While following a vegan lifestyle is easy for many, it has its challenges for others. When you’re at home you can cook for yourself, you know all the best restaurants and grocery stores in town and you find your groove and revel in it. But when you travel, particularly to a foreign country, and ESPECIALLY one you’ve never been to before and whose language you only grasp rudimentarily, it’s like your vegan skills kick into high gear. What had been easy before becomes a level-ten difficulty, where your hidden ingredient radar is on high alert and the stakes of accidental ingestion are elevated.
Though it seems like navigating an unfamiliar culinary landscape can be a daunting, even hostile endeavor, it is offset by the opportunities to discover foods of spectacular heights of deliciousness. Food you had never dreamed could exist. Ingredients you had never thought of, preparations you hadn’t even considered, and flavors that had theretofore only existed in your fantasies. All you need to do is equip yourself with a few basic phrases and the confidence to ask questions, and you can enjoy the cuisine of faraway-lands as much as any old omnivore can.
Traveling in Thailand we have made a thrilling discovery; something we didn’t even know about when we chose this country for the first destination of “The Intrepid Herbivores.” Here in Thailand there is a word, one little, simple, easy-to-pronounce word that, while being a little different, philosophically, essentially encompasses the basics of the vegan diet. It refers to the diet that is followed by monks of a certain Buddhist sect. It is food that contains no animals, no milk, no eggs. It also includes no alcohol, no garlic, and no onions! The word is “jay,” and if you ask for your food to be prepared in this manner, you are golden. Everyone understands it; there are no shifty definitions as in some restaurants in the States and elsewhere where you say you’re “vegetarian” and they say “no problem, here’s a chicken.”
Anyway, that has been the number one exciting awesome terrific discovery about navigating Thailand as a vegan. It’s been easier than we even imagined to enjoy all manner of varied dishes in almost any setting since learning the idea of “jay.” Which leaves me room, now, to talk about my second most amazing beautiful brilliant discovery, and that is the proliferation of FRUIT!
I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and we’re so, so lucky there to have access to really killer local produce. There is so much variety grown even within 100 miles of where I live that it is no longer necessary for me to rely on imported food to feel satisfied with my diet. I don’t buy anything that was not grown AT LEAST on the same continent where I’m standing. We can get fair trade bananas from Mexico in Portland, but other than that I haven’t been purchasing any kind of tropical fruit for over a year, since learning more about the energy costs of keeping produce fresh over long distances. So imagine my endless delight at the availability of fresh tropical fruit while I’m here in the tropics! There are street vendors everywhere selling juicy pineapple, tart green mangos, sourly crunchy green guavas, roasted bananas (and how!), dragonfruit, passionfruit, papaya, and tamarind. Tamarind alone is reason for me to consider never leaving this country. It’s so tart and satisfyingly chewy. Fresh fruit from street vendors is often sold with something that took me a while to get used to (as in, like, two minutes) but now I’m hooked. It’s a mixture of salt, sugar and dried chilis. You sprinkle it over your fruit, or dip your fruit into it, and it creates a dazzling interplay of sweet, tangy, salty and spicy. It’s too delightful for words. Arguably less healthy than eating your fruit plain, but it’s such a refreshing flavor, and so very very Thai, that it’s worth getting yourself over here to give it a try. 🙂
We are looking forward to sharing all these discoveries and more (really, there are more!) with you on “The Intrepid Herbivores,” a TV travel guide about vegan and vegetarian food. We are self-producing the pilot episode with hopes of getting backing to forage a different country or region in each episode. You can keep up to date, support the project, and spread the word if you come see us at www.intrepidherbivores.com.