Travelling as a vegetarian can be hard, and vegetarians and vegans can often be faced with temporarily abandoning their lifestyle while abroad, or being relegated to eating plain and boring food. Luckily this couldn’t be further from the truth in Southeast Asia. Due to its long Buddhist heritage, it’s much easier to find delicious vegetarian and vegan meals than almost anywhere else, though there are a few things to watch out for.
Vietnamese cuisine, vegetarian style.
Biggest among these is fish sauce. It’s an extremely common ingredient throughout the region, and often “no meat” or “vegetarian” can be interpreted as “no meat, but fish is fine”. Another big one is meat broth, as often just because there’s no actual meat in a dish, doesn’t mean that the broth wasn’t made with animals.
These problems are easy for any dedicated vegetarian to avoid however, and for convenience we’ve included a few phrases that can be a good idea to convey to your guests should they be spending some time on their own. These are as follows:
Jay (Thailand): No animals/animal products
Chay (Vietnam): Buddhist (vegan) food
Baw sai nâm pa (Laos): “No fish sauce”
Aht saight (Cambodia): “Without meat”
Coconuts, spring rolls and tofu curry.
Before doing a breakdown of the separate countries and dishes, there are some things that hold true all across Indochina. For one, Buddhist restaurants are always a good bet, as their religion doesn’t allow them to cause harm to other living creatures, including for food. There is also an abundance of fresh fruit and fruit smoothies available anywhere. Another great tip in general if eating at a place with few vegetarian options is to craft a whole meal from side dishes such as sticky rice, spring rolls and fried morning glory.
If you’re planning some off-the-beaten-track tours or visits to remote and secluded areas with vegan or vegetarian guests, it can be a good idea to plan on bringing your own food, as access to vegetarian food can get harder the deeper into the countryside you go.
Vegetables with a local dip make for a great vegetarian snack.
Finally, many cooking classes offer vegan or vegetarian courses, highlighting local dishes without animal products and teaching your guests how to make them, something they can make great use of once they return home.
Now for the dishes. The most famous Vietnamese dish of them all, Pho, is generally served with meat broth, but the “Pho Chay” variant replaces this with a broth made from spices, mushrooms and herbs. There is also Com Ga Chay, which is usually the Vietnamese version of Chicken and rice, with lots of added ginger, but the Chay version replaces the chicken with fried shredded tofu, which can almost trick people into thinking they’re eating chicken after all! Finally, Banh Mi is a favourite among travellers to Vietnam, and vegetarians can rest easy in the knowledge that a vegetarian version, featuring tofu rather than the usual pork pate or chicken, is readily available at most places.
Tofu is widely available in Southeast Asia.
Over in Laos, vegetarian versions of staples like Larb (usually meat wrapped in lettuce leaves, but Larb Jay replaces the meat with Tofu) and Khao Piak Sen (noodle soup) are easily found, and the classic Jaew Mak Khua (an eggplant dip) is literally everywhere and completely vegan. Additionally, both Vientiane and Luang Prabang have very vibrant restaurant scenes with many vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
Bamboo is often used to prepare and serve food.
Amok curry is a classic when visiting Cambodia and the vegetarian version is just as delicious. This thick yellow curry steam cooked in banana leaves is an absolute delight and sure to impress any vegetarians in your group.
Som Tam Thai in Thailand is another classic Southeast Asian food. It usually comes with dried shrimp and fish sauce, so to make sure you avoid giving this to your vegetarian or vegan group members, make sure to order by saying “mai sai goong haeng” (without dried shrimp) and “mai sai nam bplaa” (without fish sauce).
Mango Sticky Rice is a great choice for dessert.
For dessert, Mango sticky rice is a popular option with locals, vegetarian or not, and as it mainly just consists of mango and rice, is completely vegan.
In short, Southeast Asia is a great place for vegetarians and vegans, though some caution needs to be practiced. There’s nowhere in the world where you can have this range of vegetarian options for such a low price, and both food tours and cooking classes commonly have vegetarian versions of their activities.