Recently, we had a friend visit from San Francisco who is vegetarian, trending vegan. Now, I spent two years or so in university as a vegetarian, so my reaction to vegetarians isn’t inherently hostile. Plus, unlike some vegetarian friends we’ve had visit, this friend is very low-key about what he eats and that made it a lot easier to accommodate him. That said, the experience of trying some vegetarian Thai restaurants here in Bangkok was not so positive.
During his visit, we ate at two restaurants that are specifically vegetarian. The better of the two, which I’ll write about here, is Khun Churn. A 15-year old Chiang Mai restaurant, Khun Churn opened a branch a few years ago in the basement of the Bangkok Mediplex building, adjacent to the Ekkamai BTS station. The retail floors of the building are largely deserted and arriving at 7:00 one evening, we almost gave up on the restaurant being open, so many lights were already turned off.
We arrived to find a friendly and inviting space, though, nicely decorated and with welcoming staff. The menu is comprehensive and accommodates not just vegetarians but eaters of “Buddhist Jae” food, a sort of strict veganism that also includes no garlic, shallots, and certain other foods that overstimulate the senses. The kitchen is able to mix and match as you desire, leaving out ingredients that you don’t eat or including them if you do.
Our meal got off to a particularly good start with Miang Takrai Bai Chaplu – a version of Miang Kham, a popular Thai appetizer. The normal dish features betel nut leaves served with a variety of condiments – small pieces of lime, shallot, peanut, dried shrimp, fresh chili, and ginger. The name means, roughly, “many things in one bite,” and provides a nice way to perk up your taste buds in anticipation of the meal ahead. Khun Churn’s version contains sliced lemongrass, mint, roasted sesame, ground peanuts, roasted coconut, cilantro and chili paste blended together. Needless to say, the flavor packs a wallop and is intensely interesting.
Sadly, the Miang Takrai was the flavor highlight of the meal. The next dish was Kuayteaw Lord, noodle rolls stuffed with tofu, black ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, and served with a black sweet and sour sauce. These were okay, but the sweet and sour sauce (mostly sweet) was the first of too many dishes that relied on the sweet soy sauce. Thai food is known for its balance of flavors – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy – and all too often, “sweet” was the dominant note.
The next dish was called “Merry Mushroom” and featured three types of mushrooms – erringi, Shitake, and oyster – breaded, deep fried, and served with an garlic and onion cream sauce. Well, that’s what the menu said. It was not a cream sauce, but was a soy, garlic, shallot, and coriander sauce. The Shitake mushrooms stood up well to the deep frying but the erringi and oyster mushrooms tasted like breading and nothing else. The sauce was okay, but didn’t stand out.
For the next dish, our guest asked us to order Pad Thai, so we ordered a version called Pad Thai Woon Sen, made with mung bean (“cellophane”) noodles rather than the typical wide rice noodles. This version was less sweet than many of the other pad thai dishes he had eaten on this trip, but the overall flavor was still a bit one-dimensional. Pad Thai relies on tamarind paste to form the sour base of the sauce. Without fish sauce, the dish ended up unbalanced and some sort of salt would have helped round out the flavor.
Since Khun Churn is a northern Thai restaurant, it seemed appropriate to try a famous northern dish, Nam Prik Ong. This dish is usually made with chili paste, ground pork, and tomatoes and is served as a dip for fresh vegetables and deep fried pork skin. Here, tofu was used instead of pork and the pork skin was replaced by a clever “tofu skin” that achieved the same texture in the hot oil. I hate to say it, but tofu makes a poor substitute for pork because tofu doesn’t add any flavor. Something – a little concentrated mushroom stock, perhaps – was needed to give the dish its characteristic meatiness.
We ordered another take on a classic dish, chicken stir fried with cashew nuts – Gai Pad Med Mamuang. This version substituted tofu for the chicken. The problem is, the original version (one of my favorite dishes) is made with oyster sauce or fish sauce, which gives the dish that satisfying umami flavor. Instead, they relied on sweet dark soy sauce which gave the dish a very sweet flavor but lacked the roundness or robustness that would have made the dish satisfying. Again, a pinch of salt or some mushroom stock might have helped deliver the missing element.
We concluded with a Gaeng Kiaw Waan – a green curry with tofu and vegetables. I was curious to try this because the previous Thai vegetarian restaurant we had been to served such a miserably watery version of this classic curry. The version at Khun Churn was more robust and had a creaminess that was enjoyable. Sadly, the flavor was still very sweet and lacked the necessary balance.
As a whole, the meal was good but not enough to make me want to return to the restaurant on its own merits. Instead, it will remain filed in that dusty category of places to bring vegetarian friends to.
Afterwards, we walked across the street to the Gateway mall, a Japanese themed mall, to enjoy some Japanese style shaved ice desserts. This is when vegetarian dishes being very sweet is okay!