no matter how much you try there may be incidents where you accidentally eat animal products. Whilst I hope you avoid this by following my advice I can not be held responsible if you do.