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 reluctant to sacrifice the deep, savory flavors of the food she grew up with — but when she developed health issues that led her to adopt a meatless diet, May became a pioneer of vegan Thai cooking.
May Kaidee, the Thai chef’s business name, means “May sells well” in both Lao and Thai — and after opening restaurants in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and even New York City’s Lower East Side, the name fits. Over twenty years, she has perfected vegan interpretations of classic Thai dishes like massaman curry, rice soup, pad thai, taro dumplings, papaya salad, tom yam soup, and even pumpkin hummus.
After months of experimenting with vegan recipes in my kitchen, I decided to sign up for a class at May Kaidee’s Restaurant in Chiang Mai. There was an air of excitement as about eight tourists gathered for our cooking class, eager to learn about the flavors of Thai galangal and makrut lime. We began by learning to make red and green curry paste from scratch, grinding fresh herbs in our stone mortar and pestle.
Our teacher Apornrat “Nim” Soottito showed us how to release the flavor from a makrut lime leaf by folding it over and removing the stem. We divided our small class of students in half, one group making green curry paste, and one group taking on red — I was glad to be in the green group, since green peppers are generally a bit less spicy than red (unfortunately, living in Asia for a year has not done much for my abysmal chili tolerance).
The recipe we used for our chili paste only calls for one pepper, but Nim told us that she likes to use four of them. I laughed nervously, my mouth burning after I sampled only a small bit of our mild chili paste.
Nim grew up in the same village as May in Northeast Thailand (or, the Isaan region). When she was fourteen, Nim had the opportunity to visit Bangkok for the summer to work in May’s flagship restaurant. “That experience opened my mind to new vegan and vegetarian recipes — they weren’t made from soy-protein only,” Nim says. The next summer, Nim returned to work at May Kaidee, but this time, May gave her the chance to test her skills in the kitchen. “I cooked for customers, and I got a positive response from them, which inspired me to keep cooking vegan food,” Nim says.
The Isaan region of Thailand, where Nim and May grew up, shares a similar culture, cuisine, and language with Laos — so, some signature Lao dishes are also indigenous to Northeastern Thailand. Laab (meat salad) is one of the most popular dishes in the region, made with minced meat, fish sauce, mint, lime, chili, and other spices. Laab has always been one of Nim’s favorite foods, but after learning to cook vegan Thai food as May’s apprentice, she now uses chopped mushrooms, soy sauce, mushroom sauce, and a medley of spices and herbs to hone a complexly flavored, savory vegan laab.
Over the course of a morning, we cook three different curries, pad thai, peanut sauce (which, to my surprise, is tomato-based), tom yam soup, and spring rolls — but Nim’s favorite recipe to teach foreign students is green papaya salad. Like mushroom laab, the May Kaidee recipe substitutes fish sauce for mushroom sauce or soy sauce.
May Kaidee serves green papaya salad with a side of sticky (glutinous) rice, a staple of Lao and Thai Isaan food. The rice we make is colored blue with pigment from butterfly pea flowers, which are most often used to make tea. To deepen the indigo hue, Nim pre-soaks the rice in a large bowl with water and the blue leaves overnight.
The only thing better than dessert is colorful dessert, so we keep the extra blue rice to make Thailand’s classic sweet treat: mango sticky rice. We let the rice simmer in a wok with coconut milk while we cut up juicy mangoes, bananas, and extraordinarily pink dragonfruit to serve on our rice. The coconut milk and fruit sweetens up the rice considerably, but for those of us with an insatiable sweet tooth, we mix some of the magenta juices from the dragonfruit into a small bowl of coconut milk to concoct a sugary pastel pink topping.
May Kaidee has established herself as one of the best vegan Thai cooks in the world — currently, she’s based in New York City, where she is developing her new brick-and-mortar store in the East Village, which opened last year. Her flavorful dishes dispel the notion that vegan food lacks flavor.
“I think more Thai people are starting to go vegetarian or vegan,” says Nim. But there’s still a long way to go in convincing locals to leave the snake curry in the past — as with any community, change is gradual. In the meantime, as I get ready to head back to the United States after my year in Laos, I can’t wait to bring what I learned from May and Nim back to my home kitchen.
May Kaidee’s Green Thai Curry
Green Chili Paste
Blend the following with a mortar and pestle or blender:
- 2 tablespoons of green chili
- 1 tablespoon of makrut lime leaf
- 1 tablespoon of galangal
- 1 tablespoon of lemongrass
- 1 tablespoon of onion
- 1 tablespoon of garlic
- 1 tablespoon of cumin powder
- ½ tablespoon of soy bean paste or miso
Blend until all ingredients are completely crushed and a smooth paste has been created. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to one week. For red curry, use the same recipe, but substitute green chili for red chili.
Tip: The green stalk of fresh lemongrass is what you’ll mix into your paste, but save the white root to make lemongrass tea later!
Green Thai Curry
Step 1: In the wok, put
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 teaspoon green chili paste (see above!)
Step 2: Add
- 1 makrut lime leaf, crushed
- 1 slice of galangal, crushed
- 1 inch of cut lemongrass
- 4 tablespoons of coconut milk
- 1 handful of vegetables (i.e. eggplant, green beans, squash, carrot, onions)
Tip: As the vegetables and spices cook, add coconut milk one teaspoon at a time as the texture of the curry thickens. By adding the coconut milk slowly, you will enhance your curry’s depth of flavor.
Cook until texture is thick.
Step 3: Add
- 6 tablespoons water
- ½ tablespoon light soy sauce
- ½ tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Cook for roughly three more minutes.
Step 4: Add
- 3 more tablespoons of coconut milk
- Chopped mint or thai basil (3 or 4 leaves)
Before serving, top with 1 tablespoon of coconut milk.
Recipe reprinted with permission from May Kaidee’s Thai Vegetarian and Vegan Cookbook, available for purchase online.