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Vegetarians find a place at the table

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a wildly syncretic melee, combining elements of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the traditions of Ming Dynasty secret societies.

Vegetarians find a place at the table

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a wildly syncretic melee, combining elements of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the traditions of Ming Dynasty secret societies.

Firecrackers rained down like hail, filling the street with sulfurous billows. Young men, dressed in white, waved towels, trying to keep the explosives away from the black-faced god seated in the ornate sedan chair that some of them held aloft. There, in the center of it all, Phuket Town fell away; the formerly opulent Portuguese-Chinese mansions and rows of boxy concrete shops faded as the hot morning sun swooned before clouds of acrid smoke.

Participants in Phuket’s annual Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods follow a strict set of moral guidelines during its course, refraining from drinking alcohol, fibbing, killing, gossiping and, among other things, eating meat. Yet if the festival is known at all outside the region, it is for this small detail: In English, it is usually called the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.

Put this way, it sounds so earnestly wholesome. And to me, a longtime vegan, it sounded ideal. On many of my previous visits to Thailand, trying to find meat-free meals had been a challenge, ending up in forced marches and rumbling stomachs.

Even with the best of intentions –and with Thai friends interceding and explaining my predilections carefully – I have found Thai cooks hard pressed to skip the fish sauce. But of late, things have been changing. So I thought the festival would be a good starting point for an exploration of a broader growth of vegetarian food within Thailand’s cuisine.

But things in Thailand always turn out to be more complex – and more fascinating – than one expects. “I thought that it would be a celebration of our lifestyle,” said Maria Brenner, a vegan from Los Angeles I had met at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, “but this is something else.”

As she spoke, possessed spirit mediums clad in iridescent satin aprons wound through the smoke-shrouded streets. Each had pierced his or her cheeks as a sign of – and aid to – deep trances. Many make it a competition, walking through the streets of Phuket Town with saw blades, television antennas and model ships poking through suppurating slits as they visit streetside altars laid out by townsfolk and bless onlookers.

The festival is a wildly syncretic melee, combining elements of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the traditions of Ming Dynasty secret societies. During the nine-day festival, which honors the North Star at the start of the ninth lunar month, usually in October, household gods are brought to the city’s elaborate Chinese temples.

The event attracts few foreigners. The festival takes place before Phuket’s high season, and most visitors keep to the beaches and shopping arcades outside the city. They are missing out: Phuket Town, along with the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, is home to a peculiar hybrid of Chinese commercial culture and tropical laissez-faire that dates back centuries. During the festival, which began in 1825, the Straits Chinese culture – richly wild but also inclusive and eagerly welcoming – is on display at its most exuberant.

“The North Star is special for Overseas Chinese,” said Karidee Chotithamaporn, a psychologist and amateur historian who chronicles the festival’s history. “It is the leading star – it never moves – and shows the way back home.”

I met with Ms. Chotithamaporn at the Bang Neaw shrine. We looked across the courtyard under the shrine’s opulent dragon-wreathed roof at a bustling evening scene of thousands of people dressed in white and carrying bundles of incense beneath multicolored banners.

A troupe of boys provided an unrelenting storm of drums and cymbals punctuated by the occasional thunder of fireworks. Billows of smoke ascended into the warm night air, past a long bamboo pole that held aloft a set of nine oil lamps that floated above the crowd like the stars themselves.

In Thailand, food made without animal ingredients is called jeh, a term generally used interchangeably with the Western idea of vegetarian food, particularly at restaurants frequented by foreigners. But it also has a deeper dimension of religious purity: at the festival, only food made at the ornate, bustling shrines is sanctified and thus technically jeh.

Devout participants come each evening to collect their jeh meals in steel tiffin carriers. The food, prepared by cheerful volunteers in cauldrons as big as bathtubs, is free. If it has a certain overcooked institutional quality, it is from an institution that knows its way around herbs and spices: flavors are assertive and complex.

But the real action was in the streets. In front of each temple was a buzzing sidewalk market of food stalls, each flying little yellow flags – the color of the Chinese Emperors – signifying participation in the festival. It was a sort of alternative Thailand; a vegetarian paradise where I could just plop down and eat whatever mysterious morsel was dropped in front of me.

The biggest was a stretch of several blocks of Thanon Ranong in front of the Pud Jor Shrine, near the heart of old Phuket Town. Thousands of yellow flags fluttered in the hot afternoon air. Mopeds and laughing children dodged huge woks of boiling oil as strolling festivalgoers, all wearing white, snacked on roasted plantains, fried bananas, curry fritters, spring rolls, noodle rolls, hunks of jackfruit and durian, mangoes and rose apples, and sticky rice wrapped in pandanus leaves. I stopped for a classic: flawlessly ripe mango, soft and succulent and resting on a divan of toothsome sticky rice, all bathed in silky, suavely salty coconut sauce.

I walked slowly past grilled corn, boiled peanuts, steamed buns, fruit-flavored mochi rolled in coconut, dark cubes of grass jelly, and roasted purple-skinned sweet potatoes. At a gleaming stainless steel stall festooned with fresh morning-glory leaves, I had a bowl of wheat noodles in a rich brown broth topped with wood ears and white fungus, crisp tofu chunks and fried wonton wrappers. I moved on past fresh juices, soy chicarrones, heaps of noodles, steaming pots of curry and the ingredients that would go with each: long beans, greens, bitter melon, water mimosa and small green eggplants.

With Ms. Brenner and her fiance, Matt Flanzer, I ducked into the shade of an awning shared by a number of stalls for a sliced cutlet of faux chicken (crispy skin, succulent flesh – so convincing it’s impossible to guess what it might have been made of) served on rice with a hot, sweet barbecue sauce redolent of peanuts and coconut.

In a droll play on globalization, the stall was called “JFC”. Two dishes of “chicken” and rice, some noodles and a couple of Cokes cost the equivalent of about US$4. As we ate, a medium in a yellow apron, his head shaking from side to side in trance and his bare arms covered in tattoos, came through the dining area sweeping a black flag above our heads. We raised our hands to our foreheads, and he blessed us all.

The combined influence of newly strict interpretations of Buddhist principles, Western notions of vegetarianism and prominent Thai vegetarians like Chamlong Srimuang (he led last year’s anti-government protests and started Suan Pai, a chain of indifferent vegetarian restaurants) has resulted in a growing contingent of restaurants serving vegetarian Thai food – a welcome addition to one of the greatest eating countries on Earth. It fits in well with Thailand’s culinary sophistication, a tradition that prizes freshness and bold, but balanced, flavors.

After the festival, I headed to the northern city of Chiang Mai to taste how the country’s vegetarian currents come together most completely. I visited Khun Churn, a pioneer vegetarian restaurant that has just moved to a new location in an outdoor garden on a quiet street. Students from the nearby university, visitors and stylish but casual locals gather for painstakingly crafted vegetarian versions of classic Thai dishes.

I tried mieang ta krai bai cha pla, bundles of fresh herbs (including lemon grass, mint and cilantro) mixed with roasted sesame, peanuts, coconut and chili paste set atop a pretty flower of dark green betel leaves. I wrapped one into a zingy little bundle and popped it into my mouth, marveling at the peppery bite that demonstrated the incomparable qualities of Thai food in Thailand: rare ingredients, sublimely fresh and prepared by masters.

Larb Esarn, a northern dish in which the ground pork was replaced by steamed chopped tofu with dried chilies, ground roasted rice, shallots, mint, green onions and coriander root, was just one of 14 spicy salads on the menu. It was vibrant and peppery; salty spice carried a high note of lime juice in an explosive bouquet.

I can’t help judging a Thai restaurant by its green curry, and Khun Churn’s gaeng keaw wan yod ma prow was alive with delightfully succulent white coconut sprouts, chewy soy protein, crisp baby corn, soft green eggplant and tiny eggplants the size of blueberries that popped in my mouth with a soft crunch. I thought the curry was a little light on coconut milk, but it made my nose run in short order, just the way I like.

Nakaret Montienmanee, one of Khun Churn’s owners, told me that his parents had originally run a nonvegetarian restaurant, but they had been so impressed by a local monk’s teaching of ahimsa – nonviolence – that they had been moved to start Khun Churn. “Fifteen years ago, there was only small jeh,” he told me. “This is more complex.”

Pun Pun Restaurant, not far away on the grounds of the Buddhist University at Wat Suan Dok, is a quiet oasis under a spreading banyan tree. The obligatory and charmingly personable saffron-robed monks wander the grounds amidst plenty of foreigners, both visitors and students at the university. I visited on a hot day, when the shade of the tree and an ice cold glass of lemon grass juice, with simple syrup on the side, made for the ideal refuge.

As befits a restaurant associated with an organic farming and seed-saving project, the menu at Pun Pun was the least traditional, but most playful and delicate, at the restaurants I visited. Salad dok mai was a mound of vibrant fried flowers: fuchsia bougainvilleas, little green buds and pink blossoms like crepe paper that carried a note of bitterness under a lush garlicky dressing. Khao Soi, a classic northern dish of egg noodles in yellow curry sauce, was spicy and rich. The crispy-soft noodles fell like elegant ribbons from the tips of my chopsticks.

Pun Pun’s pad pak good was a stir fry of fiddleheads, which I had never before encountered in Thailand. The unfurling fern leaves were crunchy and just slightly succulent, offset by delicate cubes of tofu and shiitake buttons. This artistry emboldened me to try the restaurant’s gaang massaman. It was creamy and rich, just as it should be; tawny with cashews and angular cubes of potato jostling on my spoon with silky oyster mushrooms.

I strolled back out into the sun, past the temple’s peaked, glittering roof and the golden and white chedis gleaming under the blue sky with my next stop already in mind: I had to figure out how to make some of these things.

Chiang Mai has dozens of cooking classes, including a few all-vegetarian ones. I took a mixed class from Gap’s, a highly regarded school run by a guesthouse that also runs a vegetarian restaurant. In a big, leafy garden, my fellow students – a pair of French sisters, an Israeli couple – and I learned that, aside from uncompromising freshness, the secret to Thai cooking is having someone else do the prep work.

A team of cheerful assistants handed us freshly chopped ingredients at just the right moments to follow along with our instructor, who went by the nickname Joe, as we stood before individual outdoor woks.

Green curry paste? Tom yam jeh? Steamed pumpkin? No problem at all when the ingredients – farm fresh shallots, galangal, lime rind, coriander root and so on – are ready to drop in the pot. Still, Joe worked us relentlessly, moving the group through seven or eight complete recipes in a few hours. We even left with a to-go bag full of pad thai and spring rolls we had made. I ate them later that night, on my way out of the country: easily the best food I had ever had in an airport, and the perfect — and perfectly ephemeral — souvenir.

SPLENDOR IN THE LEMON GRASS

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (www.phuketvegetarian.com) is in the fall. All events are free; streetside food is inconsequentially cheap. There is also a more intimate vegetarian festival at the same time in Bangkok.

FOOD

Khun Churn (120/2 Nimmahaemin Road, Soi 17; 66-53-224-124; Chiang Mai; www.khunchurn.th.gs; there is one in Bangkok as well) offers well-executed vegetarian versions of Thai classics. The lunch buffet is 80 baht, about US$2.25 at 36.19 baht to the dollar, and a big dinner is 200 baht.

The Pun Pun Restaurant (at Wat Suan Dok on Suthep Road, Chiang Mai; 66-81-470-1461; www.punpunthailand.org) features local organic produce on its extensive and inventive menu. A big lunch runs around 175 baht.

COOKING SCHOOLS

At Gap’s (3 Rachadumnern Road, Soi 4, Chiang Mai; 66-53-278-140; www.thai-culinary-art.infothai.com), all-day classes are 900 baht.

Mai Kaidee’s (202 Ratchaphakinai Road, Chiang Mai; 66-86-398-4808; www.maykaidee.com) is part of a growing vegetarian empire of restaurants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and a new all-vegetarian cooking school. Classes are 1,200 baht.

READING

The “Vegan Passport” by George Rodger (Vegan Society, 2005, US$7) has an explanation of veganism for waiters in nearly 60 languages.

The new Moon Handbook to Thailand (Avalon Travel, 2008, US$21.85), offers up-to-date listings and coverage of Thailand’s culinary variety.

“Exploring Phuket & Phi Phi” by Oliver Hargreave (Odyssey, 2008, US$24.95), covers the festival in depth.

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved by New York Times Syndication Sales Corp. This material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.

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