Being Vegetarian in Southeast Asia

Explore the food, places and celebrations of vegetarianism and veganism in Southeast Asia.

Typically when one imagines having a dietary requirement, particularly one that cuts out animal-based products, one thinks of a nigh-on impossible struggle when it comes to meal times. This may well have been fairly true once but today in Asia, as in the rest of the world, vegetarianism and veganism are on the up and up and you will now find a fair amount of provision for these diets.

Of course this is not to say that there will be no struggle; in some places it will be hard to find a variety of foods that meet your requirements but in major cities you will likely find a lot of delicious dishes to be tasted. There are local delicacies to be tried as well as huge amounts of eateries and restaurants serving up Asian, Western and fusion dishes and everything in-between.

Aside from the food there are also more and more annual festivities dedicated to celebrating vegetarianism (and less often veganism) that now take place in almost all Southeast Asian countries.  There is such a vast amount of options available that it can be daunting to know where to begin so below we've compiled a series of suggestions of some of the top places, dishes and events in Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore to get you started.

Thailand

At first it can seem as though everything in Thailand has at least some sort of animal product in it: fish sauce for example is a staple for a whole host of Thai dishes. However, this is not always the case and actually there are quite a lot of options for people wanting to avoid these ingredients. There are two useful phrases to remember, firstly “mang-sow-e-rat” means no meat (i.e. no actual pieces of meat in your food but dishes can still have animal products such as fish sauce) and secondly “gin jay” which means absolutely no animal products at all i.e. entirely vegan. When eating in Thailand of course you can choose to get your fried rice, pad thai or curry as a vegetarian option but there are some fantastic solely vegetarian dishes too. Try the green papaya salad: a light and tangy dish made with green papaya, spices, garlic and lime juice, or perhaps you fancy braised plantain or deep-fried corn cakes served with sweet chilli sauce (both are delicious veggie snack foods which can be found at food stalls throughout the country).

Thailand is also home to two large vegetarian festivals: one in Phuket and one in Bangkok. Phuket's vegetarian festival is not only a celebration of everything vegetarian and vegan with all participants and performers sticking to a strict animal-free diet for up to 10 days before the event – it is a spectacle in itself. It is popularised due to its bizarre performances and displays which include performers climbing ladders with blades for rungs, walking over hot coals, and all manner of piercings. It really is quite a unique experience and worth a visit – if you dare! Bangkok's vegetarian festival, which centres around Chinatown but can be enjoyed throughout the city, is probably more what you would expect from a vegetarian festival. Here we see a week of celebration that centres on food stalls and shops selling all manner of delectable vegetarian meals, snacks and desserts. Something of particular interest is the creation of very realistic looking pieces of fake meat. There are also nightly musical performances of a Chinese Opera which honours the Gods that these festivities are dedicated to.

Indonesia

It is not all that difficult to be a vegetarian in Indonesia, in fact it is pretty easy, there are plenty of places to eat and delicious dishes to be sampled. Being a vegan however is far more tricky. It is not impossible but in a lot of places you will have to work hard to be understood and get a truly vegan meal. There is one place, however, that breaks the mould and is a true haven for vegetarians and vegans alike: Bali. There are more than 100 vegan and vegetarian restaurants, cafes and shops in Bali, far more than the rest of the country put together! It is not surprising then that Bali is home to Indonesia's only vegan festival. The Bali Vegan Festival is an annual event that takes place at the beginning of October celebrating all things vegan, raw, macrobiotic and organic with a series of conferences with notable speakers, meet and greets and workshops.

When you're travelling through Indonesia, even outside of Bali, you really do not have to stick to a dinner of vegetable nasi goreng (fried rice) every night, there are some fabulous traditional vegetarian dishes to be tried. Two of our favourites include tempeh, is a foodstuff made from soy that is almost akin to tofu but with a smooth yet nutty texture and is a staple part of Indonesian cuisine. Tempeh is vegan and is readily available in a variety of forms; it is sold cooked by street vendors as a snack on its own or put into curries and rice dishes, amongst many things. Tempeh is a must-try for vegans and vegetarians! Bakwan jagung (please note that this is vegetarian and not vegan) are similar to corn fritters but are also made with cabbage and carrot (although regional variations apply here) and served with a chilli sauce. They can be found at street food stalls although do be careful because bakwan undag is a version made with shrimp.

Singapore

Singapore is known for its impressive and varied food culture, from little India to Arab Street and Chinatown, from street food stalls up to world-class restaurants run by top chefs, there is cuisine from virtually every nation here. It is fairly unsurprising then that Singapore can be a real haven for the Southeast Asian vegetarian or vegan traveller. No matter what type of cuisine you're looking for you can always find a vegetarian (and often vegan) option but below are a couple of our favourite specifically vegetarian and/or vegan eateries.

Gokul Vegetarian Restaurant in Little India has been consistently voted one of the top vegetarian eateries in Singapore in various online polls and what is even better is that over 75% of their dishes are also vegan. The menu is vast with mainly Indian dishes but there are some Malay, Chinese, Thai and Western dishes here too. nomVnom is a vegan fast-food place in Central Singapore which serves a variety of delicious burgers, fries, salads and desserts in diner-style fashion. All delicious and not an animal product in sight (also no onion or garlic used in anything). Try the umi teriyaki burger: a seaweed soya patty, shimeiji mushroom, salad and Japanese teriyaki sauce - it is to die for!

Singapore also has various societies that you can join if you want more information or to meet like minded individuals. The Vegetarian Society (Singapore) is the largest organisation and helps to organise various cooking classes, run exhibitions and organise visits to local farms. It is also a primary sponsor for Singapore's EarthFest, an annual event that promotes sustainable living. The event has live music, public speakers, a farmers market and workshops for children.


Some more tips

  • Another great event to check out is the Hong Kong Vegfest which is a volunteer-organised event that serves up only vegan foods and focuses on promoting awareness of the benefits of going vegan. Check out their Facebook page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/HongKongVegfest/
  • Brownice Vegan Italian Ice Cream Cafe in Singapore serves up a delicious range of entirely vegan Italian delights: the pizzas and desserts taste totally and wonderfully authentic. The peanut butter chocolate chip and the earl grey lavender ice creams are both so good that you won't believe that they are entirely dairy free! Check out their website for more information: http://brownice.weebly.com/
  • If you're in Manila and looking for somewhere to get a good vegetarian meal, head to the Corner Tree Cafe in Makati. They serve up dishes from all over the world and everything is vegetarian (with many gluten-free and vegan options available too). We recommend the spinach and mushroom lasagne or the North African vegetable stew. Visit their website for a full menu and opening hours: http://cornertreecafe.com/