Asia/ Food

How to Find Amazing Vegetarian Food in South East Asia

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.

vegetarian food vietnam

Lemongrass Tofu Stir Fry in Hue, Vietnam

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!

vegetarian food in south east asia - faux chicken satay malaysia

‘Chicken’ Satay in Penang, Malaysia

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.

Selvam Restaurant Melaka

Banana Leaf Curry in Melaka, Malaysia

Food in Cambodia

Sweet Potato Stir Fry in Siem Reap, Cambodia

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.

Pad Thai May Kaidee

Vegan Pad Thai in Chiang Mai

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…

Langkawi beach picnic

Laura x

how-to-find-amazing-vegetarian-food-south-east-asia

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Lottie Gibbons
    October 15, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Give me a rice dish any day of the week!
    http://www.lottiegibbons.com

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:41 pm

      You can’t go wrong! x

  • Reply
    Katie Louise Halsall
    October 15, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    Oh those dishes all look super tasty. I’d definitely love to try a cooking class in various different countries! Would be amazing.

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:42 pm

      Our one in Thailand was so great, I wish we’d done it in other places! Have you ever done one before?

  • Reply
    Bejal
    October 21, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Being a veggie, I loved this post. South East Asia is also one of my favourite places for veggie food! There is so much choice! Fab post and the pics are rally making me salivate!!

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Aww thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and the food too 😉

  • Reply
    Michelle Joy (@harborsnhavens)
    October 21, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Thanks for the tips! I’m super picky about meat so I often eat vegetarian while traveling.

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      That sounds like a good plan, the same reasons I did initially 🙂

  • Reply
    Melissa Smuzynski
    October 21, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Really interested in the vegetarian “chicken”. I also would have never thought about the broth in soup or noodle dishes. Just got back from Asia earlier this week and agree it would be particularly tricky finding vegetarian street food.

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:48 pm

      It was so tasty and realistic – I wish there was more of it here in the UK!

  • Reply
    Taylor Johnson
    October 21, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    Wow the food looks so good!

    • Reply
      Laura
      October 21, 2017 at 9:49 pm

      It really is! x

  • Reply
    Karolina | But, First, Tea!
    October 21, 2017 at 11:29 pm

    Thanks for that! I’m veg so always on a hunt! nicely done:)

  • Reply
    ourtasteoftravel
    October 22, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Looks like you’ve done pretty well! Adam, one half of ourtasteoftravel.com, is veggie and the amount of times we’ve asked for a vegetarian option for it only to arrive with chicken is ridiculous! It’s funny, but we’ve found vegan easier to get hold of than just vegetarian. Off to Cambodia on Monday so will check out the sweet potato curry!

  • Reply
    Katherine
    October 22, 2017 at 6:36 am

    Glad to read this guide. It’s always a challenge to find vegetarian restaurants. I’m not a vegetarian myself but I’m trying to lessen my intake of red meat (everyone has to start somewhere right) and often appreciate eateries with vegetarian options. I think that it’s easier to find options in some countries than others. For example, in the Philippines even a lot of vegetable side dishes have bits of pork as added flavor. In Malaysia, since a portion of the population is Muslim there’s a lot of halal restaurants. 🙂

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