Geoff Richards

Vegetarian eating in Isaan

eating healthy in the wonderful North-East of Thailand

I didn't cover vegetarian food in an earlier article, and I know that there are quite a few veggies on Ajarn Forum, so here we go.

I'm NOT a vegetarian myself and I've never been a fan of veggie food that imitates the real thing; vegemince, sosmix, nut cutlets, mock duck. In my humble opinion, imitation defeats the point.

Really good veggie burgers are an exception, but they're still emulating meat.

I will also give Tartex, the imitation pate, its dues too, but I don't see a right load of it here in Isaan. Not one single tube in fact.

What I do like is good food that just doesn't happen to contain any animal products. I don't call this veggie because to me it's just food that I really enjoy.

Most Isaan towns and cities have a number of veggie restaurants of note and there is little that these establishments can't do with tofu and fungi.

They also perform wonders with aubergine/egg plant. My favourite British TV chef and food writer is Nigel Slater and, like me, he is also NOT a vegetarian. He calls the aubergine the king of vegetables, however. I quite agree and the variety here is stunning.

Long before the likes of Big Sheet came along, Isaan veggie restaurants were offering spiced and seasoned seaweed as snacks and side dishes.

Many of them serve excellent noodle soups and all of them provide delicious brown and wild rice.

There are normally four or five freshly prepared dishes to choose from all of which change on a daily basis. Coincidentally, most of these dishes are actually vegan and entirely organic.

Not all dishes are spicy and I particularly like the tofu, glass noodle and cabbage soups. Especially after a bout of food poisoning or when I have the flu.

An average dish will set you back no more than 25 baht. These restaurants do not cater to the breakfast or evening meal trade and are usually only open between about 10am and 6pm.

Food markets offer a very limited selection of prepared meals but I would be highly sceptical of eating any of these because vegetarian dishes are prepared in the same woks and pans as fatty pork and other animal dishes.

Most Italian and Japanese restaurants offer a limited selection of veggie dishes, as do the German ones. The latter offer excellent lentil, red and green bean soups, but these frequently have a smoky taste to them which suggests that there's a small amount of pork hiding in there somewhere. Proceed with caution.

The German delis here offer excellent European and North American cheese, but it isn't cheap! They also offer some fantastic pickles, too. Their bakery sections are cheap and delicious.

British and American restaurants tend to be very uninspiring when it comes to vegetarian food.

Most towns and cities also have Chinese delis and while these shops are in the business of selling pork products, they also offer traditional preserved vegetables and other authentic ingredients at very reasonable prices.

If you do consume dairy products then shop locally for organic free-range eggs. Go to the usual stores for safe milk and average but edible cheese. I have yet to see any vegetarian cheddar.

The likes of Big C, Tesco Lotus and Tops are where you can find pasta and dried and tinned pulses.

If you're on a budget and need some variety in your culinary life, then home-cooking is the only way to go.

Check out the fascinating array of dried, preserved and fresh ingredients available in the deli sections of many vegetarian restaurants.

If you don't know how to cook some of these ingredients, then get free recipes from the Internet.

A fermented tofu is also available but it is not to be consumed uncooked. Drain off most of the juice and put the tofu cubes in a wok or frying pan and gently shallow fry them mashing them down as you cook. Within 10 to 15 minutes you will have an incredible dipping sauce.

Local markets can be relied upon for cheap fruit and vegetables and a lot of these are organic.

Finally, back to aubergines, look out for the small bright yellow wild variety. They have to be the bitterest in the world so salt them down well for at least 30 minutes and then drain them off. Stir fry them with chopped tomato, pineapple and onion. Serve with rice or pasta. Mmm!


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