Every year in October, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore celebrate The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, which is a Vegetarian Food Festival. This event is held during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and in 2010 it was from October 7 to October 16th. In Thailand it is also called the เทศกาลกินเจ (Tesagan Ginje), or the special Vegetarian Festival. I had an opportunity to share in this meat-free food festival, and enjoyed the special dishes. Even though I am not a vegetarian, some of the dishes were delightful to taste!
During this time period of just over a week, the participants refrain from eating meat, and only eat vegetables, fruit and seafood. Originally food was prepared only in a sacred kitchen at specific temples undergoing long rituals. However, today most of the vendors just prepare special dishes and have a monk bless their establishment before the start of the holiday. I couldn’t get a clear answer as to the purpose of the event, except that it’s a sacrifice by not eating meat for more than a week, a spiritual cleansing of mind and body. Few Thais were able to explain it further to me. Apparently, further away from the city, in small villages, additional rituals are performed involving body piercings and singing. However, in the city of Bangkok, only the food matters.
Not all vendors participate, but about 70% do join in the vegetarian tradition. Yellow flags are displayed over vendors or restaurants who only sell vegetarian foods during the festival. This assures you that anything you order from that restaurant during the festival week will be 100% vegetarian and seafood. Yellow lanterns are also sometimes displayed with the Chinese symbol for vegetarian written in red. I found this over more than half the restaurants in my neighborhood during the week long event.
Some of the dishes include peanuts roasted in a soy bean sauce with hot spices, lots of fresh steamed vegetables over rice, steamed fish, noodles with basil, and many tofu related dishes. Most of the food is spicy and very hot, so be careful and sample each plate before you dive in. Sometimes the spice effect is delayed a few seconds, so you’re into your third bite before you realize a fire is building in your mouth. Coconut milk will help sooth the burn, though. Fresh crab and prawns are also available, but these exists all year long. Fruit juices, soy shakes, and pure water are the most common beverages during this festival. I found very few soft drinks or colas during this even, even though plenty of these are found in mini marts all over the city. If you’re addicted to sugar packed Pepsi or other colas, then you need to bring your own along.
Some of the foods are so spicy while being prepared, I often find myself sneezing when I walked down the street. If several people are preparing pepper and spice filled dishes, the air becomes thick with the aroma for awhile, and its hard not to sneeze. There are a few non-spicy dishes, however, including just plain steamed vegetables over plain rice. You will have to ask for “mai pet” meaning not spicy. This won’t guarantee a non-spicy dish, but will at least get you a lesser degree of spiciness.
In small towns of Thailand, the yellow flags will be abundant. If you’re in Bangkok, look for most of these vegetarian restaurants outside the tourist areas. I didn’t see many participants in the plastic tourist districts, where very little genuine culture takes place. You need to leave the comfort of the expensive hotels and upscale shopping centers, and go to the outskirts of the city. Take the sky-train to any stop near the end of the line (any of its lines). In particular, the On Nut, Thonburi and Huai Kwang stations have plenty. Here there are plenty of yellow flags and lamps during the Vegetarian Festival, plenty of food choices. Enjoy them! It’s only for a week, then some of these dishes disappear, and some will not be prepared again for another year.