Vegging out

Our trips to the markets and street stalls of Southeast Asia have introduced us to some very interesting meat products, known and unknown. Mysteriously shaped pieces of what looks like meat appear in salads and noodle dishes. In Hong Kong, most items categorized as “vegetable” on restaurant menus actually included stir-fried pork or other extras.

Despite their seemingly carnivorous nature, the Thai people are incredibly respectful of vegetarianism. In the food markets, stalls bearing a yellow flag strictly observe vegetarian practices and in the month of October, many restaurants reportedly turn vegetarian for a few weeks and fly the yellow banner to prove it. The practice builds upon the abundance of noodles and fresh vegetables in the Thai marketplace, as well as the rich Buddhist tradition.

In Chiang Mai, we had lunch at two recommended vegetarian cafes. The first, Taste of Heaven, which we visited on Friday, also ran a vegetarian cooking school. Flyers around the restaurant advertised the health benefits of vegetarianism, as well as the ethical and religious reasons one might choose such a lifestyle.

We started with fresh spring rolls and samosas. The spring rolls had good textural contrast, with fresh tofu to balance the cabbage and carrots. The curried vegetables inside the samosas tasted of the spices usually found in Indian food, but the dipping sauce of rice vinegar, carrots and onions gave the samosas a distinctly Thai flavor.

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We also sampled the Taste of Heaven salad, which was filled with crunchy vegetables, nuts, crispy pieces of tofu and other assorted goodies, topped with a tangy spicy dressing. It was delicious.

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We also tried two different curries, a yellow and a red. Each was spicy and filled with tofu and the many vegetables we had learned about in cooking school.

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On Sunday, we checked out another of Chiang Mai’s vegetarian restaurants. AUM Restaurant feels a bit more like a hippie enclave, with a secondhand bookstore attached. (For some reason, Chiang Mai has more secondhand English bookstores than any city I have ever been in.) Despite its location on one of CM’s busiest roads, AUM definitely has a peaceful vibe.You must remove your shoes in order to enter the main part of the bookshop.

We ordered the khao soi, Chiang Mai’s signature dish, which we had already come to love. Here it was still served with veggie condiments, spicy sauce and crispy noodles, but with tofu and extra veggies in lieu of the usual braised chicken. The resulting dish had just as much flavor and kick as the chicken-filled version.

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We also had a papaya salad. Like the others we have ordered throughout Thailand, this one was mind-numblingly spicy. It took us each two bottles of water and a couple bites of plain lettuce to erase the tingling sensation on our tongues. We also ordered the fresh spring rolls, which had a distinctly different flavor than the ones we ate at Taste from Heaven. In AUM’s rendition, the crunchy carrots and cabbage were complemented by sweet beets and topped by a variety of seeds. Using beets rather than tofu created more of a flavor explosion, completing making up for the lack of meat or seafood.

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I have often thought that were it not for the social inconveniences of places like restaurants that I could easily become a vegetarian. Who would have thought that it would be easier to do that in Thailand?