Food! Glorious food! At VegVoyages our two passions are travel and food – and we do our best to offer you the best of both! We always say (and we probably say this too often as we like to eat so much) that a great way to get an idea about a country’s culture and heritage is through its cuisine. As noted novelist Abdulhak Sinasi said, “Do not dismiss the dish saying that it is just simply food. The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself.” We couldn’t agree more with him.
Asia, in our opinion, undoubtedly offers vegans and vegetarians the widest, most diverse and tastiest food found anywhere on the planet. The combination of pungent spices, fresh herbs, homemade sauces, mouthwatering curries and other ingredients makes Asian food an exciting culinary treat!
Though cuisines vary drastically from country to country, as well as from province to province, and in many cases – city to city, or village to village, Asia shares a simple ingredient in most of its cuisines – and that is rice. Rice is the staple food of much of Asia and billions of people depend on it for their daily survival. In Asia, rice is served in a variety of ways from steamed rice to sticky rice, to tasty fried rice mixed with a variety of spices and veggies. But the staple of Asian cuisine is not just limited to rice, it also includes a range of breads baked, fried or grilled and to our palates content – an endless collection of noodles served in soups, curries, fried or steamed.
The epicenter of the ancient spice trade and home to the world’s largest variety of spices, another common thread throughout Asia’s cuisines is their generous use of spices (yippy!). These tasty and essential ingredients include such spices as cloves, turmeric, cardamom, cumin, ginger, lemongrass, basil, mint, chili, tamarind, nutmeg, galangal, cinnamon, coriander, curry leaves, mustard seed, saffron, sesame and the list goes on. The delicate, centuries-old developed and masterful combination of these spices finely balanced to perfection when cooking is what gives these unique cuisines their superb tastes and what makes them, in our opinion, second to none.
On VegVoyages adventure, in addition to introducing you to the popular dishes of the destinations we go to, you’ll also be exposed to unique regional and local vegan dishes that are found only in certain areas and villages. We love to eat – as we’re sure you do too, so on your adventure you’ll enjoy plenty of dishes you won’t find on restaurant menus that are special home-cooked and created recipes past down in families from generation to generation.
Not only does each country have their own way of cooking and combining ingredients to make their own distinctive taste, but they also have their own ways of eating as well. In India, you may eat off a banana leaf using your hands. In Malaysia and Indonesia, spoons and forks are common, so is eating with your hands in more rural areas, at home or at a local nasi kandar joint. In Laos, the culinary balancing act of taking sticky rice from a bamboo basket with your hand, making into a ball and then eating it along with various tasty dishes – is the norm of the day. Whereas in Thailand, using a spoon and fork has been the preferred eating method since the end of the 19th century – with the spoon being the dominate culinary tool and the fork assisting pushing the food onto it – which is also the same method used in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Before we talk about the mouthwatering cuisines of each our destinations, it’s important to note that contrary to what you may have heard or read, in Asia keeping to a pure vegan or vegetarian diet is not as easy as one may think. Veggie dishes like fried noodles, fried vegetables, veggie curries or vegetable fried rice are rarely, if ever, pure vegetarian, much less vegan. Sure, there are no chunks of meat in the dish (though sometimes a detailed second look will prove otherwise) and even though the dish may look vegetarian – on many more occasions than not, it will contain at least one of the following ingredients: fish or oyster sauce, chicken/pork/beef broth, shrimp or fermented fish paste, animal-based seasoning powder, etc. Many independent traveler, as well as some prominent travel writers (including some vegan travel writers as well), who thought they were eating pure vegetarian food were, unbeknownst to them, in fact eating some or all of the ingredients mentioned above nearly every time they ordered a “vegetarian” meal.
For example, although India is home to the world’s largest vegetarian population, it is NOT vegan friendly. The concept of “veganism” is virtually unknown to the majority of people in India where they tend to be lacto-vegetarians as ghee (clarified butter), curd (yoghurt) and other milk products are often used in recipes.
In Malaysia, unless you are familiar with the area, it’s a real challenge to find pure vegetarian or vegan food. Many restaurants say they can make a dish vegetarian, but in reality very few do. Many veggie dishes use animal based products for flavoring such as meat-based broths or seasoning powders, oyster sauce, shrimp paste, fish sauce, etc. and in some cases it’s not unheard of for that fried “vegetarian” noodle or rice dish to be cooked using lard.
Although Laos and Thailand are predominately Buddhist countries, it’s extremely rare to find a monk who is vegetarian as Theravada Buddhist traditions (form of Buddhism practiced there) does not forbid a monk to eat meat; it only forbids them from killing the animal. So if the animal has already been killed and cooked it’s fair game (no pun intended). Most Lao and Thai are non-vegetarians and the majority of their food contains some sort of meat or meat-based ingredients. This is not just true for stir-fries and soups but also salads (yes salads). The above is also true for non-veg restaurants that have a “vegetarian” section on their menu – many times the items in the vegetarian section have been prepared using some type of non-vegetarian ingredient.
And last but not least, the Balinese are traditionally not vegetarians and finding pure vegetarian food on the island can be a real task. Unlike many Hindus in India, the Balinese like their meat – including having a fondness for pork, and even eat beef.
However, with the above being said, VegVoyages prides itself on serving our guests the tastiest pure vegan food available, so there is no need to worry. Often this means getting well off-the-beaten-track and eating at establishments that are “hole-in-the-wall” local treasures and small, hidden places where few tourists eat, but are filled with neighborhood regulars enjoying delicious local fare. We like to provide our guests with all the tasty local dishes there are to be had – and there are many, but without any of the non-vegan ingredients of course. Our meals supplement fish and oyster sauces with several different types of mushroom and soy based sauces, animal-based broths with vegetable and herb broths and animal-based pastes with vegetable and herb based pastes, meats with tofu and tempeh and so on – and we make sure all our food is cooked using fresh vegetable oil as opposed to lard or oil that has been used to cook meat with. This way there is no need to miss out on all the local delicacies and we can enjoy the local cuisines in all their regional forms and variations happily knowing they are vegan. In fact, even at our cooking classes we’ll teach you how and what to supplement in place of what would otherwise be animal-based ingredients to make these traditional regional dishes cruelty free!
On your VegVoyages adventure, we want you to get a taste for the country and its rich heritage, and what a better way to do that than through its cuisines! Oh, one last thing we almost forgot – you’ll probably gain a little extra weight too!
Cuisines of India
Deeply rooted in Hindu culture, Indian vegetarian food has been cultivated throughout the region for thousands of years. Most Indian meals include a rice dish, vegetable dishes, dhal (lentils), curry, and roti (Indian bread). This being said, it’s important to note that there is no such thing as “Indian cuisine” as such, as the dishes from state to state vary as much as they do between the dishes of Italy and England. This statement is never as true as it is when comparing the cuisines of North and South India, which often seem as far apart as not just the cuisines of two different countries, but rather – two different continents.
At VegVoyages, we want to make sure that you get the widest variety of local vegan cuisine available in India, so in addition to eating the more popular dishes, we’ll also introduce you to a diverse selection of local dishes. In Rajasthan for example, dhal bhati is a favorite consisting of dhal and ball-shaped bread. Rajasthan is also famous for their gram curries. While Gujarat is known for its vegetarian thali (set meal) where you’re presented with an array of veggies, papad, rice, roti and sweets (though most sweets are made with milk, we will make sure that ours are vegan).
In South India, vegetarian dishes take on new and delectable forms – from tasty local specialties like dosas (savory crepes) to gorgeous banana leaf meals complete with sautéed veggies, pungent curries, savory pickles, crispy papadums and piping hot sambar! South Indian cuisines vary from district to district, village to village, and to our palates content – home to home. But they do share some common traits based on the area’s tropical climate, which is fresh veggies, fruits, herbs, spices and yes – coconuts, that play an intricate part in their myriad of chutneys and as a flavorful curry base. The climate is also perfect for the cultivation of rice – which, unlike in the North where roti is king, rice is the staple of most South Indian meals. Don’t let the idea of steamed rice bore you as rice is used in more ways than you can imagine from creating dosas and idlys (steamed rice cakes), to uttapams (South Indian pizza) and appams (bowl shaped pancakes)!
A distinct common thread in the vegetarian cuisines of India is the flavor achieved by the unique blend, in just the right amounts, of an incredible variety of spices. If you’ve ever seen an Indian recipe, it’s never just salt and pepper – but a generous (and could be said genius) mix of different spices following recipes and cooking methods steeped in ancient ayurvedic traditions.
Cuisines of Malaysia
Malaysia, in our opinion, offers some of the tastiest vegan cuisine found anywhere in the world! Thankfully, eating is a national pastime here and the abundance of rich dishes influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Eurasian cuisines make Malaysia a veritable culinary “melting pot”! Moreover, the fusion of these cuisines that’s developed over the centuries makes Malaysian food not only eclectic – but also downright delicious! The combination of these culinary elements all add up to one thing for travelers on our Rainforest, Reefs, Cultures & Cuisines adventure – which is some really awesome food!
The Malay influence to the country’s vegan cuisine is their generous use of coconut milk and spices in making curries. Malay food is also known for its satays, which we’ll be sampling the vegan versions of, accompanied by an assortment of dipping sauces such as fiery sambals (hot chili condiments) and sos kacang (peanut sauce).
The Chinese influence to the country’s vegan cuisine, in addition to their veggie and tofu dishes, is their contribution of noodles. Malaysia boasts a unique variety of fusion-style noodle dishes including tangy noodle soups, mouthwatering mee kari (curry noodle soup) and spicy mee goreng (fried noodles) – to name a few. And we can’t forget the influence of Nyonya cuisine – delightful dishes owing their taste to the centuries-old fusion of Chinese cuisine with the rich and spicy ingredients of Malay cooking.
The Indian influence to Malaysia’s vegan cuisine comes from the South Indian communities and includes the ever-popular banana leaf meals and dosas (rice flour pancakes). There’s also the influence of mamak cuisine – Malaysia’s Indian fusion food that gave birth to such mouthwatering dishes as nasi kandar, roti canai, and mee mamak – which we enjoy the vegan versions of.
From curries, noodles and nasi goreng (local fried rice), to roti, nasi lemak (coconut rice served with sides) – the selection of tasty vegan cuisine in Malaysia is truly endless – and did we mention, downright delicious! With its unique fusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arab, European, Indonesian and Thai cooking methods and ingredients, Malaysian vegan food is a culinary treat not to be missed!
Cuisines of Laos
Never had Lao food before? Then you’re in for a real surprise, as your taste buds will spring to life on tasting mouthwatering home-cooked Lao dishes freshly prepared in a traditional Lao kitchen. Lao cuisine varies based on what region you’re in as it is dependent on local seasonal ingredients as well as local culture. One common thread though throughout the country is sticky rice, glutinous rice rolled into balls and eaten with the hand. In fact, Lao are the only people in the world that eat sticky rice as a staple food. Of course, the more familiar long grain rice is also available but the Lao affinity for a bamboo basket of sticky rice always takes the day!
A typical Lao meal consists of sticky rice, soup, lightly sautéed veggies and steamed or raw leafy greens and fresh herbs. Lao cuisine is not big on heavily fried noodle dishes or thick curries, as it tends to be more light and healthy. Being a tropical country with its fair share of rainfall and sunshine, Laos grows a wide selection of vegetables that are incorporated into its cuisine, from tasty stir-fries and steamed herbs and greens to mouthwatering light curries delicately simmered in coconut milk. Vegetable varieties depend largely on the region and season but there are always countless fresh veggies and flavorful herbs on hand to enjoy.
The climate in Laos is also conducive to a range of tropical fruits including mangoes, papayas, durians, mangosteens, guavas, lychees and pineapples. The variety of fruits available are a refreshing compliment to any meal, whether eaten fresh from the market or mixed as part of a popular dish such as papaya salad (which we make the vegan version of). Lao people are also keen snackers and roadside stalls sell everything from barbequed bananas, sweet potatoes and corn, to fresh veggie tofu spring rolls, banana flower salads and – due to the country’s French colonial past, freshly baked baguettes – to name a few.
With its delicious soups, sautéed veggies, light curries and steamed and raw leafy greens, along with its famous salads, Lao food is a truly unique culinary treat! Whether we’re in an upscale restaurant, a local café, guests of a local family, students of a local chef or having a picnic, we’ll be sure to have the freshest, tastiest and widest assortment of Lao vegan dishes available in the country. So don’t be shy, dig in and discover the delectable flavors of Laos on our Mekong Moments: in the Land of a Million Elephants adventure!
Cuisines of Thailand
Many people have tried Thai cuisine before as it is rated one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and for good reason – as it is outstanding! A zesty mix of fresh herbs, pungent spices and mouthwatering sauces, Thai food is not only unique – but absolutely delicious. Like other country’s in Asia, the cuisine varies from region to region and is heavily dependent on local ingredients and cultural influences. Common culinary threads throughout the country though are rice and noodles. Rice varieties include long grain “jasmine” rice and the Northeast Thailand favorite, sticky rice. Thai food also has many different noodle dishes each with their own distinct flavor from fried noodles and cold noodle salads to vegan noodle soups and spicy noodle curries.
Unlike many cuisines, Thai food concentrates on lightly cooked dishes brimming with a mix of complimentary and balanced flavors as Thai’s love their fresh herbs and spices. The spices that give Thai food its rich and zesty taste are traditionally prepared by smashing them into a smooth or grainy paste using a stone pestle and mortar before cooking. Many of the pastes are used as the base for the country’s famous curries! Green curry, yellow curry, red curry, massaman curry, panang curry, southern sour curry, sweet curry – and the list goes on as curries are very popular in Thailand and are some of its best-known dishes in the world!
A typical Thai meal consists of bowls of richly steamed jasmine rice, a hot soup, fresh (or fried) spring rolls, and several side dishes ranging from stir-fries to curries – all traditionally placed on a low table or on a mat with family and friends gathering around the food on the floor. Being a tropical country, Thailand grows an abundant assortment of veggies, flavorful herbs and tropical fruits that are used in a perfect balance with local spices in delicious main course, appetizer, side dish, salad and dessert recipes.
With its eclectic variety of fresh local salads, savory soups, lightly fried veggies in tasty sauces, spicy curries and snacks, the cuisines of Thailand are a mouthwatering treat we explore on our Terrific Tastes of Thailand adventure. So make sure you have a healthy appetite and get your taste buds ready for a culinary adventure from the back streets and bazaars of Bangkok to the shores of Andaman sea – and everywhere in between!
Cuisines of Indonesia
Located along the ancient sea trading routes and rich in natural resources, the islands that make up Indonesia quickly became a global interest back when spices were valued not only for their flavor, but also for their ability to remedy health problems and act as natural preservatives. The country’s delicious cuisines developed largely as a result from this with the fusion between local cooking traditions and the cooking traditions of the spice-seeking traders and immigrants from India, the Middle East, China, Thailand, and Europe.
With over 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia’s cuisines vary from one ethnic group to another, as well as from island to island, province to province and village to village. Popular Indonesian dishes include the culinary classics of gado-gado (veggies, tofu and peanut sauce), rendang (rich coconut based curry), urap (steamed veggies with toasted coconut and spices), rujak (pungent fruit salad), and the dessert treat – cendol. Tempeh (fermented soy bean), which is now popular around the world, is an Indonesian invention as well and is a common local treat found in stir-fries, curries and mixed with sambal.
Most Indonesians say they don’t feel full unless they’ve eaten rice and it’s commonly served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It can be served in a variety of ways including cooked in coconut milk and served as nasi uduk, steamed in banana leaves, or fried with spices and veggies in the archipelago’s national dish – nasi goreng. Speaking of rice, a definite contribution to the culinary scene is the Indonesian favorite “nasi campur”. Nasi means rice, and campur means mixed, and like its name – nasi campur is a delectable plate of rice surrounded by a mixture of tasty tofu, tempeh and veggies. Last but not least, when speaking about Indonesian food you can’t forget sambal – a chili-based condiment! Each region has its own version (the variety of which are too many to mention here), and a meal wouldn’t be complete without it. This Javanese-influenced condiment is a spicy food lovers dream, but be careful as many sambals are made with shrimp paste.
On our Vegin’ Out on the Island of Gods adventure we’ll journey into the heart, soul and tastes of Indonesia’s vegan cuisines from spicy sambals, tasty tempeh, fresh veggies in sensational sauces, and tropical fruit salads to toasted coconut curries, pungent peanut sauces, rich rendangs and sautéed jackfruit in aromatic spices, the mouthwatering cuisines of Indonesia are island fare at its best!
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