When it comes to food, anyone who knows me quite well knows that a) I bloody LOVE food and b) I’m a vegan and have been for a while. Though this doesn’t have to be a huge part of your persona back home in the UK, in Thailand, it quickly becomes a focal point of discussion with locals. Why? Simply because vegetarianism is a bit of a foreign concept here in Korat. Indians from vegetarian families have become meat-eaters here, as well as fellow ferangs I’ve met. Well, people who know me know how stubborn I can be too, and if anything the lack of choice has made me even more determined to stay true to myself and not give into the easy option of picking up a not-sure-what-kind-of-meat-this-is stick from a street food vendor.
Street food is often the king of food in Thailand – and that’s certainly true in Korat. Down every soi is a little stall cooking food for locals around the area, and often the same sort of dishes can be found from one stall to the next. Many food stalls stem from Isaan (Northern Thailand) cuisine, such as som tam (papaya salad), khao niao (sticky rice), and Korat’s own special dish, pad mee Korat (friend Korat noodles with beef). Sweet stalls are pretty common too, and tend to do bread dishes such as “honey toast” and sweetened dried fruits with ice, sala syrup and condensed or, as I found with one little vendor, soy milk.
Still some of the best street food I’ve had has come from a vendor just outside my apartment, and for the first few months it was difficult to convince myself to explore other places when you know you can get such good food (with no trouble playing animal charades) right on your doorstep after a long day at school. One of my favourite dishes here is pad thai pak, and no one does it like Street Food Lady. Street food is designed to be the affordable way for locals to eat, and often it seems that instead of cooking, they’ll grab something to eat at home from a vendor.
I’d done a wee bit of research on being veggie in Thailand before applying for my job and all I read suggested that if you can get around the obstacle of meat being put in everything, you wouldn’t need to worry about dairy, because Asia is supposedly “predominantly lactose-intolerant”. I’d like to tell you now that this is just not true. Question everything. EVERYTHING. Even your Thai tea will have an eff load of syrup and condensed milk added to it, and if you’re not completely specific with what not to put in your food, your food might still end up having fish sauce as key component to the dish. Yummy.
The chance of ever having a variety of food in Korat was looking bleak for so long. That is, until I befriended a local family, who’ve taken me under their wing and are a prime example to always have faith in humans. Not only did they tell me failproof ways to make sure no meat makes it on my plate, they showed me around the few veggie restaurants in Korat too, which are also all vegan. There’s absolute no-way-no-how I’d know how to find these bad boys on my own, and my experience of Korat has boosted ten fold, simply by knowing places for some decent and authentic Isaan chow.
I now have LOADS of (well… four) restaurants or eating houses to choose from that all serves strictly vegan food, three of them providing Northern Thailand cuisine. None of the owners speak a word of English, but they’re friendly enough, it’s a good reason to practise your Thai and the food is grand. One stall, Ming Ter, was recommended in Lonely Planet as a vege pick, but because the signs are all written in Thai it stayed elusive to me for quite a while. For snacks, Ming Ter is a favourite of mine, as they sell soya equivalents of all sorts of tidbits recognisable around the city, such as sushi and wontons.
Yogini is a super special vegan restaurant (as in a real indoor restaurant) in Korat, where with two days notice, the owner/chef Anne will cook anything your heart desires. We had mexican due to that being the one cuisine that’s really missing in the city, and she didn’t disappoint. From the humble home of Yogini we were taken to a little fajita paradise on the gulf of Mexico. Everything was fresh, wholesome and full of flavour – probably because half the ingredients are grown in her back garden, and the other half are chosen with care that there’s no pesticides or chemicals sprayed onto the produce she uses. She’s a real character too, so it’s worth going just for a chat and some inspiration.
If you’re wanting something sweet in Korat, there are a copious amount of coffee shops and cafés dotted around the city, ranging from “Thai mak mak” to “very Western indeed”. A great café sits just behind Assumption school, De Forrest, in one of the only real gardens I’ve seen in Korat. The ambience is unlike any places I’ve been to before, with a treetop resting place and a tree swing fit for a giant.
A more recent find is Yotse, an ice cream parlour with a lot of groove. A great big disco ball hangs overhead and is easy to spot from outside and most importantly, Yotse uniquely presents some of the yummiest sorbets in a hotpot… or I guess, a coolpot (ha de ha ha) in a wicked atmosphere with a really nice choice of music from both western and Asian influence. They currently have a special take on the Thai speciality mango and sticky rice – mango sorbet with khao niao (the white, black or BLUE kind) and a coconut milk ice cream and it is just dee-LISH.
And, finally, cooking khao niao
I had the pleasure of meeting a culinary legend of Korat when I was invited to make sticky rice with a local bunch. “Aunty Noi” is a humble and modest woman, currently calling a wee bungalow at the back of the sweet little nature-inspired café, MawMaew Coffee, her home. Having ran two restaurants in the city that were both recommended in Lonely Planet, as well as a catering company, she knows her onions about food. The khao niao process was quite straightforward and carried out in Noi’s little outside “kitchen”, among a haven of flowers and plants. Here’s hoping she can teach me some ace concoctions worthy of my rice cooker…
SO, for veggies out there, I leave you with a few phrases I’ve found invaluable to know in Thailand! Happy travels.
gin jeh = vegetarian (I usually just say this and point at myself and it does the trick.)
mee ahan jeh mai= Do you have vegetarian food?
mai sai = don’t put…
kai = egg
gai = chicken
nom = milk
anee, sai…mai = is there… in this?
anee, ahan jeh mai = is this vegetarian?