Use the phrase gin jay (eat vegetarian or vegan in Thai) the next time you're at a Thai restaurant if you want to make certain your dish is free of animal product, chef Jet Tila of The Charleston advises.
"We're so conditioned to using fish sauce. The idea of seafood is almost ingrained in Thai cooking. Thai people will say 'Oh yeah, I'll cook vegetarian for you' and they might use fish sauce. It's such a natural part of our diet, so we'd adjust that," says the recently appointed Culinary Ambassador of Thai Cuisine. "Fish sauce is swapped out with thin soy or soybean sauce."
According to Tila, vegetarianism or veganism is often tied to religion. "For a lot of Thais, it's based on Buddhism. For Catholics, some will eat vegetarian during Lent. If someone just passed away, you might eat vegetarian for 30 to 90 days as an offering."
Tila grew up in a household where vegetables were often the main focus at mealtimes. "This is how my mom and grandma broke it down. On this one round plate, they would put rice in about a third of the plate. Vegetables would take over about a half of the plate and meat would take up whatever's leftover. And that's how we ate," he says.
Tila went through three phases in his life wherein he ate vegetable-heavy meals, then swapped those for fast food only to rediscover their value. At one point, he weighed in at 240 pounds.
"In my late teens, early twenties, I snapped out of it. I started coming back to the way we eat everyday and I lost 80 pounds. And now I'm like 160, 170. I've ridden a roller coaster and it's directly tied to diet," Tila says.
In cooking vegetarian or vegan dishes, the chef has reservations about overly processed meat substitutes like fake shrimp for its artificial coloring.
"If you're eating vegetarian or vegan, I really believe in getting a complete protein. It's all about grains and legumes," he says.
Tila recommends having a stash of fried or dried tofu in the freezer. "I take out a block and throw it in the microwave, then cut them in cutlets and sub them anywhere I'd use meat," he says. "It soaks up the flavorings of what you cook it in." The relatively lower water content makes the tofu freezer friendly.
Another staple he suggests to keep around is Thai soybean sauce. "Most soy sauces are salty, but Thai-style soybean sauces have a nice full umami flavor. They're a little sweet. They're very rich in umami and they're also salty, so it's kind of a one-sauce wonder."
For his own pantry, he makes sure to also keep rice and legumes around, which allows him to whip into a quick stir-fry like California Fried Rice.
"I actually made it four years ago for a tasting. They were like, 'No one eats brown rice, A. And no one eats vegan, B. You're insane. Shelve it.' Two and a half years later, Mr. Wynn becomes vegan, I repitched it and it was like 'This is the most genius dish ever'," he notes.
California Fried Rice
From: Jet Tila
2 Tbsp. canola oil
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
4 cups day-old brown rice
½ cup shelled edamame
¼ cup frozen peas and carrots
1/3 cup small diced baked or fried tofu
A pinch sea salt
1-2 Tbsp. Thai-style soy sauce (Maggi or Golden Mountain Brand)
1-2 Tbsp. vegetarian oyster sauce (optional)
½ Tbsp sugar
2-3 stalks green onions, chopped
A pinch white pepper
1. In a large skillet, heat oil until a wisp of white smoke appears.
2. Stir in garlic and cook until light brown.
3. Fold in rice, edamame, peas-carrot mix, and tofu; press down in small circle motions to separate rice grains.
4. Add salt, Thai soy sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, and sugar.
5. Continue to fold for about a minute or two. Don't be afraid to scrape rice stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until rice absorbs the sauces and is slightly crisp on the edges.
6. Fold in green onions and white pepper, cook for an additional 15 seconds. Serve immediately.
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