Ever heard of Thailand’s vegetarian festival? The event happens annually, and each year Thais all over the country give up meat for around two weeks. We’re celebrating this year by providing info on the occasion and popping up at a few fun events this month from the 17th of October until the 25th.
The dates of Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival may vary each year, but there’s always a few constant themes from the celebration:
Health & Mysticism – Many of the legends about the Vegetarian Festival point to the tale of malaria stricken Chinese opera singers who began paying homage to the gods with a vegetarian festival. The desperate faith of these Chinese immigrants to Phuket, combined with rituals brought from China resulted in a miraculous healing for those involved. As a result, the festival became embedded in the culture, being held year after year with increasing fanfare. Unlike secular medicine in the West, health in Asia during this time would have been strongly tied to religious beliefs. Pointing to the mystical healing aspect of the origin story may help explain the resulting traditions to festival newcomers.
Yellow Flags – When October rolls around the yellow flags come out abruptly and they’re everywhere, starting a few weeks before the festival. The flags are the most visible signs of the celebration and are used to demark where vegan or ‘jae‘ food is available. The Thai symbols on each flag look like the number 17 written in red text. You find them lining some popular street food territories, to products in your local grocery and convenience stores. Knowing the flag and the term can help vegan and vegetarian travelers identify food vendors during other times of the year as well.
Merging Culture – Southern Thailand because of trading routes on both sides of the peninsula, was an area with lots of merging cultural influences. During the last quarter of the calendar year, there are many other festivals, mostly with origins in the harvest season. The Vegetarian Festival is no different, but the unique blending of Thai, Indian, and Chinese culture is so fluid and unquestioned you may have a hard time distinguishing these traditions from each other. Chinese dragon dancers may appear in a parade juxtaposed with men carrying the likeness of a Hindu deity, and it may be one of the only times where locals visit modern Buddhist temples, traditional Chinese Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples in the same period.
Self-Deprivation – The period is a time of reflection, merit-making, fasting, asking forgiveness, and other tasks associated with purity. This is especially done by forsaking the most common desires. The way participants observe the festival varies by the beliefs of the practitioners with people abstaining from everything from sex to indulgent foods. The most iconic evidence of these practices is the event’s parades of people in trance-like states with a variety of objects impaling their faces.
Eating Vegan in Thailand
Fortunately for most of us, you can participate in the festival without walking on hot coals or driving sharp objects through your face. If there’s a form of austerity most common, it is observing the rules around food. You’ll find people around Thailand participating in this practice, even if they have no connection with the tradition. Most commonly in addition to not eating meat, there’s an added restriction of not eating pungent aromatics like onions and garlic. Since so many people do participate, the corresponding flags tell people where they can safely eat without worry of breaking the rules.
As a result of how widely celebrated the festival has become, everyone understands the concept of veganism. This is true, even if they don’t know the word vegan itself. This can be to your advantage if you’re vegan or vegetarian and need to request your food be cooked without animal products. Simply attaching the term ‘jae’ (pronounced jay) to the name of the dish will make it clearer to people, than anything you can enter into your translator.
If you’re a fan of Thai food, especially street food, a break from meat and spice heavy Thai dishes either feels like a welcome reprieve or cruel and unusual punishment. While many street food vendors may close their shops to enjoy a break, many will also begin offering quick-fire dishes minus the meat elements. When you’re exploring during this period, it’s important to double-check whether or not the vendors you’re visiting will be open as normal.
We recommend you’re informed, so you’re prepared to enjoy the festival. Vegetarian and vegan cooking in Thailand is having a revival. So this period is the best time to seek out special dishes that may not be otherwise offered, visit veg-friendly restaurants, or check out the best restaurants around the city to see if they’re accommodating observers in any special way.
Special Menu at Bolan Err
We’re teaming up with the duo from the restaurants Bolan and Err to showcase a special menu this month. This effort piggybacks on momentum from a recent plant-based cooking workshop we offered at the restaurant. The menu includes familiar dishes like a spicy red curry with local gourd (pictured below). In this special version, where you might normally find pork or chicken, we’ve used our homemade organic tempeh instead. The curry covered tempeh is not only filling but nutrient-rich and promotes healthy digestion as well. For a lesser-known dish order ‘Lon‘, a coconut-based dipping paste that is served with fresh vegetables.
The aim of the menu is to introduce more people to plant based Thai food. All too often, much of the information surrounding plant based eating is limited to western perspectives and recipes. However, it would be a shame if people thought plant based food was only salads and pasta. The truth is that the abundance of nutritious Thai ingredients allows a large majority of Thai food to pretty seamlessly adapt to a variety of healthier diets.
Encouraging Thais to eat healthier and more plant-based may be as simple as having them reflect on how people ate during their grandparent’s generation. Much of this mission is in line with the ethos at Bolan, whose namesake calls diners to harken their palates back to the golden age of Thai cooking. This means carefully crafted food, organic ingredients, and no processed enhancers like msg, white sugar, or condensed milk.
During the vegetarian festival, pop into Bolan (located in Sukhumvit 53) and choose from two special plant-based menu sets. Each of the sets are taken from dishes our Courageous Kitchen team loves to cook. We hope you’ll enjoy, and while doing so you’ll be helping us fundraise as well.
Plant Based Kick Off Festival
Any festival observers or plant based foodies won’t want to miss the upcoming Root the Future Festival at Sansiri Backyard. The large, 2-day event will bring together a variety of vendors with all sorts of products. You can think of it as a sequel to the previous Plant Based Market, but with an even greater array of products to choose from. The weekend also coincides with the beginning of the Vegetarian Festival, so it will be a fun, first of it’s kind way to kick off this yearly tradition.
Find our booth at the event and grab fresh tofu and tempeh. But that’s not all! We’ll be teaching tofu making in two sessions each day, at 3:40pm and again at 5pm. This will be great for tofu lovers and families interested in working together to create this unique and delicious ingredient. There will be lots happening, but please come say hello while enjoying the festivities!