I take my first bite of chicken, the first meat I've had in nearly 11 days. I am prepared to savor that bite, but the whole thing feels rather anticlimactic.
According to Thai superstition, you are supposed to break the Jae Fest with chicken for good luck. Yet, chicken doesn't taste much different than tofu. Where are the Jae powers I was supposed to have? I sure don't feel like putting a sword through my cheek right now.
I decided to "gin jae" for the 10 day Jae Festival with some Thai friends of mine. I had been interested in eating plant-based food for a couple of years, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
To "gin jae" means that one not only avoids meat, dairy, honey, or eggs, but also abstain from alcohol, garlic, onions, and sometimes coffee (I broke this rule, provided it was vegan coffee; many coffee beans in Thailand are ostensibly roasted in butter).
The idea is not to eat any foods that cause destruction to life or cause "intense emotions."
Why garlic is banned but ginger and chili are okay is beyond me. Still, if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right, so I had to obey the arbitrary rules.
At first, I enjoyed the whole process. I felt healthier, more adventurous, and constantly excited to try new things. I thought it would be difficult to find jae food in Thailand, but given the large presence of Chinese Mahayana Buddhists in Bangkok, it wasn't hard at all.
Everywhere I looked I saw yellow signs indicating that jae food was served. I tried the EmQuartier food court for the first time and found that it was actually pretty good; my meal of pumpkin and laab tofu was delicious.
I even found that the fake meats they use in Thailand are decent. They're usually made with beans or tofu rather than more processed soy products.
Difficult to find
Still, I soon found that though it is easy to find jae food during the festival in Bangkok, it is not always easy to find jae food when I prefer to eat. Since I often didn't finish work until 8 or 9pm, finding jae restaurants open was not easy.
Once, I had to resort to eating jae instant noodles from 7-11. As the days moved on, I began to miss garlic greatly and grow sick of the textures of the fake meats used in many dishes. But I had made up my mind to do this, so I couldn't quit. And I somehow made it through 10 ½ days.
A vegan now?
Have I learned anything from the experience? Not really. I know that I will never give up garlic again if I don't have to. I realized how important eggs and meat stock are in the flavors of many dishes. And I know I will always crave seafood.
I suppose I couldn't be vegan full time. I would have no problem giving up meat and dairy, which would be great for the environment and my health. However, giving up eggs and fish would not be possible for me, at least not yet.
Should I try to go vegan or vegetarian? I'm not sure. It's certainly not a good thing to cause the suffering of animals, and perhaps I'll make a real go of giving up dairy and meat (even fish) when I'm back in the US.
But while I'm in Asia, I will continue to enjoy all of the sensory pleasures presented to me, and I will never turn down the hospitality of well meaning hosts and street vendors, who always offer so much and are so proud of the food they serve their guests, despite living with so few material comforts themselves.