What You Need To Know About Being Vegan In Thailand
Being vegan in Thailand: is it easy or is it hard? As always, finding vegan food while you travel is easy if you do your research and know what to expect before you go. Personally, we’ve never had any major issues finding vegan food in Thailand, and we’ve been coming here for almost two decades. So we thought we’d share some of the things we’ve learned.
This blog post is a continuation of our Tips for Vegans in Thailand section. Let’s start with a quick recap in case you haven’t ready it yet.
Vegan, vegetarian, or both?
As a vegan, there are two concepts you need to know about to make your stay in Thailand easier. The first one is the concept of เจ (pronounced “jae”), a (mostly) religious lifestyle very close to the idea of veganism, which rejects the consumption of animal products on compassionate grounds.
The second concept is มังสวิรัติ (pronounced “mangsawirat”), which is similar to vegetarianism in that eggs and dairy may be used. Thailand has a fair share of both jae and mangsawirat restaurants, and outside of the major cities, they will be a primary source of vegan food. Jae restaurants often have red and yellow signs and flags, and mangsawirat restaurants seem to favour green signs and logos.
The red and yellow flag system also applies to street food.
Although jae and mangsawirat are not the same thing, and even though Thai culture has a close equivalent for the concept of veganism, often you will find that both terms are used interchangeably. Or rather, they are both translated as “vegetarian”. In the photo below, the Thai script says “jae food” (so vegan food), but the English translation is “vegetarian”. Conversely, some restaurants label themselves as both jae and mangsawirat, as shown in the photo below.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to stay away from egg and dairy even in “mixed” restaurants. Eggs are rarely cooked into the food, and instead they’re often served separately, as in a pile of fried eggs or hard boiled eggs in a gravy sauce. This is not a hard and fast rule though, so you’ll need to keep an eye on the food. But let’s take a closer look at the idea of Thai veganism.
Veganism and Thai Buddhism
Considering that nearly 94% of the Thai population is Buddhist, you’d expect veganism (or at least vegetarianism) to be more common. Walking around markets in Thailand, you’re likely to see that virtually every part of an animal can and is used as food. In fact, not even Buddhist monks in Thailand are required to be vegan, as the only thing that’s really prohibited is eating meat from an animal that’s been specifically killed for them. So what kind of a Buddhist country is this? you may wonder.
The truth is that Thai culture has a deep and long-standing vegan tradition, although not in the way we’d normally understand it in the West. In Buddhism, it’s very important to “make merit” (or earn brownie points if you wish). Making merit is meant to help people gain contentment and spiritual enlightenment, and to bring them luck and prosperity. Merit-making is often done via donations to temples and giving alms to monks, but abstaining oneself from consuming certain foods is another way of making merit.
As we wrote in our Tips For Vegans in Thailand section, jae food is the Thai equivalent of vegan food. Jae cuisine avoids the use of meat, fish, seafood, honey, eggs, and dairy, and it also excludes the so-called 5 pungent vegetables: onion, green onion, garlic, chives, and leeks, as they are believed to interfere with a person’s efforts to achieve enlightenment.
Devout Buddhists in Thailand will follow a jae diet, and all over the country you’ll find jae restaurants and grocery stores catering to them. It’s also common to follow a jae diet part-time, or to only eat jae food at specific times (mostly for merit making). For example, in 2017 a record number of Thais took part in the annual Vegetarian Festival as a way to pay their respects to late King Rama 9. Other people will eat jae during periods of mourning, when awaiting for an important decision like exam results, or when a relative is sick.
As you can see, veganism is an integral part of Thai culture, and jae restaurants have existed for a long time – way before veganism and vegetarianism became trendy in the West. Jae restaurants exist in pretty much every Thai town, and learning to spot the Thai word for vegan will make it easier to find suitable food. But there are some important differences between jae food and vegan food that you should be aware of.
To jae or not to jae, that is the question
The Thai owner of well-known vegan restaurant in Bangkok told us once that she had jae customers eat at her place and they were very upset because the food contained garlic and alcohol was sold at the premises. So jae food is vegan, but vegan food is not always jae.
This is an important point to remember, because it partly explains why sometimes food vendors will refuse to serve you if you ask for jae food. You’ve probably read that if you want something to be made vegan, you need to add the word jae to the name of the dish. So for example, if you want a pad thai, you’d ask for pad thai jae. But in practice, this doesn’t always work. Due to the religious connotations of the word jae, some vendors won’t be willing to offer the jae version of a dish. Remember that “jae” is interpreted as “eating like a strict Buddhist monk”, so some vendors or cooks will not feel confident about being able to meet the expectations. Maybe their food already contains garlic, and while as a vegan you don’t have a problem with garlic, for the vendor the food is not jae and so they cannot sell it to you. Others may be worried about their utensils not being clean enough to prepare jae food, so they will not serve you and sometimes you won’t understand why, and they may not be able to get the point across in English, so these are situations that often end in misunderstandings.
Another reason why it’s not always a good idea to ask for a dish to be made jae is the concept of losing face. This is one of the most important aspects of Thai culture and one that never ceases to surprise foreigners in its interpretation and application. We don’t want to write an anthropological essay here, but to sum it up, losing face is something similar to having someone make you feel deeply embarrassed, losing reputation, honour, or have their social standing challenged. Thais go about their daily lives making sure they don’t damage the reputation of others and others don’t damage their self image.
What does this have to do with vegan food? Well, sometimes you may be putting someone in a situation where they can lose face by asking them to leave certain ingredients out. Once we went to get some food from a street vendor who was known for making the best papaya salad in the neighbourhood. We explained to her in Thai that we didn’t want shrimp or fish sauce in it, and she hesitated. We could definitely see she was a bit unsettled by the request, and later on her daughter explained that in her view, if she left some ingredients out, her food wouldn’t be tasty enough. For someone who’s known to be a “papaya salad expert”, preparing a mediocre papaya salad would be something that would make her lose face. This may be an extreme case, or it may be more common than you think.
Personally, we don’t really ask for dishes to be made jae when getting food from non-vegan vendors or restaurants. We simply tell them what ingredients we don’t want, and hope that they can come up with a dish that doesn’t make them lose face. Of course, to do that you need to speak some Thai and you’ll also need to be familiar with the food so you know which ingredients are to be avoided in each dish. To make things easier, we have prepared our Vegan Guide To Thai Food, which offers a short explanation of each dish and comes with the Thai script you can show to vendors to let them know which ingredients you don’t want in your food.
Wee-gkan, the new trend
For many years, the concept of jae has been the closest Thai equivalent to veganism. But as we have said, vegan and jae are not exactly identical. Recently however, we’ve started noticing a new word being introduced to Thai language. This is the word วีแกน (pronounced wee-gkan), which is obviously the English word “vegan” directly imported into Thai.
There’s quite a lot of information online about what วีแกน is, but it’s all in Thai. From what we’ve read, วีแกน is described as not only abstaining from eating animal products, but also avoiding using them in any way – so no leather, silk, cosmetics tested on animals, etc. วีแกน is mostly “sold” as a health trend: famous Thai website Sanook presents it as a low-calorie diet, and we found it amusing that their article on วีแกน food was under their “Women’s Stuff” category. Other sites claim it’s good for “ladies who work in an office”. There also seems to be an association between วีแกน, organic, eating clean, and raw food. So it seems clear that วีแกน is pretty much the same concept as Western veganism, except that the focus seems to be on health issues and not so much on ethical ones.
We only started seeing the word วีแกน in 2017, so while it’s not yet mainstream, we don’t doubt more and more people in Thailand will become familiar with it in the future. The introduction of this concept into Thai language seems to coincide with the huge increase in the number of health stores now open all over Bangkok. Two years ago, you could only get “health foods” at Western-style supermarkets, specialty stores, or specific areas of department stores catering to tourists and expats. Fast forward to 2018, and they’re pretty much everywhere – and much of its customer base is Thai. We don’t know what the situation is like in other Thai cities, but probably they’ll follow the trends set by Bangkok soon.
This is not all there is to know about veganism in Thailand, but we hope we’ve given you a good introduction to the local vegan scene. Don’t forget to visit our main site to read our Tips For Vegans In Thailand section, and check out our Vegan Guide To Thai Food too.