Thai is one of my absolute favorite cuisines. It's colorful, flavorful, and spicy, and there is an endless list of unique dishes to try. It also happens to be one of the most vegan-friendly cuisines, even if the restaurant doesn't specifically have vegan dishes. Read on to learn how to order vegan Thai food at any restaurant.
This restaurant guide is part of series on how to eat vegan in different cuisines. Find more of these guides and vegan restaurant reviews here!
Why is Thai food vegan friendly?
Thailand is traditionally a Buddhist country and many Buddhists are vegetarian or vegan, making Thai food generally plant based. This has changed over time and meat and seafood are now common ingredients in Thai food, but it's still vegan-friendly cuisine. The word used to refer to Buddhist vegan food in Thailand is jay or jey.
Many Thai restaurants stay true to their vegetarian roots, and as a result, there are many restaurants where you can get vegan Thai food, and others that are 100% vegan. There's tons of vegan restaurants in big cities in Thailand like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but also in the US and other cities around the world. Check and see if there are any vegan Thai restaurants, or restaurants that advertise themselves as vegan friendly, near where you live.
Vegan Thai restaurants in the US
Here are some examples of vegan Thai restaurants around the United States. This list is not complete, so check your local restaurants!
Urban Vegan (Chicago)
Araya's Place (Seattle)
May Kaidee (NYC)
Vegan restaurants in Thailand
These are some vegan restaurants in Thailand that serve Thai food. There are other 100% vegan restaurants in Thailand that serve other cuisines, such as Veganerie and Broccoli Revolution (read my review of Broccoli Revolution here).
May Veggie Home (Bangkok)
May Kaidee (Bangkok, Chiang Mai)
Ama Vegan Kitchen (Chiang Mai)
Chuan Siang (Chiang Mai)
Common non-vegan ingredients in Thai dishes
Rather than asking, "is it vegan?", which the restaurant may define differently than you do (fish is a vegetable, right?), keep an eye out for these ingredients. Non-vegan ingredients also may show up in curry pastes, stir fry sauces, and ingredients within the dish, so asking specific questions will usually yield better answers.
Since fish and shellfish are common allergies, the restaurant should be aware of which dishes contain ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste. I'm not saying that you should say you're allergic to something if you're not, but a request to leave out a common allergen should be taken seriously.
Oh, fish sauce. It makes its way into nearly every Thai dish, so this will be your main culprit. Fish sauce is a dark, reddish sauce added to dishes for a salty, umami flavor. Make sure it doesn't make its way into your dish by requesting no fish sauce for any dish you order. When in doubt, check the color of your dish. If it has a darker, rich color, it's likely that fish sauce was used. But of course, soy sauce also has this color, so simply ask to confirm.
This doesn't come up as often as fish sauce, but if you're ordering a soup, curry, or saucy stir fry, confirm that your dish does not contain chicken broth.
Curry paste is the main ingredient in Thai curry, and it's also used as a flavor in noodles and stir fries. Problem is, lots of curry pastes contain shrimp and fish, and you can't exactly ask for the seafood to be removed from a pre-made paste. Ask about the restaurant's curry paste to see if curry-based dishes are an option for vegans. Sometimes restaurants use canned curry paste, but many make it homemade, which is more likely to contain seafood.
Sometimes wheat noodles contain egg. You can ask about the noodles before ordering a dish, and if they're not vegan or it's unclear, opt for rice noodles. If you do order wheat noodles and they're yellowish in color, they probably contain egg.
Vegan-Friendly Thai Dishes
There are a few common Thai dishes that are normally "safe" to order. Here's how to order vegan-friendly versions. The majority of the time, it's all about asking for no fish sauce and no egg.
Most likely to be vegan or can be made vegan easily
These dishes are usually easy to make vegan at any Thai restaurant. If you're at a restaurant that doesn't seem particularly vegan friendly, these are good bets.
Pad Thai is a good introduction to Thai food if you're not familiar, and it can usually be made vegan very easily. The sauce is usually made with tamarind (a sweet and sour fruit paste), fish sauce, sugar, rice vinegar, and spices and stir fried with rice noodles, green onions, bean sprouts, peanuts, and eggs. Make it vegan by ordering it with tofu and requesting no fish sauce and no egg.
Tofu Dishes and Stir Fries
Stir fries are so easy to make vegan because they're usually made to order so it's easy to leave out an ingredient like fish sauce. Speaking of fish sauce, ask the restaurant to leave it out of your dish, and your dish should be automatically vegan if you order it with tofu or just veggies and rice. If you order a noodle dish, make sure the noodles are egg free. When in doubt, order rice noodles.
While fried rice isn't the most exciting dish, it's often an easy vegan option. Order your rice with no fish sauce and no egg.
Not as likely to be vegan, but worth asking
Maybe you're at a restaurant that marks items as vegetarian, or your waiter is knowledgable about veganism and can give you more info about ingredients. If you'd like to order vegan Thai food beyond stir fries and noodles, here are some recommendations.
This dish is not super common, but check and see if it's on the menu at your local Thai restaurant! Papaya salad is made with shredded unripe papaya mixed with other veggies and coated in a sweet and salty sauce with lime. It's often made with fish sauce and shrimp paste, so ask for these ingredients to be left out.
Thai curry is made with coconut milk, curry paste, and vegetables. It's rich, comforting, and delicious. The colors of the curry dish indicate what type of curry paste is used, and also the spice level of the dish. Yellow curry is on the mild side, whereas green curry and red curry are spicier. There is also Panang curry, which is on the milder side and contains ground peanuts. I've found that yellow curry is vegan friendly more often than other types of curry, but it totally depends on what type of curry paste the restaurant is using.
Sometimes curry paste has shrimp paste and fish sauce in it, so make sure to confirm that the curry paste is vegan and that there is no chicken broth or fish sauce in your dish. You could also order the dish without the curry paste added, but that will dramatically change the flavor of the dish.
There is a vegan Thai restaurant near me called Urban Vegan, and they have a soy chicken satay that is absolutely delicious. I could eat multiple orders of this appetizer as my entree and be totally satisfied. Satay is common appetizer at Thai restaurants, usually made with chicken, but the tofu version is sometimes vegan. Satay is made with a protein marinated in and coated in a peanutty curry sauce, grilled on little skewers, and served with coconut milk-infused peanut sauce and a sweet and tangy cucumber salad.
To find out if the tofu satay is vegan, ask what's in the satay sauce and if the peanut sauce contains any fish sauce or non-vegan curry paste.
Other tips for Thai restaurants
Tofu isn't automatically vegan
While tofu might be a weird vegan food in the US, it's a common ingredient in Asian cooking and it is often cooked with meat. This usually isn't an issue when you order tofu stir fries (the concern is more with the stir fry sauce), but something to keep in mind.
Dumplings and spring rolls might have egg in the wrapper
Ever made your own dumplings or spring rolls and found that nearly every wrapper contains eggs? That is often the case for the appetizer menu at Thai restaurants, so be sure to ask before ordering veggie spring rolls. As an alternative, you can order fresh rolls (sometimes also called spring rolls), which are filled with veggies, mushrooms, and Thai basil, and served cold in a rice paper wrapper. This is more of a Vietnamese appetizer, but it's often on the menu at Thai restaurants.