March 19, 2009

Vegan Thai recipes (Tom kha, Thai apple salad)

Tom kha as prepared at the cooking class

You know how when you go to a Thai restaurant and ask about the fish sauce they say, "We don't put fish sauce in that." If you're like me, you're probably always kind of wondering if that's really true. We recently attended a vegan Thai cooking class and one of the instructors said when he was offered that "no fish sauce in here" assurance at a restaurant recently, he added that he was extremely allergic to fish and would become very sick very fast if he ate any. The waitress went off to the kitchen, engaged in a long conversation, and returned to inform him that all the sauces were created from pre-made mixes, and they all contained fish sauce and MSG. She added that all Thai restaurants use these sauces and anyone who tells you differently is lying. I'm not saying that's an absolute fact, but it makes me wonder.

It reminds me of a similar conversation I had a few years ago with my son. He had a friend working at a popular and esteemed Thai restaurant whose staff had assured us many times that we were not eating fish sauce. This friend said that all the sauces were made from mixes that contained not only fish sauce, but many other items that we would certainly not want to eat. I know when I go to a restaurant that all may not be as it appears, and I'm making a choice to trust the restaurant to tell me the truth about the food they serve. But I'm feeling a bit uneasy. We don't have any vegetarian-only restaurant choices where we live (this will change when we move) and if we want a night out without cooking, we have to take our chances.

Pad Thai photographed at the cooking class

Most of the time we cook our own food, and we just took a cooking class at Willy Street Coop to get some pointers on making Thai food, one of our favorite cuisines (except for the fish sauce!) at home. In the cooking class, taught by holistic health counselor Carrell Casey, we learned to make three very easy and delicious Thai dishes. We made Tom Kha, Pad Thai and Thai apple salad. The soup (tom kha) and pad thai were too salty for me, though they really tasted good. I'm making a few changes to get the sodium level down. The original soup recipe had 1/2 cup tamari, and regular vegetable broth. There was also red curry paste which contains salt. I'm using low-sodium vegetable broth, and much less tamari. I also added a green vegetable (bok choy) to the tom kha. I'm going to print my slightly revised recipes, and you can further revise them to suit your personal preference. The salad was tangy, refreshing and so simple to make. I'm not changing that at all!

I'm going to start with the soup and dessert and post the pad thai later, as we still have a few kinks to work out of the recipe. Although the pad thai worked perfectly in class, it hasn't worked so well at home. The first try was horrible looking and not so great tasting. I think we had a little problem with the tamarind. The second version tasted and looked fine, but was not very authentic, as several of the ingredients were missing. When we get it right, I'll post it. In the meantime, try the tom kha and the surprising apple dessert. (You can control the spiciness of the soup by adding more or less chili and curry paste.)

Tom kha (adapted and printed with permission)
  • 1 can light coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons red or green curry paste (Thai Kitchen makes a vegan version)
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 3 tablespoons tamari
  • 1 tablespoon agave syrup
  • 2 fresh green chilies, minced (less if you don't like spicy food)
  • about 10 mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 carrots, sliced into half moons
  • 1 large or 2 small onions, diced
  • 2 cups low-sodium veggie broth
  • 1 package firm tofu (16 oz.), sliced into thin triangles or cubes
  • 1 bunch bok choy, shredded roughly
  1. Saute onions and carrots in a soup pot or wok. When soft, add mushrooms and saute for a minute or two. Add bok choy and saute about 1 minute.
  2. Add veggie broth and coconut milk (Keep heat medium so milk doesn't burn.)
  3. Add curry paste, lime juice, tamari, agave, tofu and chilies. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Thai apple salad from the cooking class

Thai apple salad (printed with permission)
  • 4 large apples, quartered, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon agavé syrup
  • 1 green chili pepper, chopped fine
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 cups torn leaf lettuce or whole romaine leaves
  1. Mix lime juice, agavé, chili and salt in a bowl.
  2. Cut apples, add to bowl and toss to coat.
  3. Serve over a bed of lettuce.
Think "dairy-free" means "no dairy?" Think again. Our cooking class included information on food labeling from a vegan perspective. Here's a link to how to interpret food labeling terms.


  1. Ooh, that's pretty scary! I think it's always smarter to claim allergies for your food restrictions if you want to be 100% sure they won't give you something with an ingredient you don't want! Many a time with my wheat restriction, I've asked the same question, and when pressed, they tell me there's wheat in the sauce--same with beef in gravies, stocks, etc. So I just always say I'm allergic now!

    MMMM those dishes look great! I am making that salad (well, as soon as I can eat fruit again, anyway!!). :)

  2. Thanks for the show - and- tell! I had wanted to take that class but knew I'd be too busy. And I know exactly what you mean about the restaurant thing. From one of my kids' research project I learned about the source of the fish sauce: anchovies... and yes, it is in everything!

    How about the vegan pad thai? That's what I'd really like to make!

  3. Your soup looks lovely and I would far rather have it than visit a thai restaurant, for the very same reason. Anyway, I am sure your soup is far superior :)

  4. Ricki,
    Avoiding wheat must be really hard in restaurants!

    Too bad you couldn't take the class. There's another one this weekend taught by the same person who taught your last vegan class. It's not vegan though. I'm on the waiting list.

    Thank you, Holler. You'd be welcome at our table any time! But you live so far away.

  5. Not vegetarian recipes but Thai
    I think you could adapt them for vegans
    www.thaifoodtonight.comIt's got about 30 recipes each one with a cooking video to go along.

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  7. I'm not sure why your recipe has vegetable stock in it for Tom Kha. That's very salty indeed if you add soy sauce and salty chili paste on top of it.

    I took a Vegan Thai cooking class the other day in Thailand here and got some great recipes.

    For 1 (Double if for 2)
    2 torn kaffir lime leaves
    2 slices of galangal (Thai ginger)
    2 half inch pieces of lemon grass
    crushed chilis for personal taste
    a handful of chopped stir fry vegetables (fresh)
    a few slices of chopped onion
    1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
    1 tsp brown sugar
    1 tsp vegetarian chili paste in oil
    1 lime
    1/2 a bowl of water
    1/2 bowl of coconut milk
    green onions and cilantro for garnish

    Pour the water in a pot or wok and add the lime leaves, galangal, lemon grass and chili flakes. Turn on high and boil. After a few minutes you should smell the aroma, now add the onions and chopped veggies, cook for a few minutes. Add soy sauce, brown sugar, and chili paste. Stir in and continue cooking. When vegetables are almost done add the coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Pour into a bowl and garnish with a squeeze of lemon and green onions and cilantro.


  8. Veronica,
    Thanks for the comment and recipe. I did revise the original cooking-class recipe we were given which contained much more tamari and high sodium broth. In my recipe I specify low-sodium stock, but of course, water would contain even less salt. I wish your recipe was more specific, as "a half bowl" is a little vague for inexperienced cooks, when they have no idea what size bowl you are referring to.


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