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!
This month we’re launching a new delivery menu for plant based food for our customers in Bangkok. The menu combines Thai dishes we love to make in our cooking classes with our favorite homemade meals. The menu is geared towards busy families who want to save time in the kitchen without compromising their diets.
The new menu is an opportunity to extend interest in healthy cooking to people who haven’t had a chance to join our cooking classes. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm about plant based eating in the Thai community right now,” says Panisha Chanwilai, our vegan cooking teacher.
“But when people look for plant based recipes online, they might assume it’s all salads and pasta. I want Thais to be proud of our own cuisine, which can easily be made into healthy meals.”
For instance, this month one of the featured dishes is tom kha soup. Thai food fans may recognize this dish as the calmer little sister of spicy tom yum soup. The dish is a soup is composed of coconut milk, made fragrant with classic Thai aromatics like kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, and galangal.
Besides the ingredients that make the dish tom kha, there’s a lot of flexibility to decide what else we would like to include. These variations are common to see from one Thai household to the next. One family may choose to include banana blossom, another prefers the soup with a variety of local mushroom, while still another adds extra chili jam to add heat and color.
Our version is made without any meat products, nor fish sauce. We also no longer use white sugar, and try to exclude oil in our recipes whenever possible. This addresses many of the common criticisms of trends in Thai food the last few decades, which can be oily, overly sweet, and scant on vegetables. However, when you have homemade Thai food, this isn’t always the case.
Ready to try food from Courageous Kitchen? In addition to the meals, customers can order our homemade tofu, tempeh, and other food products. Orders are placed by Thursday each week, and the food is delivered to people’s homes every Sunday in a refrigerated truck. As always, proceeds from the sales will help us continue our mission to feed and educate during these uncertain times.
Today we’d like to present a tasty caveat in favor of annunciating EVERY consonant. We believe after cooking the massaman recipe below with chicken thighs, you too will be convinced that THIGH-land is the correct pronunciation. Let’s end this debate at the dinner table!
Thai Muslim food has a rich tradition that has been used to help popularize Thai curries all over the world. If you’ve heard the names of ‘massaman‘ or ‘khao soi‘ curries, they are great examples of this unique and too often overlooked subculture of Thai cuisine. Thai Muslim culinary heritage usually demands red meat stewed for long periods to become tender, fragrant, and extend the shelf life of the resulting curry. However, dark meat cuts of chicken make a great substitution in these curries and allow us to shorten the cooking time.
This recipe walks the line between full-flavored tradition and not spending hours in the kitchen. The key to saving time is getting ahead on your prep. This means adding the extra strep of blanching your potatoes, shortening the time it takes to cook them in your curry later.
Finding a great premade curry paste will also be a big step in saving you time. Making this delicious curry paste on your own is definitely worth it, but be prepared to add at least an hour of prep time. For example, when we’re teaching our guests to make massaman, we’ll make some paste the day before to be sure there’s plenty in case the timing is tight with our cooking classes.
May this recipe for massaman curry end all debates about Thigh-land! Be sure to check the FAQ below the recipe for answers to your most common questions as well.
Serves: 3-5 people
Equipment: pot or large wok with lid
Prep & Cooking Time: 1 hour
500g of chicken thighs, deboned 1 liter coconut milk 2 cups chicken stock 2 tbsp of massaman curry paste 5 tbsp cooking oil (we used coconut) 2 potatoes, peeled, parboiled and chopped into 4-5cm chunks 1/2 cup of roasted and ground unsalted peanuts (for garnish)
Seasoning (to taste) 3 tbsp of tamarind juice 3 tbsp of palm sugar 1 tsp of salt
Optional Dry Spices 2 bay leaves 4 green cardamom pods 1 cinnamon stick
1) Start by blanching your peeled potatoes in boiling water for 3-4 minutes. 2) Add coconut oil to your wok over medium heat. 3) When your oil is hot, place your chicken thighs in the oil (4 tbsp), skin side down. 4) Allow the skin to become golden and crisp on the edges, then flip and repeat for the other side. 5) Remove the chicken, set aside, and add the remaining 1 tbsp of oil to your wok. Fry your curry paste until fragrant. When ready add 1 cup of coconut milk to keep your paste from burning.
6) Add potatoes, and chicken thighs. Then pour in your chicken stock and half of the remaining coconut milk. 7) Cover for 20 minutes, gradually adding more coconut milk to keep the curry from getting too dry. Remember to check the potatoes occasionally, using a fork to see if they have become soft. 8) When your vegetables are fork tender, season with tamarind, salt, and palm sugar to taste. 9) Stir in a few dry spices (optional) and turn off the heat. 10) Before serving, garnish with ground peanuts. (optional)
What is the origin of massaman curry?
The word massaman is an older Thai word meaning Muslim. The curry was brought to Thailand by Muslim traders from neighboring countries and solidified in Thai history when introduced to the Thai palace by Persian dignitaries. Modern versions have adapted to tone down the strength of the spices used, sweeten the dish, and shorten the cooking time. However, to find the most historically representative recipes, we should look to modern Thai Muslim communities in Thailand today.
What’s the most delicious massaman curry you’ve had?
The best massaman curry is the one that is slow-cooked. People often forget that this dish was created as more of a stew than the modern stir fry-esque curries that dominate Thai cuisine. When jumbo pots of massaman are allowed to simmer overnight, you awake to a smell that takes over the house and makes for some of the most memorable celebration meals in Thai muslim culture.
How should good massaman curry taste?
Good massaman curry is denoted by mature curry paste flavor and smell, and a rich bouquet of spices. The roasted curry and spice should be complimented by a light sourness. This is why you don’t get the same result using citrus juice to replace the tamarind in the recipe.
Most modern Thai recipes call for fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. This is not required and the salty flavors should not dominate the taste of your curry paste. Sweetness as well as a hint of chili should be present in the dish but don’t worry, it’s not overwhelmingly spicy!
Frying the paste and the long stewing time means many of your soft aromatics like shallots, garlic, and lemongrass should have an opportunity to meld together. When you taste the finished curry, you should not be able to identify these individual aromatics in the flavor.
Why is my massaman dark brown?
Don’t be alarmed if your vibrant colored curry goes auburn brown by the time you’re ready to serve it. This is especially common with longer stewing times. As the coconut milk reduces (especially if you pot or wok is uncovered), and seasoning is added, the color deepens. Whatever the color, your massaman should be delicious!
Note the color may vary depending on the brand of curry paste you use as well. Find a massaman paste you like and you can use it in all sorts of ways. For example, add your extra paste to spice up your next crockpot roast, chili, or pulled pork dish. You can also turn raw jackfruit into vegan pulled pork sandwiches. The canned jackfruit you bought is likely from South Asia, so why not dress it up with those same flavors by adding massaman to your bbq sauce?
Why do you fry the chicken before making the massaman?
This is similar to the technique you see being used with steaks, where chefs will pan sear them before putting them in the over on other cooking method. In this case the chicken is poached in our curry which is great for slow cooking the chicken internally, but not so great for the outside texture. When you fry the skin you add a bit of texture and umami flavor, then borrow the fried bits on your pan back, deglazing our wok as we fry the curry paste in the same oil. Texture added and no flavor wasted!
Would you recommend chicken thighs for cooking khao soi as well?
Yes! If you want all the flavor that stewing can impart, avoid drier cuts of meat like chicken breast. In my opinion, squishy and rubbery chicken breast is one of the Thai food faux pas that separate average cooks from well-practiced enthusiasts.
Join Courageous Kitchen on team dark meat! Chicken thighs are a great way to upgrade so many Thai recipes, especially curries. This includes famous dishes like khao soi but can work well with your green and red curries as well.
What if I want to make a vegetarian massaman curry?
Go for it! Simply subtract the chicken thighs and sub in vegetable stock instead. You can double up on veggies to add some volume to your curry. This can vary depending on what you have access to, but we love adding pumpkin, sweet potato, and even butternut squash.
With the stress of cooking animal proteins out of the way, take the opportunity to pay extra attention to how your hearty vegetables cook. One common mistake with softer vegetables, like sweet potatoes for example, is the temptation to try and cook them the same amount of time. If you do, don’t be surprised when your curry starts to look like mashed potato mush!
We hope you enjoyed this brief history lesson on one of Thailand’s most beloved dishes. Don’t forget to share your recipe remakes on social media and follow us on Instagram for more updates!
We’re excited to share that our new veggie burger patties are now available for sale in Bangkok. The patties are the result of a lot of hard work and testing, as well as feedback from our healthy eating supporters. Consider them as a healthy and filling meal, that is also part of our efforts to encourage everyone to eat better and reduce food waste.
The patties we’ve created aren’t like the ones you’re seeing swapped for beef at fast food restaurants. Instead of an imitation meat, they’re homemade patties created using a special blend of vegetables and herbs. The main ingredient for the burgers is okara, the leftover soy pulp from making tofu. We blend the pulp with mushroom, spring onion, and dried spices before hand making each patty.
Before the pandemic hit, our tofu making class had been generating a buzz with healthy eating expats and visiting tourists in Bangkok. When the lockdown happened, although our classes had to stop, we continued making tofu at home and supplying a few local restaurants. To make tofu you need to squeeze the moisture out of the soybeans, leaving the fibrous part of the bean behind. While it may seem like a worthless byproduct bound for the trashcan, okara still has plenty of nutritional value.
To avoid food waste, we’ve been experimenting with using the leftover okara in different recipes. We’ve made a variety of spreads, pastes, and even cookies. However, the most popular of our creations have been the veggie burger patties. The soy pulp allows them to be dense and pliable, while still being soft on the palate and enjoyable to eat. That’s not bad for a leftover food product that might seem worthless at first glance.
Often overlooked because of the delicious sweet potatoes themselves, the leaves of the sweet potato plant are nourishing as well. Sweet potatoes grow in the soil unseen, but above them is where all of the action is happening. Given enough space sweet potato vines are prolific. They will act as ground cover, stretching across your yard, and when given the opportunity to climb, will grab hold of nearby plants, posts, and fences. With plenty of sun provided, the heart shaped leaves stay ever stretching to find new opportunities to sun bathe.
Any gardeners reading are likely to join in our enthusiasm for these tasty leaves. The same can’t be said of regular potato leaves which can be toxic. Pumpkin, squash and other gourds have leafy vines, but the leaves have a sticky layer on them that needs to be peeled. Then there’s the incredibly popular cruciferous greens like kale which are well known, but sweet potato leaves are seldom as bitter, often being neutral tasting. This means they’re also good for introducing more green into the diet of young people as well.
A few ideas for cooking sweet potato include having them raw in a salad, or as an addition to a green smoothie. When harvesting them for a salad, look for the tender young leaves, often a deeper color than the larger leaves. For stews, stir frys, and any heavier cooking, the larger leaves hold up well. We use the beautiful new leaves as a colorful and tender garnish on top of other dishes as well. These leaves appear darker in color and more waxy looking, but lose this sheen as they grow larger.
Today we want to share a bowl of simple, sweet potato soup. The recipe is versatile, allowing for lots of variations. Feel free to make it your own, using different vegetables and locally grown herbs if needed. The point is for the soup to be a vehicle for nutrition, and a champion for biodiversity. The flavor comes from the combination of soft and hard aromatics in the recipe, basil leaves and lemongrass, and should only be mildly sweet with an optional touch of heat from fresh chili. Enjoy the recipe below with a heap of sweet potato leaves, and any other nearby and nutritious ingredients you have to add.
Serves: 4-6 people
Equipment: mortar and pestle, pot
Prep & Cooking Time: 30 minutes
1L water or stock 500g sweet potato leaves 500g winter melon (substitute another soft gourd like zucchini if needed) 1 angled gourd, sliced 1 carrot, sliced 5 lemongrass stalks, smashed 6 shallots, smashed 4 coriander roots, smashed 3-4 fresh Thai chili (substitute with mild chili or bell pepper if desired) 1 tbsp of palm sugar 1 cup of soy sauce 1 tsp of salt 1 tsp of black soy sauce 1 bunch of lemon basil (or other sweet tasting herb leaf, like Italian basil)
1) Prep all your ingredients, washing and peeling as neccesary. Before you start cooking, consider which vegetables you’re adding that may need more time than others to cook. 2) Pound your shallots, coriander root, and lemongrass in a mortar and pestle. Or bruise with a heavy object. 3) Add water to your pot with these three aromatics (shallot, lemongrass, and coriander root) and bring to a boil. 4) When the soup is fragrant and lightly boiling, add any tough vegetables like carrot, followed later by soft veg like winter melon and angled gourd. Cook until soft. 5) Adjust your heat to low and season by adding your palm sugar, soy sauce, black soy sauce, and salt. Taste and adjust as needed. 6) Turn off the heat and add your fresh handful of lemon basil. 7) When serving remember to avoid adding lemongrass into your serving bowl. You can remove it completely, but leaving it in the soup will allow it to continue to add flavor to the broth.
This recipe is suitable for a large family of 5-6 people and may put a big dent in your garden. Don’t worry though, the sweet potato plants are resilient, and can survive your pruning and nibbling. Do let us know if you loved this recipe by donating to our charitable work, or signing up for one of our online classes. Then check back soon for more updates and recipes!