If you haven't heard of the Vegetarian Festival heres the lowdown: It's a Chinese Taoist festival otherwise known as the Nine Emperor Gods festival that takes place during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month on the Chinese calendar. The epicentre is in Phuket where it was first brought to Thailand 170 years ago by a group of travelling opera singers but there are large celebrations that are worth checking out all over the place. During the nine day festivities followers welcome and then see off the nine emperor gods staying pure throughout by eating Jay food (this translates to vegan), wearing white and abstaining from sex, alcohol, impure thoughts and more. As I'm not coming at this from a religious or spiritual perspective the festival piqued my interest because of the amount of vegan street stalls and convenience foods that pop up. Add to that the sheer number of food courts and chain restaurants that participate as well as the ritual body modifications (former body piercer here!) some of the participants inflict upon themselves and each other in the name of respect for the gods and you have the makings of something truly fascinating. Interested yet?
During the festival you'll be able to spot the vegan food by keeping an eye out for the yellow and red Jay flags appearing all over the place. As I touched on earlier the word Jay pretty much translates to vegan in Thai. People sticking to a Jay diet also abstain from garlic, onions and potatoes because to eat them means killing the plant so if you want your food to be more flavourful it may be better to tell people what you won't eat but, that said, telling people that you eat "gin jay" is often the easier and more understood option. Jay signs and flags are pretty prominent the rest of the year on convenience foods and soy milk drinks as well as outside Jay eateries all over the country but they explode during the festival. I saw them everywhere, at the mall, in the windows of chain restaurants, poking out of piles of dried mock meat at the markets, all over the place! On the flags below the Thai Jay symbol is in the top right corner and looks a little like the number 17. The symbol in the centre at the top of the flags has the same meaning but is in Chinese.
You need to be a little careful when you're perusing street stalls and food courts as sometimes there will be lacto vegetarian stalls mixed in with the ones participating with the festival 100% but you can usually spot these as they won't have all of the flags and / or will have cans of condensed milk prominently displayed. If you want to double check just ask if the food is Jay and you'll most likely be understood.
The festival takes place all over Thailand with festivities amplifying and intensifying as you travel south, Bangkok is of course a must-visit with festivities centred around Yarowat Road in the heart of Chinatown, but, as I said before, Phuket is the epicentre. The parades there amp up notch due to the larger Thai Chinese population and I have a post on that coming up soon! In the meantime check out Rika's post on Phuket's street food from 2013.
I'm no Thai food expert and I'm not going to pretend to be but from what I understand the food sold at street stands during the festival is heavily Chinese influenced which you can tell by the predominance of bao (steamed buns) and dim sum like shao mai and lotus leaf wrapped lo mai gai. These are up there with my favourite foods ever so I spent an awful lot of time eating my way through vegetable and shiitake mushroom bao from this stand as well as little dumplings like the ones pictured below.
These were some of my favourite festival eats for sure, if you buy enough of them they make a wonderful breakfast too! Another favourite dumpling related stall was this one; you get three huge dumplings stuffed full of Chinese greens which are chopped with scissors, thrown into a bowl and tossed with chilli soy sauce.
I had to skip the chilli soy sauce but I was, of course, always prepared with my own bottle of soy sauce!
One thing that photos can't really convey is just how busy (and hot!) it is at night during the festival. People queue four deep to get to the most exciting stalls or pull up to their favourites on scooters or motorbikes, some going as far as to place their orders out of the window of their air conditioned cars. Mock meats are a festival mainstay and some of the busiest stalls had tonnes of interesting looking options on display.
I love, love, love fried noodle dishes and pad see ew has been a favourite dish of mine for a long time, most of the variations I tried on the streets of Bangkok needed perking up with a lot of white pepper but they were decent and filling and I can always trust Pad See Ew not to have any hidden chilli. Navigating a festival like this with a chilli allergy was definitely a challenge but one that I was more than happy to take on!
This soup was one of my favourite dishes of the whole festival, ladled from a huge fragrant cauldron-like pot, thick and almost gravy like, brimming with chunks of tofu and bread-like baked wheat gluten, and topped off with plenty of white pepper and coriander it was hearty, filling and flavourful. I wish I knew what it was so that I could look up recipes and try to recreate it one day!
Something I didn't expect to find in amongst the stalls selling Thai and Chinese influenced cuisine was a stall selling vegan Japanese Takoyaki. So cool! As a former fish lover who only got into Japanese food after switching to a vegan diet I'd always wanted to try these. They're usually stuffed with octopus, covered in mayo and sprinkled with dried bonito so they're decidedly un-vegan-friendly. I couldn't wait to dig into this cruelty free version.
Like with many things that you overhype these didn't quite live up to expectations, the inside was gooier than I was anticipating and the mayo was a little cloying. I wouldn't say that I disliked them but I didn't order them again. At the totally opposite end of the spectrum were these Chinese pancakes which, having never heard of them before, quickly became a firm favourite. They were stuffed with mung bean, taro or red bean, pan fried and totally delicious. I probably ate some variation of these every single day of the festival and my favourite was mung bean closely followed by taro.
Straddling the line between sweet and savoury little mung bean stuffed flaky pastries like these were another new found favourite.
Also high up my favourites list were these doughnut twists with pandan dipping sauce, we just had to keep going back for more.
One of my most visited festival stalls was this lady's wonderful cake stall, on my first visit I was with Nick, Randi and her husband Zach and we dug into one of the chocolate cakes immediately, declared it to be amazing, and went back for more. It was perfectly gooey and had a thick fudge topping that was out of this world.
Now that we're firmly in dessert territory I was super excited by the look of these decadent and fancy looking desserts by Bangkok bakery Moone but sadly the Matcha Mousse I tried was flavourless aside from the burnt tasting caramel sauce. I'd give them another whirl if I was in the area because caramel is a challenging thing to get right and there were plenty of other delicious looking desserts in the cabinet that I didn't get around to trying.
Almost all of the stalls were on the left hand side of Yarowat road but this little cake stand popped up on the other side on the second to last day - who knows where they'd been hiding up until then. Nick and I tried both the pandan and chocolate cake slices and were left wishing that we'd been able to try them all. These delicate squares of fluffy sponge were topped with a rich thick custard-like topping and were totally delicious.
Another treat that I stumbled upon one day never to be seen again were these mung bean (have you gathered that I looove anything mung bean filled yet?!) filled pastry twists. So delicious!
I feel bad picking favourites when there's so much great food around but this stall selling what I came to know as candy-floss-hair-pancakes was a real winner. Their hand pulled candy floss is a serious sugar hit, deliciously flavoured and with just a little crunch they came with a pack of pandan flavoured pancakes and wow, putting those two things together was more wonderful than I'd imagined it could be.
I was also lucky enough to sample the creamiest coconut ice cream I've ever tasted when Randi ordered a scoop. I wished I'd tried it sooner becuase it was incredible and none of the straight-up coconut ice creams I've tried since have been as good.
Yarowat Road isn't the only place to get your mitts on some delicious vegan street food whilst you're in Bangkok during the fest', explore any of the side streets and alleyways in and around Chinatown and you'll spot Jay flags highlighting vegan eats. Just off of Yarowat Road lies Itsaraphap lane, a market crowded with shoppers, some wearing white, some not, where vegan stalls have popped up in amongst their meaty counterparts. A few sell cooked food to be consumed whenever but mainly the stalls are selling unidentifiable dried and pre packaged mock meats, steamed buns and the like.
When you're all street fooded out and in need of a blast of air con Bangkok's malls are where it's at. Mainly scattered at different points all along the BTS line most have food courts hiding vegan eats all year round.
Of course Veganerie got in on the festival action and whipped up some sushi specials which were enjoyable but not my absolute favourite festival eat. Veganerie's ice cream topped cookies and waffle plates are still the bomb dot com though so make sure you pay them a visit if you're in Bangkok.
I blogged about some of my favourite mall spots earlier this year and luxury mall Siam Paragon scored pretty highly. During the festival they really amped it up a notch with a whole pop-up food court dedicated to Jay eats.
There was an almost mind blowing array of options so we just went with the two dishes that looked the most appealing in the moment. Nick chose a red pork teriyaki rice dish and I went for a five spice infused brothy soup filled with thick rice noodles, peppery pork balls, yuba knots, cubed tofu and more than one kind of wheat gluten. It was definitely one of the best things I've eaten in Bangkok and I hope to be able to find something similar somewhere one day.
Bread Talk are a bakery chain who have locations all over Bangkok including right before the Gourmet Food Court on the ground floor of Siam Paragon. I was excited to see this sign showing their commitment to vegan festival eats.
Everything in the case was clearly labelled and there were even separate trays and tongs for you to use. Looking at the case now I wish we'd tried more things but at the time we were already SO STUFFED! I had a small mung bean bun and Nick tried one of the doughnut rings.
Both were good but not outstanding, I wish everywhere could be like this all the time though, bread is definitely one of the things I end up missing the most when I'm spending time in Asia.
This next find might have been my most exciting mall find yet, as you probably know I'm a huge Japanese food fan but when I was in Japan I never found any Strawberry Daifuki. I've been fascinated with the idea for a while and Matcha Strawberry Daifuku just sounded too good to be true. I bought two, ate them immediately with a ridiculous look on my face and then went back for two more. They're definitely a candidate for best dessert ever and I will have my eyes peeled for them when I'm in Japan again this coming spring.
As you can see from this post the food in Bangkok at this time of year is off the hook and whilst it's well worth visiting just for that the atmosphere around Yarowat road was actually my favourite part of the festival. The processions are fascinating to watch, despite having pierced other people's cheeks and had my own pierced I've never seen anyone having them pierced in the middle of the street with an 8mm thick needle before! I'm going to focus more on the processions and all that they entail when I write about Phuket but for now I'll just say that it's such a special time to visit Thailand - the haze and scent of incense hang heavy in the air around Yarowat Road and the streets feel wonderfully alive, buzzing with the sound of thousands of people enjoying vegan food - it’s such a cool things to be a part of. I feel like it's an unmissable experience and I can't wait to tell you more about it next week.