One of Thailand’s many distinctions is that it is probably the most un-vegetarian vegetarian countries on Earth. When I first moved here a decade back, I was quite impressed to hear nearly everyone to whom I was introduced—including my ex-wife—declare themselves good flesh-eschewing, karma-accruing souls. That was before I caught on that the peculiar local definition of respecting all life did not include the tastier forms, so long as they were relatively diminutive and not too vivid to imagine. I assumed this was a typically Thai accommodation to the temptations of the modern world, another way to keep things loose and playful. (Apparently, the Thai farms for canned crocodile meat are quite kosher, too.) However, Theravada Buddhism apparently puts forth the gospel that the Buddha himself, while championing compassion, made a specific point of exempting pork, chicken, and fish. Maybe his doctor had warned him to cut down on cholesterol.
While many Thais still stick to the small-is-beautiful diet, the number of steakhouses, burger joints, and lamb racks gracing Bangkok has certainly risen precipitously in recent years. At the same time, there has been far less of a comparable increase in Western-style vegan, raw, or other proudly meatless forms of marketing. And, perhaps because of the above ideology, the plethora of “spiritually pure” dining halls attached to temples in China or Japan—places where I first cut my teeth on mock duck, mock shrimp, and a whole mock storehouse done up so convincingly as to escape all mockery—simply aren’t in business here. This means that the nightly restaurant quest is a bit challenging for the green crowd, in a land where rice, tofu, and vegetables ought to be as accessible as apple pie.
My own first foray into the realm of high-consciousness high fibre did not go so well. The first stop was Asoke’s May Veggie Home, an institution since hippie days with a menu, décor, and clientele that also seemed lost in a time warp. Looking through the windows at a smattering of forlorn and greying ex-backpackers pick through their gloppy orders, I wasn’t tempted to stay for the “killer” som tam or the veg-only chicken pepper steak. No doubt it deserves a second try. Further up Sukhumvit, I was cheered to see scrupulous Japanese housewives picking through a full-service grocery stocked with organic produce (easy to identify as less expansive and regular as its chemically-juiced counterparts) from Sustaina Grocery’s own up-country farm. The upstairs restaurant looked as well-scrubbed as the salad greens, but somehow, seeing the unimaginative combinations of set rice-veg platters on every table stimulated in me a desire to head out the door for something earthier.
Surely, amidst all the grand traditions of Asian cuisine, there had to be more choice than this. I thought I’d found it when I stumbled up Soi 33 to Demi. Surely here I would be transported back to the best of mock reality; in fact, the Sichuan eggplant was served like oatmeal in a bowl and was nearly as bland and twice as soupy. At least, the strips of smoked bean curd in black bean satisfied my Chinese craving.
What of Govinda—did they really have a pizza menu? Or Korean and even Sri Lanka outposts of health? Alas, to save time, I decided to head for Pan Road, that remarkably multi-cultural single block that serves to connect, as well reflect the influence of, the city’s oldest and most venerated Indian temple (more familiarly “Wat Kaek”) at one end and even more arcane Myanmar Embassy at the other.
Along this strip, there are a number of predictably “pure veg, pure ghee” South Indian thali meals (at Chennai Kitchen, for instance) accompanied by proper pancakes. So, too, the closer one gets to the Temple, the less carnivorous the various humble shop fronts get. Foremost among these, and close-by Sri M’s gates, the A-Ma Veg Kitchen offers a Thai-Chinese hot table buffet with a fine green curry—chocked with mushrooms and radishes, I didn’t miss the typical gristly pork bits one bit—red rice, even fake fish cakes, served up by one of the friendliest old gents I’ve encountered in the entire city. Could it be his lifestyle had really bred such a lack of aggression, or was it perhaps the other way round?
Mashoor’s on Pan Road is also the best place in town to graze for the peculiar and decidedly meatless specialty of Burma, its fermented tea leaf salad, as strangely satisfying a melange of natural tartness as I’ve ever found. But the enclave’s leading shrine to a fleshless lifestyle is found farthest away from the Wat Kek, and comes to us not from Tamils or Vietnamese or even the wayward Iranians found in these parts, but a wandering—no, jogging—Japanese. Bonita Café and Social Club, named not just for prettiness but in memory of the proprietor’s LA running club, is like stepping into the enlarged living room of Atsuyuki “K” Katsuyama and his Thai wife Neung. The assorted bric-a-brac and memorabilia, even a video playing on a loop, all reflect the couple’s recent personal and athletic milestone: a run across the entire US, completed in 79 days. The home cooking here is done in no hurry, either, making a lunch more a marathon than a sprint. But why complain when every table starts out with a bowl of free, and fresh, popcorn? While the couple looks wiry thin from their endless miles on the road, they will happily fatten anyone up with an excellent tofu burger, topped with cashew cream, and a gritty yet satisfying vegetable curry, done Osaka-style after K’s hometown. The protein shakes, laced with chia seeds, are outstanding as well. The whole pleasant place seems a kind of celebration one can taste, not just of the proprietor’s freedom from meat but the yoke of 20 years as a salesmen for Panasonic.
From one of the city’s most established champions of healthy eating I went to the newest—the barely opened yet already fashionable Broccoli Revolution (see this issue’s review). Still not quite filled by their informal breakfast menu’s “Berry Smoothie in a Bowl,” and not sure I’d yet done enough good to my innards, I proceeded with some trepidation to Anotai—along with the Old City’s Thamna, the restaurant most frequently recommended by aspiring herbivores. Unfortunately, the former is located along a hidden block of shop houses just beside the Praram 9 Hospital. Somehow, this made for a rather medicinal atmosphere and little in the way of greenery to look at while chomping on one’s greens (the back ends of air-conditioning units were about all to be had). Still, Anotai is woodsy, cosy, and homey, clearly a devotee’s lair, cloaked in that peculiar hush meant for politically-correct chowing down—the meditative seriousness broken only by pre-recorded Bach and hesitant pluckings of the Japanese koto.
Anotai’s menu seems a lot like a doctor’s chart, too—carefully annotated with symbols to indicate Vegan, Garlic, Peanuts, Eggs, and so on. Oddly enough, the two main sections of duelling starches feature Thai fried rice variants and Italian pastas. The carbonara with mushrooms was quite fine, and the stir-fried long beans in chillies made for an orgy of the vegetal in itself. I didn’t quite get the twice-battered blandness of tempeh tempura—though I vowed to come back for the home-grown chayote shoots, coconut shoots, and other rare greens (so as not to shoot the elephants). And the bakery was a beautiful reminder that carrot cakes, brownies, and scones are just as acceptable for true believers as the less digestible stuff.
For now, I had to conclude that the quickest route to true gourmet vegetarianism was most likely heading for some of Bangkok’s more inventive, four-star Thai and Western establishments—and then just ordering wisely (watching out, of course, for the lingering animal presence often left in sauces and broths). Still, with green juices and detox centres like Rasayana Retreat catering to new and more health-conscious generations, it seems that a true eating revolution is just on the verge of breaking out.