Prior to leaving home to embark on a tour of South East Asia I was warned by everyone who has visited the continent of the difficulties I would find in securing good and honest vegetarian food. The internet did nothing to avert this worry, nor did the three travel books I’d bought on various countries in the region. However, after ten weeks abroad my stomach can vouch that this rumour of meat-free difficulties is a myth. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed food more than I have in this part of the world (New York pizzas aside).
Since arriving in the first country of my trip I have probably eaten double the quantity of food I would at home. This can be somewhat put down to the cost of an average meal equating around £1.20, making it easily tempting to try a variety of dishes at any one sitting, but the availability of vegetarian food and the wide range of choice available is far better than expected.
Many restaurants list dishes on their menus as a description of what they include, based on noodle or rice type, main flavour and spice, with the main part (usually a choice of tofu, chicken, pork or shrimp) listed seperately to add at the end.
This ease of finding vegetarian food was not only a bit of a relief that I didn’t have to rely on the emergency cereal bars I had stashed in my backpack, but allowed me to get excited about what Thais seem to do best. Bangkok alone is known to have over 50 000 food establishments and it is easy to believe as soon as you enter the city. Street food vendors line every main road and backstreet and fill the air with distinct smells, some better than others, but mostly giving Bangkok a unique aroma of spice.
After speaking to others travelling the country some instant favourites in Thai food and drink became apparent, here are a few:
This is a version of Red Bull, which itself originated in Asia, before being discovered by an American businessman and modified to suit western tastes by adding sodar and sugar. M-150 has ten times the caffeine content of regular Red Bull and is banned in Australia after being described as having the same effect of speed. Definitely one to try after an overnight bus ride.
Tea in a bag
A common sight at street food stalls is something which probably comes with a more Asian-sounding name, along with the aptly named ‘meat on a stick’, christened by a couple of Welsh boys in my hostel (the hostel owner replying, ‘what is meat on a stick?’. The self-explanatory name being lost in Asian translation, apparently). Tea is boiled in a large metal basin, with various herbs being added before being spooned into a small plastic bag, not dissimilar to one you used to find a goldfish in at a fair, with a straw inserted and then tied up at the top.
One tea in particular which has become my instant favourite is bael fruit tea. This was given to me after a Thai massage to relax and was so delicious I bought two large bags of it from the owner, despite her not actually selling the stuff. It is similar in taste to Chai tea, with a sweeter emphasis, and can either be drank with honey or definitely not with honey (I didn’t quite catch what the instructions were).
This dish is really popular in the town of Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. Though not commonly seen elsewhere, it’s worth a try if you can find it. Everyone makes the sauce slightly differently, with some versions tasting similar to Heinz tomato soup. It is mild in flavour and served wth sticky rice. Very gentle on the stomach after a rough night too.
I was told to try this by a bar owner on my first night in Bangkok, and the strength of the drink combined with the jet-lag of a 12 hour flight resulted in pretty instant drunkness. The local fruit makes up a small amount of the bright purple drink, mostly consisting of an aray of Thai spirits.
And one to be wary of:
This innocent sounding, mild herb we know to accompany tomato and mozzerella salads at home has an evil Thai cousin. Found in Thailand’s jungles, the small, zig zag-edged green leaf is extremely spicy. An initial taste of a dish containing ‘basil’ will make you think you have begun eating a meal made from the spice of every vindaloo in the world. Do not order this without a very cold drink nearby, preferably a large one. If you do come across this and want to try it without losing your tastebuds, ask for the dish ‘ferang spicy’, roughly translated to ‘spicy by western standards’.