Saturday, September 21, 2013
With Happy Cow listing 68 vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai (compared to a mere 25 in Melbourne), do you need any more reasons to Northern Thailand?
Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples, hundreds of eateries and a haven for travellers in Asia who don't want shrimp paste in their curry. As we spent 9 days in Chiang Mai, it was a relief that vegan choices beyond the standard curries and Pad Thai abound. Every meal ranged from good to spectacular, including breakfast in our hotel (which, let’s face it, in the best of places can get a bit samey after a few days). The kitchen was always happy to make a vegan hot breakfast to order for the Significant Eater, usually rice or noodle based, supplementing the dazzling array of tropical fruit, salad, sticky rice in banana leaves and amazing juices and iced teas. Vegetarian choices also included eggs cooked to order (my favourite being a Thai omelette with fresh herbs and chilli), pancakes and savoury rice porridge.
We ate most of our meals in the Old City but two of my three top vegan picks are beyond the moat. Keep in mind getting around is easy. For a mere 20 baht (less than a dollar) you can jump in a shared ‘taxi’ (converted ute/pick up truck) or 50 baht for a tuk tuk. For a day trip we found a mid-priced car and driver for 1500 baht (about $50).
Chiang Mai does casual dinning well. Want breakfast, coffee, a beer, late lunch or a three course dinner? These two laid back gems mightn’t look like anything special but warranted return visits. Both offered free wifi, good vegan choices and a relaxed atmosphere.
1. Peppermint cafe 1/1 Soi 5 Rachadamnoen Rd
The menu is a blend of Thai and Western food, including a fusion of both. If you want your salad ‘Thai style’ with extra spice, you will get a fiery hit. One of their specialties is pizza and they didn’t flinch at whipping up a vegan one (the SE said it was the best vegan pizza he’d ever eaten).
2. Nature’sWay Moon Muang Soi 4
The signs proudly state they don't use MSG. Food is fresh and sometimes organically grown. The vegetarian tom yum soup and noodles were free of fishy additives. I loved their big noodles with tofu and vegetables. Friendly staff, who remember your face and welcome you back.
Note: my affection for these cafes was probably heightened by cuddles from neighbourhood cats that stopped by for a smooch.
Sadly we only sampled a handful of the dozens of vegetarian restaurants but these three stood out for the diversity and sheer yumminess of the food.
1. Pun Pun
Wander through the grounds of Suan Dok temple and look for the ‘monk chat’ sign. Pun Pun, an al fresco café, lies beyond.
Pun Pun is run by a sustainable living community and showcases their own organic vegetables. The menu is large and varied. My soup, with nori and a beetroot sauce, was certainly not traditional Thai and defied culinary pigeonholing. Even the spring rolls offered a novel filling. This is a great daytime café (they have a new restaurant further out at the base of the hills that stays open til 8pm), perfect for when you get bored of the usual suspects and want to explore new flavours. Check the website for opening hours (the first time I looked at the site it said ‘closed Wednesday’, the next time it didn’t mention it). Avoid if it’s raining, as there’s very little cover in a downpour.
2. Bodhi Zen 18/5 Ratchvithi Road, Sriphim, Chiang Mai (not far from Thapae Gate)
Did you hear about the Vietnamese monk who opened a vegetarian restaurant in Northern Thailand? Offering ‘world cuisine’, this is another excellent choice for when you want to eat something a little different. The rice balls and cabbage rolls were both spectacular. While the meal was amazing, it was a chaotic and slightly uncomfortable dinning experience (for many, many reasons). But the food is worth it. Really.
3. Radiance Restaurant (at The Spa Resort) 165 Moo 4 Tumbon Huaysai, Chiang Mai
About 40 minutes from the Old City in the grounds of a health resort, Radiance is an upmarket restaurant on the rural fringe of Chiang Mai. The verdant setting is calm and indeed ‘radiant’. I pity those who pay a lot of money to stay here and choose the detox package. While the menu lists a wide range of delicious juices for those fasting, even reading the description of the dishes must drive them wild. Though not strictly a vego restaurant (they offer some fish and chicken) they also have extensive raw food options (the lasagne was a work of art and the raw chocolate dessert is worth a trip to Thailand in itself). Despite not being a fan of mock meat, the 'duck' curry was one of the most emotionally satisfying meals of my holiday. It also serves booze, something many of vego eateries avoid. This place earns the accolade of gourmet, though expensive by local standards is still significantly cheaper than at home. Worth a detour.
Coffee: While Chiang Mai professes to having a ‘coffee culture’, including its home grown answer to Starb*cks, the espressos I sampled were very ordinary. With one notable exception. Akha Ama's beans are organic and sustainably grown in Northern Thailand. They’re serious about their product, have a good rig and train their baristas. I’m not kidding when I say this is possibly the best espresso I’ve ever drunk. They do a mean iced green tea, like no other (possibly with powdered green tea?)
I frequently visited their new café at La Fattoria, Rachadamnoen Rd (past the police station, near Wat Phrasingh).
Markets: There are a plethora of wet markets selling fresh produce, if you want to pick up a kilo mangosteens for less than a dollar. My favourite was San Pakoy, just across the river, perfect for an early morning walk. (Non-vegans might want to try breakfast from the many carts near the market or outside the night bazaar, for some real but undeniably meaty street food).
The Sunday Walking market along Rachadamnoen Rd offers a number of vegan goodies including noodles, barbecued corn and stuffed betel leaves. Don’t forget to take a break between grazing and stop for a foot massage.
Cooking: There are a truck-load of cooking schools in Chiang Mai but I'd heard grumbles that some use vegan-unfriendly curry pastes. We spent a delightful day in the country at Thai Farm Cooking School, on a small organic farm, where we cooked everything from scratched. As you cook your own dishes, there's no problems being in a mixed omni/veg*n class. We had a fun day, visited a local market, cooked a soup, curry, stir fry, noodles and sticky rice...and patted some nice cats.
Maps. The Nancy Chandler map is a Chiang Mai institution, now in it’s 19th edition. It plots a pleasing amount of V’s for vegetarian, along with non-food things to do in town. Don’t forget to check online for updates (unlike us, who didn’t and went on a thwarted hunt for the cat sanctuary and wooden foot bridge). You can pick up your map from any of the bookstores in Chiang Mai selling English language books.
Want more tips? Check out my entry on Chiang Mai in my travel blog.