May Kaidee, The Chef Who Changed Thai Vegan Cuisine

Cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand — plus a recipe for green Thai curry!

Amanda Silberling
Published in
8 min readJul 25, 2019

Across the street from a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand sits an unassuming, hole-in-the-wall dive, purple and white walls decorated with painted trees and child-sized handprints. Most dishes on the menu are only 60 to 70 Thai baht (about $2 USD), yet May Kaidee’s recipes are internationally renowned — even King Philippe of Belgium has lauded the restaurant for its tasty food.

I never considered going vegan until I moved to Southeast Asia. Throughout my year in Laos, I regularly sent photos to friends back home of my enviable grocery hauls: stalks of fresh lemongrass, spools of mint and basil leaves, juicy bell peppers, ground ginger, miniature Thai eggplants, magenta dragon fruit, spiky rambutans, finger-sized bananas, and of course, enough tofu to meal-prep for the week. Eventually, I realized that, without even trying, all the meals I routinely cooked for myself were vegan (dairy is uncommon and pricey in Southeast Asia, and I’m far too squeamish to buy raw meat at street markets). While living in Laos, I became an accidental vegan, and I liked it.

Vegan home cooking may be accessible enough, but as a foreigner living in an unfamiliar culture, it can be difficult to negotiate my burgeoning veganism with my desire to show respect for Lao customs, which often involve bonding over meaty dishes.

That’s why on a short visit across the border to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I was surprised to encounter May Kaidee’s Vegan Restaurant and Cooking School. Contrary to the style of Thai-influenced cooking found in the West, accommodating a vegan diet in Southeast Asia isn’t as simple as merely substituting tofu for pork — many regional dishes rely on slow-roasted meats, fried egg, and pungent fish sauce to create a depth of flavor.

Thai Chef Sommay “May” Jaijong still ate meat on a daily basis when she first started working in her aunt’s vegetarian restaurant as a teenager. In fact, when she was young, her favorite dish was snake curry. She was…