Eating at a restaurant you’re unfamilliar with can be an overwhelming and frustrating experience if you’re vegan (or allergic to gluten!). Over time, I’ve learned to ask the “right” questions about ingredients by learning what goes into the dishes. This means looking up non-vegan recipes and reading labels of pre-made curry pastes etc. because while ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power and I’d much rather be in charge of what’s going into my body.
Below are some tips/a basic guide to get you through eating Thai food.
1. Don’t assume people know what “vegan” is; chances are, you will have to explain it. Try not to patronise the wait staff – in most cases, they will do their best to help you out – but it pays to help yourself out too, because they can’t know everything, especially when put on the spot. Know your product; And if you don’t, refer to this guide!
2. If you need to eat gluten free, I’d recommend avoiding Thai restaurants altogether. You’ll have to ask if any of the dishes don’t contain soy sauce/kecap manis or can be made without these ingredients. If they’re a fairly modern restaurant, you may be in luck with tamari being on hand in the kitchen (though don’t count on it, as I’ve never been to a Thai restaurant that has it). Oyster sauce isn’t vegan and sometimes isn’t gluten free either, so that’s another ingredient worth asking about.
3. If you’re ordering from the curry or soup menu, ask if the menu item contains shrimp paste. This is a common ingredient in Thai curry pastes and tom yum soup paste. Even if the restaurant makes these pastes from scratch, they could still use shrimp paste. You should also check that the soups don’t contain any non-vegetable stock.
4. When eyeballing the salad menu, ask if the dressing contains fish sauce and if it does, could the dressing be made without it? Fish sauce is in a lot of Thai and Vietnamese dressings.
5. When it comes to stir fry, chances are there will be some oyster sauce in there. This applies to both Thai and Chinese food. If you’re cooking at home, you can substitute with mushroom oyster sauce but again, I haven’t been to a Thai restaurant that keeps this in the kitchen. I’ve ordered plenty of stir fries without the oyster sauce though, and they’re still damn fine!
6. Noodles dishes in Thai restaurants are generally made with rice noodles, though it’s always worth checking if it’s not specified on the menu (you don’t want to be served egg noodles!). Egg is something you will always find in “pad Thai” and sometimes other dishes. Oyster sauce is another ingredient you’ll have to ask about in noodle dishes.
7. You will just about always be safe to order a veg/tofu satay.