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Thailand's Vegetarian Festival

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  • carmen_cebs
    March 1, 2009 CHOICE TABLES In Thailand, Vegetarians Find a Place at the Table By GREGORY DICUM Participants in Phuket s annual Festival of the Nine Emperor
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2009
      March 1, 2009
      In Thailand, Vegetarians Find a Place at the Table

      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."
      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
      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 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
      antigovernment 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.

      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 —
      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.
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