For a somewhat accidental vegetarian, I’ve embraced it with vigour. Travelling for four months in South East Asia was my first foray into the non-meat eating lifestyle and the food was so delicious that I ended up staying vegetarian for good. But having special dietary requirements in other countries can be challenging at times – particularly when it comes to language barriers or local traditions – so today I wanted to talk about how you can find amazing vegetarian food in South East Asia.
South East Asia is a foodie paradise. Dedicated meat eaters, veggies and vegans alike can all experience incredible dining and I ate some of the best meals in my life there. New, exotic flavours await in each country and you’ll notice different influences as you move through places – I remember being surprised at how much Indian-style food there was in South Thailand and Malaysia. I was always somebody who was a bit weird about sauces but this was quickly forgotten with all the amazing curries on offer. My favourite dishes across the entire trip were lemongrass ‘chicken’, pumpkin curries and spring rolls in Vietnam, an incredible sweet potato stir fry in Cambodia and roti canai in Malaysia.
Things to look out for
Depending on how strict you are with your diet, there are a few things to watch out for when looking for veggie-friendly food. The main one is fish sauce which is present in many dipping sauces and it can be very easy to get caught out with this. We almost definitely ate this at some point. Meat broth is another one if you’re planning to try Pho in Vietnam. You can get vegetarian versions in specialty restaurants but in most places, it’s not necessarily vegetarian just because it’s served with tofu.
Vegans can also rejoice because a lot of vegetarian meals in South East Asia tend to be vegan too. Coconut milk is generally used instead of dairy and they don’t resort to making every vegetarian meal with cheese like many people do here in the UK. The only thing you’ll really have to watch out for is egg which often comes with fried noodles or rice.
Vegetarian Restaurants in South East Asia
Eating out in South East Asia is so much cheaper than home so we wanted to take advantage and enjoy the restaurants as much as possible. And we were in luck because the amount of veggie restaurants out there was unbelievable. Faux meat is seriously popular and some of the dishes we had were so realistic that it still gets me frustrated that the UK hasn’t started using these yet. Think Chinese lemon ‘chicken’ balls, faux BBQ spare ribs and chicken drumsticks that looked insanely convincing. Vietnam is the best place for faux meats and they’re also a lot better at working with tofu than we are. Believe me, it’s so much better when it’s crispy!
Here are some of my tips to help you find the best vegetarian friendly restaurants.
Tripadvisor is your best friend
I developed a new favourite hobby while travelling. Each time we decided on our next destination, I’d head over to Tripadvisor and click through to their vegetarian friendly section. Through scouring reviews of the top restaurants in each area, you can suss out how their meat-free options look. Often, it won’t be the expensive, tourist-driven places that have the best reviews. We’ve wandered for ages down strange streets, eaten in canteen-style restaurants and places that barely looked open because of outstanding reviews on Tripadvisor. Happy Cow is another that many people swear by but I’ve always found it a little harder to navigate.
Find some blogs
What would we do without the internet? Similarly to Tripadvisor, travel or food blogs are a godsend when you’re searching for a really great meal. But the good thing about these bloggers compared to other review sites is that if they’re writing about vegetarian or vegan food, the chances are they have been one for some time. This means they often have a great sense for which places stand out above the rest and I’ve found some real gems through blogs. One of my favourites was Vegan Food Quest who have a wealth of incredibly helpful reviews!
Ask the locals
Who are better to advise you than the people who know the area best? Most Buddhists have at least two meat-free days per month, with many being strict vegetarians, so many cities have dedicated Buddhist restaurants filled with amazing veggie food. The chances are that your guesthouse owners will know some great places to eat that are a little more off the beaten track.
Vegetarian Street Food in South East Asia
Street food can be a little more tricky when it comes to being a veggie – in Bali, we ate almost exclusively in restaurants and mainly nasi goreng or mie goreng (fried rice / fried noodles) when we were in the less touristy places. However, in almost every market, there will be tasty dishes to enjoy and fresh fruit in abundance. One of the places we found it hardest to eat street food was Singapore which was a shame with all the amazing hawker centres in the city! Thankfully, a Middle-Eastern takeaway came to the rescue one evening with all the falafel / hummus goodness.
Here are a couple of staples when it came to grabbing a quick dinner on the go:
Banh Mi. We had so many cheap breakfasts in Vietnam thanks to these tasty little baguettes and almost every stall will have a cheese, egg or – if you’re lucky – tofu alternative. The best I had was a tofu baguette for just 20,000 dong at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi; I could definitely scarf down a few of those right now.
Noodles. You will find noodles on the majority of street food stalls in South East Asia and if they don’t have a veggie option listed, most vendors will whip one up if you ask. In Thailand, you’ll most likely find tofu or egg-only versions of Pad Thai at almost every stall alongside the traditional chicken or pork. Pad See Ew is another of my favourites which contains wide rice noodles flavoured with soy sauce.
Fruit Smoothies. Siem Reap has some huge night markets with a range of delicious options including delicious smoothie stalls. Our dinners there mainly revolved around $1 noodles, washed down with a fruit juice and ice cream. We were a bit cautious about whether we should be having ice in drinks but nothing terrible happened for the most part!
Learn the secret
If you want to take home some knowledge with you, doing a cooking class is a great way to learn some local tips. We did a vegetarian cooking class at May Kaidee in Chiang Mai, Thailand and it was such a fun experience. You can find vegetarian and vegan friendly classes quite easily in certain areas – it may just take a bit of planning in advance!
And hey, if you really can’t find local food that fits the bill, you can appease your guilt at getting a Western takeaway with a beautiful view…