The Vegetarian Festival is widely celebrated throughout Thailand and especially of significance in Phuket with a big community of Thai Chinese. This festival is celebrated over a nine days period and in other parts of South East Asia it is known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. In Thailand, it is known as the thetsakan kin che or Vegetarian Festival. This celebration falls on the ninth lunar month in the Chinese calendar which makes it around the first week of October.
There is a celebration in Phuket where many rituals are observed culminating in a special parade where devotees will indulge in self-inflicted piercings, cuttings and skewering of body parts while under a trance-like spell. However, other parts of Thailand observe this auspicious celebration by abstaining from meat, meat products and indulging instead in making merit and visiting temples to meditate.
During this festival in Thailand, you can observe many food outlets from restaurant to street food vendors offering a variety of vegetarian cuisine call “Jeh” or “เจ” in Thai. You can easily recognize a shop or outlet selling Jeh food by the little triangular yellow flags that are placed on streamers of little bamboo sticks at the stall or restaurant. This indicates that they are only selling vegetarian food.
True Buddhist Vegetarian food is found in the temples where the preparation of the food undergoes a ritual that is overseen by the monks during the preparations. The vegetarian food in a temple is free from any animal or animal products including eggs or flavoring derived from animal products, no shallots or onions which are flavor enhancers or animal based stocks. Devotees or the general public are welcomed to eat the prepared vegetarian food at the temples on particular days of the celebration which normally is on the first and last day of the festival.
The Thai Vegetarian Festival is celebrated with vegetarian cuisine cooked in a variety of Thai and Chinese styles. Some staples of vegetarian dishes are very similar to those found in other parts of South East Asia which also celebrate the festival such as Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia. Items used in vegetarian cooking is mostly various types of vegetables, soy products such as soy bean curd, soy skin, tofu, a wide range of mushrooms and herbs and spices for flavoring. In Thailand, the use of mushroom products in innovative ways is what makes Thai vegetarian cuisine unique.
A usual sight where vegetarian cuisine can be found in a variety of dishes is at the stalls that sell economy rice dishes. Economy rice is where a stall displays a wide variety of mostly home-cooked vegetarian dishes that one can pack either in takeaway packs to eat at home or to eat on the spot if there is sitting space. Sometimes people pack just the dish while others have rice to accompany the dishes. These stalls mostly serve their vegetarian food with Thai brown rice which has a nice aroma and is healthier to consume. There can be anywhere between 20 to 30 different varieties to choose from. It is known as “economy rice” because it is inexpensive and serves mostly the working crowd. A pack of economy rice with two or three varieties only cost around THB30 to THB50 a plate depending where you are.
Soy bean products are most popular during this season an special types of soy and a mixture of soy and flour products such as soy cakes, different types of tofu, soy and seaweed fillets, soy skin patties are just some of the products specially made for the season.
The products are used to cook a tasty variety of dishes including braised tofu with fermented bean curd sauce, deep fried tofu skin patties, braised firm tofu with vegetables and more. You won’t be able to get these dishes once the festival is over, so this is the time to indulge in it for the one week celebration.
Another favorite vegetarian dish is the fried noodles. A few varieties of noodles are used such as rice vermicelli, yellow noodles and flat rice noodles are the base of the dish. The noodles are then fried with bean sprouts, firm bits of tofu strips or tofu crumbles, garlic leaves and chili. Sometimes a red fermented bean sauce is used which gives it the signature pink color and a distinct flavor.
Side condiments of more fresh vegetables are given to accompany the noodles and some people like to add on a side dish of fried tofu to go with it. Noodles are normally eaten in the morning or as a light meal. A box of noodles with condiments cost around THB30 again depending where you buy it from.
There are also many varieties of sweet and savory tofu snacks which sometimes doubles as a dish. A favorite is tofu crackling which is deep fried until crispy and crunchy, then dipped into a mix of soy sauce and molasses, sprinkled with sesame seeds and lightly oven baked. they make a tasty energy snack or eaten with plain brown rice or even fragrant sticky rice. Thai people predominantly like fried foods and sticky rice which makes up a fairly large portion of their diet including favoring a sweet and salty taste to their food.
Mushrooms are another big favorite not just during the festival but year round. However certain dishes made with mushrooms are only available during this festival. Thailand grows a large variety of mushrooms including huge Portobelloes, Swiss browns, white buttons and other types of champignon and off course the staples like Inoki, gray and brown oysters, elephant ear lichen, shiitake and Orenji.
No parts of the mushroom is wasted as the stems and caps are sometimes used differently. Some mushroom stems are used to make mushroom essence and the stems are then dried and shredded to be fried with sauce, lemongrass and lime leaves into a dish. Oyster mushrooms are shredded, deep fried and marinated with soy and honey to make a crispy mushroom snack. Mushroom powder is made into a flour paste for making mushroom balls. So the mushroom is one of the most intriguing and innovative plants used in cooking.
There are a few types of egg plants used in Thailand in their Thai cuisine. A popular one is the long green egg plant. It is lightly fried with chili paste, fresh chilies, Thai basil and soy bean curd. Sometimes it is thinly sliced and fried with eggs as an omelette. Another variety is the small round and green egg plant which is used in Thai curries such as the green curry. During the Vegetarian Festival the Thai green curry uses no meat but only a variety of vegetables in combination with soy bean curd and tofu. It taste just as good without the meat and something that you should try during the celebration.
Thai cooks are very innovative with their use of vegetables and they also like to use a variety of fern shoots and creepers or even flowers in their cooking. The Fiddlehead fern is an edible fern where mostly the young shoots are used. They are very flavorful and crunchy making a nice vegetable dish. Fried with mushroom essence sauce, fresh chili, bits of soy bean curd and a little corn starch to thicken the sauce it turns out to be one of the unique vegetarian dishes during the festival.
Young bamboo shoots are also used in Thai cooking even on normal days. It is known as “Noi Mai” in Thai. These young bamboo shoots are harvested, the outer skin with the fur removed (the bamboo fur causes itching to the skin as it is very fine and can embed itself under the skin causing it to itch, hence the difficulty in harvesting the young shoots) and the shoots then boiled in brine water to remove the strong green flavor.
When the bamboo shoot is cooked it is then cut into fine strips and used for cooking the Thai dishes. A favorite dish is “Pad noi mai” which loosely translates to fried bamboo shoots. The bamboo is fried with fresh chili, chili paste, soy sauce, chives or Chinese celery and soy bean curd bits. Bamboo shoots are also used in curries like “Gaeng noi mai” which is a yellow curry.
Dumplings made of glutinous rice and wrapped in palm leaves called “bachang” is mostly found during the Moon Cake Festival but also available by selected stalls during the Vegetarian Festival. These dumpling made during a vegetarian celebration contains no meat and are not of the savory variety. Rather the stuffing consist of red bean, green bean or yam paste. Sometimes they make the smaller ones which are plain and the rice pre-soaked in a solution which turns the rice yellow when cooked. This dumpling is eaten with liquid palm sugar or normal brown sugar and has a tasty flavor in that combination.
The picture above shows a typical vegetarian economy rice dish. Served with Thai Jasmine brown rice there is fried mushroom stalks with lemongrass and lime leaves, fried whole straw mushrooms with soy sauce and fried Fiddlehead fern shoots with soy bean curd bits. This dish cost only THB40 for a full meal! Remarkably amazingly cheap prices for a full meal during the Vegetarian Festival here in Amazing Thailand.
The Thai people love snacking, so what do you do when you are abstaining from meat and longing for your usual fried or grilled meaty snacks? Thai cooks has the answer to your need for chewy, crispy “meaty” snacks that just might fool you to thinking it is made of chicken, pork or fish!
Guess what? They have “meat” balls, “meat” nuggets and even “crab” claws BUT made out of mushroom! The texture and chewiness will outright fool you and all these snacks are available only during the Vegetarian Festival. They are served deep fried, battered and fried or even grilled and accompanied by a tasty chili sauce. One thing is for sure, you will not miss having meat during this time of the year, there are just too many varieties of vegetarian food for you to try.
Most Buddhist Thai take the Vegetarian Festival as a time for making merit by abstaining from meat for the nine days. Others like me, take it as an opportunity to enjoy the abundance of vegetarian food that is only available once a year. You will not believe how varied the types of dishes are available and seriously speaking you will not miss a carnivorous diet and can turn herbivorous for even longer than the nine days if this food is available year round. I have seen some vegetarian food that looks like the real thing from fish fillets to chicken drumsticks and I remember my dad used to say they were falsies, not real food! Falsies or not, they taste just as great cooked Thai style!