Guest article by Jen Sizeland.
Southeast Asia is a beautiful corner of the world, and very popular with backpackers. I spent six months there, and while I had so many incredible experiences during that time, it’s the food that made the most lasting memory.
I was a vegetarian at the time, and learning about all the foods and flavours in Asia opened up a whole new world for me. Back home in the UK, I’d already developed a love for Southeast Asian food, especially Thai and Vietnamese dishes, so I couldn’t wait to learn more.
Travelling overland through all these countries gave me an opportunity to try even more vegan foods that I didn’t know existed.
While Southeast Asia’s night markets and delicious street foods are readily available and incredibly cheap, I wanted to dig a little deeper. It didn’t take much effort to discover that many Southeast Asian destinations have responded to travellers’ obsessions with their flavours by putting on cooking classes, including quite a few plant-based cooking courses.
Taking a cookery class is a great ethical activity, as the money goes straight to local people instead of big companies. It’s also the perfect opportunity to impress your friends with your new skills when you return home. Once I arrived in Hanoi, I decided to give it a try.
Vegan Cookery Classes in Southeast Asia
Learning to Cook in Vietnam
Making Pho and Spring Rolls
It was that first cooking class in Vietnam’s capital that really whet my appetite for making my own Southeast Asian plant-based meals. Right in the centre of the old town, I found a small school called Apron Up that offered cooking classes. In addition to the time spent in the kitchen, the class also included a trip down to the central market.
I love the chaos of Asia’s outdoor street markets, selling everything from vegetables to fruit, flowers and fresh tofu! The sections selling meat and fish tend to be quite confronting, but all of it is more transparent than supermarket supply chains.
The first dish we made was pho, a clear soup that is hugely popular in Vietnam. While beef is a traditional ingredient, the broth can instead be made with a carrot, onion and radish to achieve the same level of sweetness. We made tofu balls with vegetables and tofu mushed together, and we used the same mixture along with glass noodles to make spring rolls.
On this occasion, we fried them in boiling oil, but whether cooked or not, spring rolls are a vegan staple throughout Southeast Asia.
Making Green Papaya Salad
One of my all-time favourite dishes from the area is green papaya salad, also known as som tam in Thai. While it seems like a simple dish – shredded papaya, carrots, peanuts and lime juice with sugar – it is deliciously sharp and spicy.
And it’s a great choice for those who are interested in raw food or healthy eating. Keep in mind, though, that green papaya salad often contains fish sauce, which of course is not vegan.
Some recipes also call for other non-vegan ingredients, such as dried shrimp, pickled crab, or even freshwater snails. If you are attending one of the specialty vegan cooking classes offered in Southeast Asia, then the cooking course instructor will know not to include these ingredients.
However, if you’re at a cooking school that offers to adapt their non-vegan cooking course for vegans, then it’s best to remind them to leave these items out. Fish sauce can easily be swapped out for soy sauce, or tamari if you want a gluten-free version of the dish.
Vegan Alternative to Egg Coffee
While part of the class involved creating the famous egg coffee, an incredibly rich dessert that involves a lot of whisking, there is a fantastic vegan option, namely coconut coffee. The first time I tasted a coconut coffee, I couldn’t believe how good it was. I also couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it before.
It’s made from coffee, coconut milk, condensed coconut milk, and ice, and it is the ultimate caffeinated treat. It also doesn’t require the amount of effort that goes into an egg coffee, so vegan is definitely the easier option.
Vietnamese coffee is delicious served black, and much of the time it can be enjoyed just hot or cold. For the adventurous, banana coffee and peanut butter coffee are other delicious vegan options.
The best part of any cooking class is enjoying the spoils, and we added fried tofu and rice noodles to the pho broth, enjoying it with tofu balls, spring rolls and the salad on the side. It was three hours very well spent, and it gave me a burning appetite for more.
Vegan Cookery Class in Cambodia
Out of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has had the most difficult time in recent years. While tourism has not reached the same heights as in neighbouring countries, it’s a wonderful place to support businesses as they start to bloom.
For this reason, I spent much of my time at Cambodian-owned shops and restaurants. The lower level of development in Cambodia also means that it’s a wonderfully cheap place to try a cookery course, and I took one at Nary Kitchen in the underrated city of Battambang, west of Siem Reap.
This one also began with a visit to a market where some unusual items were for sale, both plant-based and animal-based. Because of the widespread poverty in Cambodia, people eat whatever they can get.
There were buckets full of ant eggs, skinned frogs and snakefish jumping across the ground in a bid to escape. Inside the market was a room dedicated to drying meat to prevent waste – a sight that made me glad that I was so privileged that I didn’t need to eat it.
Spring Rolls, Tofu Amok, Tofu Lok Lak and More
Our teacher was called Toot, and he taught us to make fresh spring rolls, tofu amok, tofu lok lak and banana, tapioca and coconut milk pudding. We prepared the spring rolls using a method similar to the one I’d learned in Vietnam. But since we weren’t frying them, we didn’t have to deal with the peril of having oil spat at us.
Amok is a type of coconut curry and a great introduction to using the fragrant ingredients of lemongrass, kaffir leaf, galangal, finger-root, turmeric and paprika. These are all ground together with a mortar and pestle to create the sweet and sour flavours associated with this area of the world. We also added coconut cream, and we created traditional banana leaf plates using cocktail sticks, a brilliant option for avoiding any plastic waste.
While these were put in the steamer, we made the lok lak, which is similar to Vietnam’s ‘shaking beef’ but with local Kampot pepper, to add a fiery taste to the tofu. The marinade was made from soy sauce and stock, but we created a peppery dipping sauce on the side too.
The finale was the banana pudding. It reminded me of baby food but was brilliantly comforting. It was made from tapioca, banana, coconut milk, water and a tiny bit of salt and sugar. I felt very grateful that I’d had the chance to dig deeper into Cambodia’s flavours, as the very next day I left for Thailand.
Discovering New Flavours in Thailand
Enjoying a Private Cooking Class
I first visited Thailand when I was 18. While I was very young and had no idea what I was doing, I knew the food was incredible. Having grown up in a small town in Northern England, I had not yet been exposed to a lot of global cuisines. In a way, this was perfect, as it meant I had no idea what to expect, so every dish I tried blew me away.
This time around, I was desperate to make these dishes for myself, so I booked a class at Napalai Thai Cuisine School on the island of Koh Chang in the south of Thailand. As it was off-season, I had the entire class to myself.
That being the case, my teacher Bunny kindly let me choose my own dishes. I chose some vegetarian Thai favourites – hot and sour soup, tofu pad Thai noodles, Thai red curry and sticky rice and mango. This is when it occurred to me that, if I removed the egg from the pad Thai, I could easily enjoy my favourite flavours without any animal products.
To make the soup, I made another paste from chillies, chilli paste and lime as well as lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime skin. There was something so satisfying about grinding it down, and the taste was beyond anything you could ever find in a supermarket jar, yet it was still achievable.
Thai Red Curry and Mango Sticky Rice
These flavours are adapted for red curry, which uses chillies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root, kaffir lime, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. The colour comes from turmeric, then the coconut milk and tofu are added in the cooking. In vegan pad Thai, the flavours come from tamarind, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, chilli powder and lime.
Mango sticky rice may well be one of the best desserts ever, but you do need a rice cooker to steam the rice overnight. The sticky rice is then cooked in coconut milk with sugar until it dissolves. Finally, the dish is made even sweeter by the addition of the fresh mango.
For me, the real fascination of Thai and Southeast Asian cooking is the balance of sweet and sour that elevates dishes to the next level with subtle and spicy flavours.
Vegan Cookery Class in Malaysia
Cooking in Malaysia’s Foodie Paradise
Malaysia is another country that’s famous among global food lovers. What makes it so well-known is that it has had so many influences, and its flavours are distinctly different from those in the rest of Southeast Asia.
Foodie travellers flock to Malaysia, as its food is prepared to such a fine art that it’s difficult for chefs to recreate. Knowing this, I decided to take a cooking class in the foodie paradise of Penang, in the city of George Town.
My class with Nazlina Spice Station was the last and most technical cooking class that I attended in Southeast Asia. I made roti canai (a Malaysian flatbread influenced by Indian cuisine), vegetable dalcha (veggie dahl), nasi lemak with sambal (coconut rice with spicy sauce) and cucur keria (sweet potato donuts).
The first thing we made was the rotis, which are so tricky that we had two assistants to help us. They’re made from flour, warm water and butter (vegan or dairy).
Tossing and stretching them requires precise wrist actions that I struggled to master. I imagine that, once you have mastered the technique, the repetition is quite therapeutic, but I just made holes in mine during my attempt.
The second most difficult recipe was for the donuts, made from steamed purple and orange sweet potatoes. They are mushed, moulded into shape and then fried. The difficulty comes when you have to glaze them by tossing them in boiled sugar syrup without smashing them up. It’s a real art form!
Vegetable Dalcha and Nasi Lemak
The vegetable dalcha is a cross between a curry and a dahl. Its flavours come from halba campur, which is a mix of whole mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, fenugreek seeds and urad dal as well as tamarind juice. Then we moved on to the Malaysian staple of coconut rice, made with cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, peppercorns, pandan leaves and cloves.
The traditional way to serve nasi lemak is in a paper cone, which was the trickiest part of this dish, but also an excellent way to reduce plastic waste. Nasi lemak is made by squishing the rice together in a cup, then placing it on the paper and adding cucumber, fried peanuts and the spicy sambal sauce with fried tofu on top.
Mine fell apart but still tasted delicious, so I bundled half of it up to give to my boyfriend, who loved it as well. Getting free meals and meeting new people is another bonus to cooking classes, in addition to the skills you take away from them.
Ultimately, what Southeast Asia taught me is that food can be creamy without dairy products and tasty without egg, and that being vegan doesn’t mean you need to compromise on flavour in any way. I hope this story has given you the inspiration you need to try vegan travel in Southeast Asia or to try making some of these dishes in your own home!