Vegetarian Thai food: preliminary thoughts + spicy carrot salad sans pestle and mortar (carrot som tam; ส้มตำแครอท)

January13 147_s

I shall begin this by saying that I am certainly not the first Thai person ever to be thinking of vegetarian Thai food in a manner that is a little different to the established Chinese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. For example, Leela has cooked a range of vegan and vegetarian Thai dishes in her ‘My Thai’ series on SeriousEats.  There’s also Pun Pun, a 5-year old vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, that offers a range of Thai, Indian, and general European dishes. The name ‘Pun Pun’ refers to ‘พัน’ as in ‘one thousand’ and ‘พันธุ์’ as in ‘species [of plants]’, and the menu showcases all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables rather than having a focus on filling the absence of meat. The presenters in the video clip note that everything is very well seasoned and that all the fruit and vegetables are organic, while the dishes themselves contain no MSG. Pun Pun is said to be the best vegetarian Thai restaurant in Chiang Mai, possibly the whole of Thailand. I’d love to go there when I get the chance, that flower salad looks spectacular!

Very generally speaking, Thai people eat vegetarian food–either as a permanent diet or for limited periods of time–for the usual types of reasons: their health (either vague or specific), or due to personal/ethical/religious issues, most likely a combination. There is certainly a much deeper sociocultural context to both the principles of Thai cooking and vegetarianism in Thailand, and I hope to do it justice in the near future.

As Thai cuisine focuses greatly on the huge range of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices, and herbs available in the country, it’s seemingly easy to be entirely meat-free. Indeed, a lot of the time you can just swap out the meat or seafood that form the bulk of the dish for the appropriate type of tofu or carefully chosen vegetables or fruit. However, Thai cuisine is also traditionally seasoned with sauces and pastes derived from fish and seafood. For example, vegetable-based stir-fries and salads may be seasoned with fish sauce, and Thai curries generally include shrimp paste in the curry paste. It’s not always so easy to decide how to make up for those flavouring agents – will soy sauces be too muddy? Is sea salt too one-dimensional? Does miso have a place in Thai curry paste? Furthermore, some curries and soups acquire their rich flavour from long-simmered animal bones, so you have to decide how best to build depth and body in a different way.

While the very fact of eschewing fish and seafood distances vegetarian Thai food from tradition, it is certainly possible to have a variety of well seasoned and satisfying vegetarian dishes that retain general Thai flavours and textures. Although adapting or creating Thai vegetarian recipes is by and large not massively difficult, it still has to be done with care and knowledge. You can’t always bung in ersatz meat, tofu, peanuts and soy sauce and call it a day.

I myself am interested in vegetarian Thai cooking because–well, why not? I like vegetables. It is a task to focus on and enjoy completing. I don’t always feel like eating meat. Sometimes I run out of fish sauce. It varies my diet (and that of Mr. Pear’s). It adds further dimension to my general self-education in Thai cuisine. I want to see how I can use British seasonal ingredients with Thai flavours. Also, someone reading my blog may find this useful.

Obviously I have a lot of research to do. For now, though, have a simple recipe. What I’m going to give you is a version of a pounded salad usually made with green papaya. It might seem unusual to pound instead of toss a salad, but the hot, spicy, sour, salty flavours meld together particularly well when made in this way. There are innumerable variations of som tam, especially when you consider the fact that it is a dish made in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia; this one is made with carrots, which my parents have been eating for years. The actual recipe pretty much comes from Leela, though.  It’s simple and very satisfying in terms of both taste and stress-busting: either you do it in the proper terracotta mortar, or you can make it with Leela’s no-mortar method using a plastic bag and a rolling-pin. (You can make it with a granite pestle and mortar but you’ll have to be careful lest you reduce everything to a paste, which isn’t quite the aim.)

Serves 1 – 2, alone or with rice + other dishes. Best eaten straightaway as it does not keep.
Adapted from SheSimmers

About 175g coarsely grated carrot, taken from 1 – 2 big carrots. Use a large-holed grater or a julienne peeler.
2 – 3 tablespoons unsalted roast peanuts
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 to 3 whole Thai bird’s eye chillies, depending on your heat tolerance
1 – 3 teaspoons palm sugar + more to taste (white or brown sugar is also fine)1/2 teaspoon salt + more to taste
Fresh lime juice to taste. I generally use about half a lime but see how you go.

Put the grated carrot into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.

Place the peanuts inside a plastic freezer/sandwich bag. Roughly break them up by whacking them with a rolling-pin (or heavy pin, or rounders bat). Empty into the carrot bowl.

Do the same to the garlic clove and bird’s eye chillies, but keep on crushing them until the garlic is a fine paste and the chillies are split and squashed into bits. Add to the carrots.

If your sugar is lumpy, then smash it up in the bag as well. Add the de-lumped sugar to the carrots along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. With very clean hands, squeeze and toss the carrots just until they begin to yield juice and everything is mixed. Taste. Adjust seasoning with further salt, sugar, and lime juice: it should be tangy, salty, with just enough sweetness to balance. Eat right away.

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