Each year, during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, up to a few million Thais consume a vegan only diet for nine days. It’s an annual merit-making celebration to cleanse the body, with the belief that its practitioners will have good luck and fortune bestowed upon them for ritually taking part. Even though not everyone adopts the diet, a heavy percentage of Thailand’s population cuts back substantially on animal products during some or all of the festival period. That means there’s a considerable call for vegan versions of all the usual Thai favourites in all corners of the country. In other words it’s a big deal. A really big deal.
While the festival may have originated a couple of centuries ago in Phuket, it’s in fact a country wide affair which is celebrated especially, but not exclusively, by and in Chinese communities. Call it a two week gig, as restaurants and street vendors often have vegan menus a couple of days before and after the festivities. Even 7-11, which is every five doors on any given road (not kidding – calling it on every street corner doesn’t even cover the proliferation of 7-11 stores in Thai cities), sells a huge selection of vegan friendly ready meals and ingredients during Kin Jay. All supermarkets and shopping centres have massive areas dedicated to vegan food, the major ones creating avenues of both pre packaged and freshly cooked cruelty free goodies for you to gorge yourself on (hey, it’s a holiday).
The event isn’t describable in words. It’s as invasive in everyday life as Christmas is here (only with fewer complaints and buckets less stress). Some restaurants go 100% vegan and most at the very least maintain a jay menu during the festival, bakeries suddenly have vegan croissants and pastries galore, and the usual meats turn into soy and gluten alternatives. Let’s put it this way: in some parts of Bangkok (predominantly Chinatown’s Yaowarat), you’d have to look harder to find meat than to find veggie food. It’s a dream come true, a vision of what could be.
I’ve been in Bangkok during the vegetarian festival before, but this year I decided I would go back to the country solely for Kin Jay, splitting the time between Bangkok and Chiang Mai (with most spent in the capital). Bangkok is a vegetarian paradise even sans veg fest (not to mention generally one of the most alive places I’ve ever visited), but during those two weeks it’s just mind-blowing.
So here’s a little photo round up of some of my favourite finds, and you can expect any upcoming recipes will be formed and developed around ideas from my time away.
Thais don’t really do dessert, but they enjoy sweets as snacks throughout the day. Any visitor to this great land knows some of the best food is found on the street, and for me Thailand’s sweets rule in this department. Craving sugar? Hit the road.
Easily one of my favourites (the stall proprietors got to know me quite well by the end of the festival), kanom buang is a crispy pancake stuffed with either a sweet or salty/peppery coconut filling. It usually includes egg as an ingredient, but not this time. There’s also a variation with meringue as a filling, which I’ll be experimenting with as egg free meringue is fairly easy these days.
Khao larm is glutinous rice cooked inside bamboo with sugar and coconut, a process which allows the end bits to caramelise to sticky-sweet perfection. On one of my nightly splurges I bought way too much food and couldn’t fit this in, so had it for brekkie the next day. I now wish I could enjoy it as my first meal every day!
These coconut batter treats look like little poached eggs from a distance, but are in fact a coconut cream and rice flour pancake of sorts, topped with a variety of fillings. Options at this particular stall included shiitake mushroom (my favourite), grated coconut, and gingko.
Khao kriab pak mor are steamed rice flour dumplings with a sweet peanut filling that’s traditionally pork based, but uses a sweet pickled radish variation for veg versions. Sa Koo contains the same stuffing but is coated with sticky sago. Both are served with fresh lettuce leaves and death chillies that will stab your throat out.
As you may or may not know, candy floss is one of my five food groups (along with deep fry – stay tuned), so roti sai mai naturally joined kanom buang in my favourites. It’s a combination of hand pulled candy floss (*HEADASPLODE*) and a sweet pandan pancake to burrito wrap the cotton candy. Obviously I ate twelve bags and endured the associated 3 day sugar headache with both joy and love.
More than anything the dragon beard candy was fun to watch being made. Hand pulled candy floss blankets a sweet peanut filling to create a chewy pillow of melt in your mouth candy. Wanky descriptions aside, it’s pretty cool to watch someone pull a piece of solid candy out of a vat of starch and stretch into tens of thousands of strands of sugar in a matter of minutes.
Deep fry: food group of the gods
Spring rolls, wonton skins, and massive lumps of tofu are among the many deep fried snacks on offer on Bangkok’s streets. Pick and choose what you want and the vendor will re-fry them for you so they’re fresh, crispy, and hot for you to consume.
During the vegetarian festival some mock meats and faux sausage products, as well as a billion and one varieties of dough based fried treats, grace the street stalls. Corn, taro, soy products and a multitude of other vegetables count as fillings. Usually they are served with a small baggy of sweet chilli sauce and come with wooden sticks, which I can only assume are to stab yourself and the bag with so that you go away both bloody and sticky.
I’ve yet to figure out why yuba (soy milk skin) is referred to as gypsum in Thailand (anyone who knows or has a guess, please share). Regardless, it’s used prolifically in Thai vegetarian cooking. These deep fried rolls were available within 12 feet of just about every food outlet I encountered. I considered buying ten of them so I could put them on my fingers, but thought better of it and instead spent the money buying another 19 bags of candy floss.
Noodles and rice
Noodles aren’t quite as common in Thai cuisine as people might imagine. Save variations of khanom jeen and pad thai, Thailand’s mainstay filler is rice. The influence of Chinese cuisine on the culture and its massive impact on the vegetarian festival’s offerings, however, meant there were more noodles than usual.
I popped into Chinatown a day before the official festival start date as a Thai friend had been the previous night and informed me it was already swinging with yay festivities. Overwhelmed by choice, I browsed up and down the entire street before settling on the last stall at the end of Yaowarat. There were a few different types of noodles to choose from, and once I selected which I wanted the cook ushered me over to a table and greeted me a minute later with this steaming bowl of awesomeness. I’m a great lover of pepper, so the mushroom balls (which are packed with it) hit the spot, and the texture of the fungus (sounds appetising. Not) was a great complement to the soup.
I had a bicycle for my time in Chiang Mai, which aided greatly in retreating quickly from people shouting I was going the wrong way (how did they know where I was going? More importantly, how did they know I was about to get hopelessly lost?). Eventually I found where I was going, but only by accident after asking directions from a customer at this randomly placed solo stall selling fat rolls of sen yai noodles (what they make pad see ew with) in broth. True to Thai street food style, all the components were packed in bloated plastic bags and I was sent on my way. I wish I’d have had a heating element to bring the temperature up a bit (this was totally a plastic bag housewife joint), but it was good nevertheless. Five spice and msg (another of my food groups) ruled.
One of the things I love about 90% of Thai food (okay, this was technically Chinese) is it’s always small enough to justify 72 other things to eat. This char siew noodle soup with chinese celery and dumplings was my first dinner in one long evening of wandering Chinatown. I sat at a wobbly table with a bunch of strangers who were more interested in me than their own meals, and enjoyed dribbling all over myself in fits of laughter (no one else was laughing) whilst trying to get as much of the food in my mouth as possible (at a guess I reckon at least 70% didn’t end up on my lap).
A celebration of mock meat
They don’t mess around when it comes to creating replacements for animal based foods. Mock seafood, pork, beef, and even eggs were on offer.
A sea of plastic stools and tables were crammed behind this stall, which I passed on numerous occasions before one of the women in charge finally talked me through ingredients and asked me to sit down. The place was heaving so I was ushered to a table tucked in a back corner with next to no light and a floor I didn’t want my bag to touch. I assured her it was okay and told her to surprise me with food, that my only requirement was I wanted to try the faux eggs. They weren’t anything special, but the experience was worth it anyway.
Other finds and miscellanea
What convenience stores carry is a good indicator of public demand (with limited space for stock, they’re only going to sell what the public absolutely wants), so the amount of space dedicated to vegan food in 7-11 during the festival shows how big a deal the affair is.
An entire freezer at most 7-11s is dedicated to vegan ready meals, which they cook for you if you’d like, my saving grace after a late arrival into town. In addition to that, there are shelves of noodles, buns, snacks, and basic cooking ingredients. At larger stores there are fresh vegan croissants and a good dozen or more other bakery items.
Larb is one of my favourite Southeast Asian dishes and I’ll take it in any regional preparation. I didn’t expect 7-11′s version to be much more than, well, a convenience store meal, but it was damned good. The ham bun wasn’t to my taste, but the taro coconut one I tried a week later was ace.
Som tam is another savoury Thai favourite of mine, a great snack in the heat of the afternoon sun when I don’t fancy anything heavy but still want to eat (let’s face it though – when don’t I want to eat). This spicy green papaya salad usually features a healthy dose of fish sauce, but is easily veganised with fermented beans and soy sauce. Palm sugar, chilli, and lime also play an important role in the dressing, which is mixed with the unripe fruit along with fresh tomatoes and yardlong beans.
And finally, a cat. There were two kittens resident in my guest house in Chiang Mai, one an able bodied little lad out to attack the world (and, oddly, its collar was embroidered with “no small dick”) and the other a partially paralysed darling in bloomers. It was one of the sweetest and most well looked after animals I’ve encountered in Asia. Everyone seemed to think it would walk again one day, but even if it doesn’t I have no doubt it’ll be looked after well.
Just a tiny area of the masses of vegan food stalls in Bangkok’s Chinatown. And yes, all of those people are out eating vegan food.
So yeah, I’d like to say “that’s it,” only it isn’t. Kin Jay is bigger and better than pictures and video could ever capture, a celebration to eclipse all others. I always argue that being vegan is easy, that all it takes is commitment and knowledge, but for two weeks in Thailand every year it’s not just easy; it’s the standard. It’s what everyone is doing. When people look at you oddly for asking if something is vegan, as if to say “are you kidding? Why wouldn’t it be?” then you know you’ve found something special.