When we think of Thai cuisine, our minds automatically go to the specific flavors and seasonings distinctive to Thai food. We’re talking garlic, lemongrass, chili, peanuts, tamarind, Thai basil, and kaffir lime leaves, to name a few.
If you’re someone who is interested in eating more plant-based foods, here’s the best part about eating out at a Thai restaurant: most Thai dishes contain nary a hint of cheese or dairy milk, and many staple Thai dishes are just as flavorful, texturally complex, and satisfying without the meat. However, there are still a few different things you’ll need to watch out for if you want to order with 100 percent confidence at a Thai restaurant.
Ingredients to Watch Out For
If you’re trying to enjoy a vegan meal, there are a few obvious ingredients you know to look out for when ordering off a Thai menu. Meats are easy to identify, and luckily also easy to replace, or just leave out altogether. You can replace different meat and seafood, like beef and shrimp, with tofu, which almost all Thai establishments will offer, and have it prepared any way you prefer. Not into tofu? Replace meat and seafood with a medley of hearty veggies, like broccoli, eggplant, and mushrooms! Check out this recipe for Stir-Fried Thai Basil With Tofu and Eggplant for an example of a tofu-based, and veg-forward Thai meal.
While it’s obvious that items like “eggrolls” contain eggs, there are also eggs in many other Thai dishes, such as wontons, yellow noodles, and the popular “Pad Thai.” If you’re unsure, double-check that your meal doesn’t use eggs as a topping or garnish and that your noodles or crispy appetizer are similarly egg-free!
Here’s where Thai food can get frustrating for those following a plant-based diet. Fish sauce might not be listed on the menu, or even in the ingredients of a seeming-vegan option, but it is actually used in most Thai dishes, like soups, noodles, curries, stir-frys, and more. No matter what you’re ordering, it’s a good idea to ask for your dish without fish, shrimp, or oyster sauce. Usually, your restaurant will be able to sub-in soy sauce or leave out the non-vegan sauce altogether without affecting your meal too much. Here’s How to Make Vegan ‘Fish’ Sauce.
Sometimes, restaurants pre-make some of their marinades or curries for convenience. Because Thai curries are made from moist pastes instead of dry spices (like in Indian curries), your restaurant might not be able to make you a dish without fish or oyster sauce for this reason. We recommend calling ahead if you’re worried. If it turns out you won’t be able to order a fish-less curry, don’t worry. Read on below to find out which meals are safe to order, and how to customize to ensure you’re receiving all plant-based food.
How to Order
Spring rolls and salad rolls are the way to go here. Most Thai restaurants will have at least one vegetable-based roll on their appetizer menu.
Spring rolls are often (but not always) fried, and filled with delicious clear or glass noodles and veggies. Look for an all-veggie or tofu-based spring roll. Salad or summer rolls are typically rolled in a rice wrapper, and not fried. They come served with a sweet, typically fish-sauce-free peanut dipping sauce. Check out these recipes for Fresh Veggie Spring Rolls With Peanut Satay Sauce or Spring Rolls With Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce.
For soups, you could go for Vegetable Soup, which usually features an array of veggies in a mild and clear broth. Tom Yom is a citrus-forward and spicy mushroom soup with a mix of fragrant herbs that you can order vegan (sometimes it comes with shrimp), and tom kha is similar but is slightly less spicy due to the addition of creamy coconut milk. Check out this recipe for Tom Kha Soup: Thai Hot and Sour Soup or this Thai Coconut Soup.
Thai restaurants often offer Glass Noodle Salads, with noodles made from mung beans that are stretchy and clear. Green Papaya (or Som-Tam) Salads are Thailand’s most famous salads. They are comprised of green and unripe papayas that are sliced into strings and flavored with spicy Thai chilis and Thai salad seasoning. Keep an eye out for Thai Mushroom Salads too, which typically come with Thai lime salad dressing. Check out this recipe for Spicy Papaya Salad With Smoky Roasted Peanuts.
Curry is a great Thai option! Thai restaurants differ from Indian restaurants in that their curries are not made out of dry powders, but moist pastes instead. These pastes come in several red, yellow (panang), green, and massaman varieties, and each of these varieties features distinct prominent spices. You can read an ultimate guide to Thai curries here. For recipe ideas, try this Super Quick Thai Curry or even this Red Thai Curry Soup With Carrots and Sweet Potato, pictured above.
For noodles, Pad Thai is Thailand’s most popular noodle dish — just make sure to order it without fish sauce, meat, and eggs. These Nut-Free Thai Noodles are great for anyone avoiding peanuts.
Pad-Se-Ew (which are sweet soy sauce noodles) are stir-fried with carrots, Chinese broccoli, and seasoned with sweet soy sauce, while Pad-Kee-Mow (also called Drunken Noodles or Spicy noodles) are also delicious and feature rice noodles stir-fried with Thai chili, soy sauce, and Holy basil — just make sure to order both without eggs or fish sauce, to be safe. Check out this recipe for Pad See Ew: Thai Stir-Fried Noodles.
Fried rice is a delicious go-to, and stir-fry is always a safe bet, so long as you choose a veggie dish and make sure to ask for it without fish, oyster, or shrimp sauce and paste. Try this recipe for Thai Coconut Rice or this one for Kao Pad Thai Fried Rice.
If you’re interested in learning more about Thai flavors and want to infuse them in your own cooking, check out How to Cook Veggies Thai Style, and then learn How to Amp Up Your Cooking With Thai Basil.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Fresh Veggie Spring Rolls With Peanut Satay Sauce