Each October in Thailand, many Thais become strict vegetarians or even vegans. Area restaurants decorate themselves with a yellow triangle flag denoting observance of the Thai Vegetarian Festival, and menus are altered to honor tradition.
London chef and restaurateur Saiphin Moore’s cookbook “Rosa’s Thai Cafe” explores the variety in menu served during the festival.
“This tradition has been around for as long as I can remember,” Moore writes, “but its roots lie in Chinese Buddhism.” She explains that vegetarianism is an important part of Thai culture, often as a way of showing gratitude for provision from the land and a way of redemption for taking the lives of animals.
The introduction to Moore’s book is so brief you might miss it. Only a few paragraphs in length, she explains the vegetarian and vegan direction of her cookbook while encouraging us to cook with “what you’ve got” and to “find good substitutions for what you haven’t.”
This immediately takes any pressure off the need to hunt down every Thai-specific ingredient. Just head to your local Asian market or the Asian cooking aisle at the grocery store and get what you can find. Moore’s book is filled with easy-to-put-together recipes that are authentically Thai and delicious enough to rival any takeout.
To find out more about Moore and her restaurants, I visited her website where she shares her history of being raised in the cooler region of Northern Thailand with a climate more like Northern California than the rest of Southeast Asia. She helped on the family farm and in her grandparents’ grocery store, starting a noodle shop out of the front of her home when she was only 16. Her ingredients were inventive and took advantage of the unique area she lived in, where iceberg lettuce and strawberries grew easily.
When Moore came to London in 2006, she started selling her food at offices and markets. In 2008, she opened the first of what would eventually become 15 cafe-sized restaurants. With her first location, she moved into a building previously home to a restaurant named “Rosa’s.” She kept the name, out of respect for the building’s previous owner, and because there was no money for new signs.
But for Moore’s cookbook, her history is sidelined into short pre-recipe notes — it’s all about the food. She details Thai and Asian food ingredients, includes a few notes on method, then dives into recipes that seem so completely doable, even as a weeknight takeout replacement.
Grilled tofu satay with peanut sauce is the perfect meat alternative and full of flavor. I’m a sucker for peanut sauce, and this one is good enough to dip all types of protein into. Lighter salads with hearty grilled pumpkin, pineapple fried rice and mushroom panang curry are just some of the recipes that fill her pages. She even incorporates quinoa into a unique dish of larb quinoa with tofu salad — larb salad traditionally being a meat salad, quinoa offers a hearty substitute.
My favorite is her mixed vegetable green curry. I love a Thai curry, preferably one laden with coconut milk, sweetened with palm sugar and fragrant with lemongrass and keffir lime. I doubled her recipe and ate it at four consecutive meals. (I could still be eating it, if I hadn’t run out.) Served over steamed white rice, it’s a filling and flavorful vegan dish perfect for my own October.
Mixed vegetable green curry
This favorite Thai dish is friendly to all variety of vegetables — red and yellow bell pepper, sliced yam, Chinese celery. The choice is up to you. Seek out the long beans; they hold up better than a green bean and have unique flavor and bite that I prefer in my curry. Like other ingredients, you can find these sold at your local Asian market. I wasn’t able to track down pea eggplants, so I just increased the amount of Thai eggplants I used. If like me you can’t take that high level of heat in your curry, make this without the bird’s eye chilies, then add them to your liking. Your green curry paste may have all you need in way of heat. Moore’s family recipe for green curry paste follows, or use your favorite store bought brand.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Green Curry Paste
14 ounces coconut milk
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
1½ tablespoons palm sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
½ pound Thai eggplants, quartered (or purple eggplant, sliced)
⅓ to ½ cup pea eggplants
¼ to ⅓ cup canned bamboo shoots rinsed and drained
1 medium carrot, sliced
2 to 4 yard-long beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
3 kaffir lime leaves
Handful of sweet basil leaves, plus extra to garnish
2 red bird’s eye chilies, sliced, plus extra to garnish
Steamed jasmine rice or cooked rice noodles, to serve
Heat the oil in a large saucepan or wok set over a medium heat. Once hot, add the curry paste and stir-fry for about 1 minute, until fragrant.
Gradually stir in half the coconut milk and cook for about 5 minutes, until the oil from the paste rises to the surface of the coconut milk. Once this happens, stir in the remaining coconut milk. Season with the soy sauce, palm sugar and salt and continue to stir until the mixture comes to the boil.
Stir in the remaining ingredients and cook for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Garnish with extra basil leaves and chilli slices. Serve immediately with rice or rice noodles.
Green curry paste
5 long green chilies
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
2 tablespoons sliced lemongrass
1 lesser galangal root, sliced
1 tablespoon finely sliced greater galangal
½ teaspoon finely sliced
kaffir lime rind or leaves
5 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon finely sliced cilantro roots (or use fresh cilantro stems)
5 small shallots, sliced
6 black peppercorns
Finely grind the chilies and salt together using a pestle and mortar or a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and pound or blend the mixture to a fine, smooth paste. This curry paste will keep in the refrigerator for 4-8 weeks if stored in an airtight container and for up to 6 months in the freezer.
— Recipes reprinted from “Rosa’s Thai Cafe” by Saiphin Moore with permission from Mitchell Beazley.
“Rosa’s Thai Cafe: The Vegetarian Cookbook”
By Saiphin Moore
Mitchell Beazley. 224 pages. $24.99.
Who should buy this? Those in search of a truly usable Thai cookbook. (Note, many ingredient details are in the British style, so fresh coriander is cilantro and aubergine is eggplant, and most ingredients are measured by weight. But since this isn’t a baking book, approximate equivalents are doable.)