If you’re a new vegetarian or vegan, one thing you may not realize about dining at your favorite Asian restaurants is that many dishes contain fish, oyster, shrimp sauce or other animal products that may not traditionally be considered as meat by the chef. I’m sure some of this confusion partly stems from the fact that there are different degrees of being a vegetarian: the vegan (no animal products at all), lacto-ovo vegetarian, who eats dairy and egg (like I do), or the pescatarian, who doesn’t eat meat but does eat fish.
As a lifelong lacto-ovo vegetarian, I have always struggled with going to Asian restaurants because of the ingredients used and the overall menu selection. Plus, I never cared much for the mix of sweet and sour or soy flavors. However, Thai restaurants have always been the exception. Many of the spices in Thai food are similar to some of those in Indian dishes, so I particularly loved the coconut curries. Unfortunately, I eventually discovered that many of these coconut curries contain fish or shrimp sauce.
I would start to call up Thai restaurants to find ones that wouldn’t use animal product in their curry, and some places would say they could accommodate vegetarian requests, while others would say there is just no way to make the dish without the seafood seasonings, despite what waitstaff had told me on previous visits to those same restaurants.
That’s why I now make my favorite curry dishes at home, using Thai Kitchen curry paste that is totally vegan (according to the label).
I first made vegetarian green curry when I lived in Guam, a place where there are several good Thai restaurants, but where I was disappointed after each outing when I learned they used fish sauce. I started to realize that the understanding of vegetarianism or veganism seems to be different and unclear across cultures, so it seemed best to take matters into my own hands to eat good Thai food. This has also allowed me to control the ingredients overall, so I can decide if I want to fry or bake my tofu, or I can choose to use light coconut milk instead of the rich, creamy version used in restaurants, if I’m trying to reduce some fat content.
Using several colorful veggies of choice, extra firm tofu, and the Thai Kitchen red or green curry paste, I’ve been able to save myself the headache of wondering about the contents of my curry.
….That is, until last night when I had a minor panic attack cooking for a carrom game night with friends…
I looked at the label on the jar and grew anxious when I saw that it merely listed “spices” without identifying what those spices were, even though the back label said ‘Vegan.’ Since I know by now there seems to be some confusion about what constitutes vegan when it comes to Asian foods, I did a quick check on the Internet across multiple sources and have come to conclude that “spices” in this brand of paste simply refers to coriander, cumin, onion, and pepper, so I was able to serve this to friends calling it vegan in good conscience.
Tips to Taste
I personally prefer green curry, since it is more savory and spicy. However, my grocery store did not have enough jars of the green curry last night, so I ended up picking up some red paste and making a bit of both green and red, which is a bit sweeter. Eventually, I’ll come up with my own paste recipe from scratch so I don’t need to rely on the availability of paste at the stores.
Notes: I usually end up having to use a lot of coconut milk because I like to add a lot of “stuff” to my curry, such as tofu and several kinds of vegetables. Based on the amount of vegetables you choose to put in, you can adjust the amount of paste and coconut milk used. If you don’t like these veggies, other veggies you could use are sugar snap peas, baby corn, green beans or potato. Just have fun with it!
With that, here’s my vegan Thai curry recipe, made possible with Thai Kitchen (red or green) curry paste.
Vegan Thai Curry
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 1 inch of ginger, grated
- 1/2 shallot
- 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 carrot, sliced into thin rounds
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 small eggplant, chopped into cubes
- 1/4 can of bamboo shoots
- 1/4 can of water chesnuts
- 3/4 packet of extra firm tofu, cut into cubes
- 2 tbsp coconut oil
- 3 cans coconut milk
- 3 jars of Thai Kitchen red or green curry paste
- Chili flakes or chopped green chili for added heat (optional)
- Sprig of cilantro or basil leaves for garnish
- If you are going to be baking your tofu, preheat oven to 400°F.
- In a large skillet, sauté garlic, shallots, and ginger in 1 tbsp coconut oil until the garlic just begins to brown slightly and the mixture turns fragrant (raw smell dissipates).
- Add chopped bell pepper and carrots. Continue to sauté the mix for five minutes or until just cooked. Then turn heat off temporarily.
- Either : a) start to fry the tofu in coconut oil in pan OR b) bake tofu cubes on a baking sheet in an oven at 400° F. Then, flip the pieces over occasionally so they are evenly golden on all sides.
- When the tofu pieces are cooked, remove them from the pan or baking sheet and place on a paper towel to remove any excess oil.
- Return to the skillet and turn heat back to medium. Add coconut milk and simmer the mix for about 8 minutes. Then, spoon in curry paste and stir to mix it in evenly. Add red chili flakes or chopped green chili if desired for added heat.
- Add tofu to the mix in the skillet and simmer another 5 minutes.
- Ladle curry into serving bowl, garnish with chopped cilantro or basil leaves and serve warm along with cooked jasmine or brown rice.