Plant-based diets have become a global trend. A conversation about Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival with Anotai Gongvatana, the owner and chef of Anotai Vegetarian Restaurant, offers insights into the plant-based food movement.
Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival in 2021 started on October 6 and will end on October 14. I was surprised to learn that the festival is a staple tradition only in Thailand and a few neighbouring countries, but not among Chinese communities around the world.
The festival is internationally known as the “Nine Emperor Gods Festival,” and “Tessagan Gin Jeh” in Thai. It is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and continuing until the ninth evening. This annual festival is celebrated primarily in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand by Chinese descendants of the “Peranakans,” an ethnic group defined by their genealogical descent from the first waves of southern Chinese settlers to ports in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago. When the Peranakans emigrated to Phuket, they brought the vegetarian festival with them. It has been incorporated into local beliefs and became a unique vegetarian festival for Chinese descendants in Thailand.
This annual festival is celebrated across Thailand. Although the main attractions are in Bangkok’s Chinatown “Yaowarat” and the Little Market “Talad Noi” on the edge of Chinatown, and in Phuket, other official festivities are ongoing in towns with large Thai-Chinese populations, such as Samut Sakorn, Nakorn Sawan and Pattaya.
Although the origin of the festival has many different tales, the objective is purely to promote good deeds. It aims to purify the body and spirit and to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.
Commonly known as the Vegetarian Festival, it is technically more of a vegan festival with more regulations. For a start, let’s clarify the differences between Vegetarian, Vegan, and “Jeh.”
According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, or by-products of animal slaughter. However, vegetarian diets contain various levels. The inclusion of dairy, honey, and eggs depends on the type of diet you follow:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: no consuming animal flesh, but do consume dairy and egg products
- Lacto vegetarian: no consuming animal flesh and eggs, but do consume dairy products
- Ovo vegetarian: no consuming animal products except eggs
- Vegan: no consuming animal and animal-derived products such as milk, cheese, honey
A vegan, being a sub-category of the vegetarian, not only avoids eating all animal and animal-derived products, but also avoids using all animal-derived consumer products including cosmetics, clothing, accessories and etc.
The “Jeh” diet of the “Tessagan Gin Jeh” added more regulations on top of the strict vegan diet. Those who are participating in the festival will follow strictly the “Jeh” diet, which means abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, pungent vegetables including garlic, onions, spring onions, onion leaves. They will not consume spicy food, which means not spicy, not very sweet, not very sour, and not very salty. Technically, the only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple is “Jeh” food, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name. But if you are not participating at that level of seriousness, there are plenty of vendors and restaurants during the festival selling “Jeh” food. These establishments will indicate that they cater “Jeh” food by putting a yellow flag out in the front with the word “Jeh” written on it in red, in Chinese or Thai letters.
Moreover, for those who are serious participants, during a period of nine days, they will dress all in white, practice the Buddha’s five sacraments and make merit. They will not smoke cigarettes or tobacco, drink alcoholic beverages, or take any drugs.
When asked whether her Anotai Vegetarian Restaurant’ caters special “Jeh” menu for this year’s Vegetarian Festival, Anotai Gonvatana, the Chef and Owner of the restaurant and Co-Founder of Rai Pluk Rak Organic Farm, replied:
A: We don’t need to… 75% of our dishes on the menu are vegan. And on the menu, we already included small symbols declaring the sensitive ingredients such as garlic, onion, peanut, egg, milk, white wine, etc. And we are happy to change that sensitive ingredient or leave it out upon our customer’s request. For example, if they are strictly on a “Jeh” diet, we will replace regular curry paste (using garlic and red onion as main ingredients) with “Jeh” curry paste.
Q: A trendy question… How has your restaurant been doing during the pandemic?
A: Surprisingly good! Since day one of Covid-19, the restaurant has been closed for dine-in due to Covid-19 health regulations, but our kitchen has never been closed! We have been busy with takeaway and home delivery. And online pre-order has its advantages; we can efficiently pre-plan our kitchen.
Q: Can we say business is better than in normal times before Covid-19?
A: I won’t say that. We are doing quite well with online customers. But we have more regular customers who love to come to the restaurant not only for food but also for the pretty setting and stylish food presentation. We also have many senior customers who love coming to our restaurant to socialise with their friends. So I look forward to welcoming them back when the pandemic is over.
Q: How did you manage to turn the obstacle of several lockdown periods to your advantage?
A: It takes a lot of adaptation. All my staff was trained in face-to-face customer service. Now they have to learn new skills in online communication with customers. There are different requests when customers order meals online, such as the delivery time, which needed to be punctual. There are still many trials and errors. We are very lucky that our regular customers are so nice and very understanding. But my staff are learning and getting better.
And I also offer promotional deals and special discounts for takeaway and home delivery since the first lockdown.
Anotai founded both Rai Pluk Rak Organic Farm and Anotai Vegetarian Restaurant in the year 2000 when the vegetarian diet was not a fashionable trade. She has been at the forefront of the evolution of the plant-based restaurant business in Thailand.
Q: From your first experience, how has the perception of plant-based food in Thailand changed in the past 20 years?
A: It has changed a lot! Twenty years ago, people mixed up the vegetarian diet with the “Jeh” diet. This is understandable since we have a popular annual Vegetarian Festival when people gave up eating animal and animal-derived products for 10 days. When talking vegetarian, most people would think of the “Jeh” food – all carbs and oily stir-fried vegetable. It was all about giving up meat to save lives. They didn’t relate vegetarian food to a healthy diet.
Nowadays, the perception has totally changed. We understand the difference between vegetarian and its sub-categories, and “Jeh” food. Consumers have more knowledge about nutrition. They now see the vegetarian diet as healthy food. With plant-based, you consume less fat and less redundant protein. Your health will improve.
Let’s paint it in colours. Twenty years ago, the picture was kind of oily yellow. Today, it is more green and clean.
Q: It must be easier in terms of business…
A: It definitely is. We now have a much wider range of customers. Many years ago, young people didn’t care about vegetarian food, it seemed old-fashioned for them. But today, we have a lot of youngsters who consume plant-based food.
We also have customers who are not even vegetarians, but they come to our restaurant to have a plant-based meal because they understand that it is good for their health.
So, our regular customers are not only vegetarians or vegans but also anyone with a regular diet who is a wellness enthusiast.
Plus, customers are more interested in nutrition. They are concerned about the raw ingredients in their food. They know what to request. That makes my job easier, no need for an explanation.
Q: What do you think about the buzz in the new generation “Plant-Based Meat?”
A: I am sure the new generation of plant-based meat is healthier and cleaner. I have nothing against it.
But at my restaurant, we believe in “real food.” Although we serve vegetarian and vegan dishes at our restaurant, personally I am not against real meat. It is fine if you want to eat meat, but let it be real meat, real chicken, real fish, and no processed meat.
Q: Tell us about your famous vegan cakes and bakes.
A: The vegan cakes and bakes are on the regular menu. It’s not seasonal or only for festivals. We have huge demands from our customers who have food allergies or if they have a child with food allergies. Moreover, it is also popular among older customers who have concerns about cholesterol levels.
Basically, vegan cakes and baked goods are baked without eggs, milk, butter, or other dairy products. That cuts down more than half of the ingredients that cause allergies and high cholesterol levels. It’s a win-win for everyone.
The favourites on the menu include Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes, Vegan Bale-fruit Cupcakes, and Orange & Passion Cupcakes. Our customers say they taste delicious even without eggs or dairy. It makes me happy to hear it.
TEL: 02 641 5366
OPENING HOUR: 10:00 – 21:30 Last Order at 21:00
- The restaurant is now open for dine-in but strictly follows Covid-19 health regulations.
- The restaurant offers special promotions for take-home and delivery; please check updated promotions with staff.
Larb Tao Hu – Tofu Thai Spicy Salad with Toasted Rice Flakes, one of the favourites at Anotai Vegetarian Restaurant.