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How to Eat Vegan or Vegetarian in Southeast Asia

Before leaving to Southeast Asia, a lot of people told us that keeping up with our dietary choices would be difficult and that we would have to end up eating fish or meat at least once during our trip. Turns out with a few little tips this statement is completely false. Here are a few tricks that we used to eat vegan or vegetarian in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos.

Try And Eat Local Food

Our obvious biggest tip is to research local dishes. You might be surprised to know that a lot of Southeast Asian dishes are vegan. From what we experienced, locals do not eat a lot of dairy products nor cook with them and they often use plant-based alternatives.

Here are a couple of our favourite Southeast Asian vegan (or vegan friendly) dishes:

Vietnam

  • Banh Xeo – rice flour pancakes (ask for no shrimps or meat)
  • Vegetable Springrolls (vegan)
  • Banh Mi sandwiches (skip the meat, egg, cheese and mayo)
  • Phở Chay (vegan) – be careful regular Phở has animal broth
  • Goi Cuon – rice paper rolls (ask for tofu instead of meat or shrimp)
  • Nom Du Du – papaya salad (watch out for fish sauce)
  • Bánh Bao Chay – steamed buns (vegan)

Thailand

thai cooking class - Time For Lime (Ko Lanta)
  • Sticky rice and mango (vegan) – our favourite dessert!
  • Veggie stir-fries – our favourite is Morning Glory sauteed with garlic (ask no fish / oyster sauce)
  • Deep Fried Tofu (usually vegan)
  • Pad Thai (ask no eggs and fish sauce)
  • Papaya Salad (watch out for dried shrimp)
  • Thai Curries (check for animal stock, shrimp paste and fish sauce)

Indonesia

  • Tempeh and tofu (vegan)
  • Urap-Urap – steamed vegetables salad (vegan)
  • Capcay – vegetables stirfry (vegan)
  • Gado Gado – skip the eggs and watch out for shrimp paste

Laos

  • Fruit shakes (skip the condensed milk)
  • Khao nom kok – amazing tiny coconut pancakes (vegan)
  • Vegetable Fried Spring Rolls (vegan)

Our suggestion: find local vegan dishes from each country and learn the names by heart or write them down on your phone for future reference. Another interesting way to experience local cuisine is through cooking classes. We had one in Ko Lanta, Thailand and we can only recommend it!

Be Aware Of Hidden Animals Products

As you can see above, many dishes might seem vegan while they’re not. Here are a couple of ingredients to watch out for:

  • Fish and oyster sauces: most stir fries have one of those but can easily be replaced by regular soy sauce.
  • Animal stock: like Phở in Vietnam, most soups use some form of animal based broth. Those are hard to avoid or replace.
  • Fish flakes: sometimes sprinkled over salads or vegetable dishes.
  • Shrimp paste or sauce: usually used in curries, sauces and dips.
  • Condensed milk: added to fruit shakes to make them a little thicker. You can sometimes ask to replace it with coconut milk.
  • Whey: you’ll find plenty of soy milk drinks but make sure they don’t contain cow milk products.

Fruit, Convenience Stores And Markets Are Your Friends

If you are a backpacker or travelling on a budget, the easiest and cheapest way to be vegan in Southeast Asia is to buy food in markets, convenience stores and supermarkets.

Cat Ba market, Vietnam

Get fruit, nuts and some veggies at the market and pack a picnic. Hopping on a bus or a train for 20 hours? Get snacks and drinks at the local 7-Eleven. Walking around the city? Get a smoothy or a fruitshake from a street corner merchant.

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

There are a lot of different languages and dialects in Southeast Asia (and they’re usually not English), so our tip is to download pictures of simple food you can eat on your phone.

Just show images of food like steamed rice, cooked vegetables, rice noodles, tofu, fruit or nuts when your order. People will usually put rice or noodles and veggies in your bowl or plate, and point at all sorts of meats. You can then just respectfully show you don’t want any.

This tip has saved us many times when arriving in remote villages where restaurants and food stands don’t have English menus (or sometimes no menus at all).

Learn Some Basics Of Local Language

As in English, some other languages have specific words for eating vegetarian or vegan. We are by no means experts in foreign languages but those basics should be enough for you to find a place to eat in Thailand and Vietnam.

In Thailand

  • Be on the lookout for Jae symbol (the ’17’ looking symbol is in Thai, the other one in Chinese). Jae food is associated with the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist practice and is basically vegan.
Jae - Vegetarian or vegan in Thailand.
  • Say “gin jae” to let people know you “eat jae” and they’ll be happy to help.

In Vietnam

  • Look for the word Chay (pronounced “j-eye“), it means vegetarian (in the buddhist way, so usually it’s vegan).
  • If you come across a Com Chay or Quán Chay, it’s your lucky day as it means it’s a vegetarian food stall.

Find Vegan-Friendly Restaurants

Remember that you are probably not the first vegan that has been visiting the city you’re in. So do your research before you arrive and get the Happy Cow mobile app to find vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants in the neighbourhood.

Surn Yi Vegetarian Restaurant Phnom Penh

Keep in mind that street food is usually cheaper than 100% vegan restaurants, especially when they’re aimed at tourists (this is especially true in Ubud and Bali in general).

Try Your Best But Don’t Torture Yourself

Last but not least, try to not overthink it! Whether something got lost in translation or you just didn’t notice, you’ll most likely consume animal products unwillingly. Don’t be too hard on yourself and just try to do your best. Overall we found it really easy to find vegan and vegetarian options in every Southeast Asian country we visited.

You might need to be creative at times but people are usually very friendly and accommodating. And if worse comes to worst, just have sticky rice and soy sauce until you find something more exciting.

We hope our tips will help and as always, if you have any suggestions let us know in the comments 🙂

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