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Vegetarian With a Thai Twist

November 03, 1994|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ordering vegetarian food in Asian restaurants can be a challenge, because dishes may be seasoned with meat and fish products that aren't apparent to the eye.

Chinese chefs add a dash of chicken broth to make sauce. Japanese use dashi , which is based on dried fish. Thai cooks rely on fish sauce for saltiness and mix shrimp paste into dips and curry pastes. Vietnamese combine fish sauce with vinegar and sugar for nuoc cham , a dipping sauce. A strict vegetarian has to specify that such seasonings not be used. Otherwise, even dishes that appear to be meatless could be suspect.

At a Thai restaurant in Hollywood, the waitress guaranteed that vegetarian dishes would not contain the offending seasonings. Soy sauce would replace fish sauce, she said, and the curry paste was made without shrimp paste. A meal of vegetable curry, hot and sour mushroom soup, pan-fried glass noodles and egg rolls was refreshing and light--like spa food, but not much like Thai food. The flavors weren't as lively as they should be.

"Vegetarian eating and cooking is really not part of the Thai tradition as I understand it," says Edward J. McDonnell, an ordained Buddhist minister who teaches fundamentals of Buddhism at the Wat Thai of Los Angeles. "One would be hard pressed to find a Thai dish that did not have some meat product in it."

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In Buddhist countries, vegetarianism can be a religious obligation. Mahayana Buddhism, practiced in China, Japan, parts of Vietnam and Korea, is strictly vegetarian. Some practitioners even avoid garlic, onion and chiles, believing they inflame the passions.

Theravada Buddhism, which is followed in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia, does not prohibit meat. Monks are permitted to eat it. And a book on Thai Buddhism published in Bangkok states that the Buddha ate pork at his final meal. A recent lunch at the Wat, a Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, included fried chicken and other non-vegetarian foods brought by parishioners for the monks.

For a Thai, vegetarianism would be a personal decision, McDonnell says. "It would be a complete change from the normal style of Thai cooking."

Thai vegetarian food can be very good, however, when prepared by an expert such as Sisamon Kongpan, cookbook author and associate dean of the Faculty of Home Economics at the Rajamangala Institute of Technology in Bangkok.

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These recipes are from Kongpan's book, "The Best of Thai Vegetarian Food," published in Thailand by Sangdad Publishing Co. The salad makes a wonderful main dish. In Thailand, the mushroom soup would be made with fresh straw mushrooms, but canned can be substituted. In the fried rice, such typical Thai garnishes as shrimp and egg are replaced with pineapple, corn and red kidney beans.

GRAND SPICY SALAD (Yam Yai)

3 pickling cucumbers, peeled

1 onion

1 large tomato

1 bunch green leafy lettuce

2 green onions

3 or 4 sprigs cilantro

2 to 3 stalks celery

4 to 5 pickled garlic bulbs

1 cup mint leaves

2 serrano chiles

1 (1 1/2-ounce) bundle bean threads

2 cakes firm tofu

Oil for frying

1 1/3 cups roasted unsalted peanuts, finely ground

1 tablespoon palm sugar or light-brown sugar, packed

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon seasoning sauce (seasoned soy sauce)

Juice 2 limes

1 teaspoon salt

Cut cucumbers lengthwise into long, thin slices. Cut onion and tomato parallel to core into thin slices. Cut lettuce, green onions, cilantro and celery into similar lengths. Slice pickled garlic thin, retaining 1 tablespoon brine. Pick mint leaves from stems. Cut chiles lengthwise into very thin slices.

Immerse bean noodles in hot water until flexible, then cut into shorter lengths. In skillet fry whole bean curd cakes until browned. Drain. Cut each in half horizontally and cut each half into thin slices.

Place cucumber in large bowl. Add peanuts and palm sugar and blend while adding soy sauce, seasoning sauce, lime juice, reserved garlic brine and salt. Add bean curd, lettuce, onion and tomato. Toss. Add noodles and toss. Taste should be sour, salty and little sweet. Adjust seasonings to taste as needed. Add celery, green onion, coriander and mint. Toss. Transfer to serving platter. Decorate salad with chiles, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

307 calories; 666 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 2.83 grams fiber.

Note : Pickled garlic is a Thai product, available in Thai markets.

SOUR AND SPICY MUSHROOM SOUP (Tom Yam Het)

9 cups water

3 stalks lemon grass, cut into 2-inch pieces

6 slices galangal

9 kaffir lime leaves, torn into large pieces

2 (15-ounce) cans straw mushrooms, drained

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon lime juice

10 Thai chiles, or serrano chiles to taste

1 green onion, chopped, or chopped cilantro

In pot bring water to boil. Add lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Simmer 10 minutes to extract flavors. Add mushrooms and heat through. Add soy sauce and remove from heat.

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