Classic Asian Vegan Dishes

Vegetarianism is a practice that is slowly becoming more popular nowadays. There are numerous reasons as to why one chooses to follow this practice, as varied as the different types of vegetarianism itself, but usually it (the reason) is related to either, morality, religion, health or taste. If you are a vegetarian planning a trip to Asia, your choice of food can be quite limited, and there are cultural differences that can often leave one confused.

In Indonesia for example, the local word for meat is daging, which excludes poultry. So when one asks for food that does not include meat, you are often served with chicken instead. In many Thai and Vietnamese dishes, fish sauces are often the main source of flavor – the dishes won’t taste right without them. Fortunately, there are some classic local dishes that, with a few wiggle rooms here and there, can still qualify as vegan. Here they are for your perusal.

Delicious dumplings. Photo credit - Ben Maggie & Jean-Francois.

Delicious dumplings. Photo credit - Ben Maggie & Jean-Francois.

Vegetarian Dumpling

Judging from the various types of dumplings available and the differing reasons to savor them, we Asians definitely love our dumplings. There are steamed, deep-fried and stir-fried dumplings, and even one which you savor by first drinking the soup inside it through a straw, before eating it. Now fortunately, this also means you can often find a vegetarian dumpling variety. They are usually filled with dried mushrooms, tofu, rice vermicelli and chopped vegetables, all that goodness stuffed inside a flour wrapper and cooked by way of your preference.

Gado-gado. Photo credit - roboppy & Chieee.

Gado-gado. Photo credit - roboppy & Chieee.

Gado Gado (Indonesian Salad)

This Indonesian salad is a classic dish that has survived through the generations, with each local provinces and traditions adding their own mix of influences into the recipe. The basic ingredients however, are generally the same – a mixture of both cooked and raw vegetables, with fried tofu and boiled eggs, topped with a peanut sauce. Some prefer adding sweet soy sauce mixed into the peanut sauce, while others prefer a dash of spice and chili into theirs. Be warned however, that those chilies can make this delightful dish extremely spicy!

Som tam, papaya salad. Photo credit - WordRidden & Tarik Abdel-Monem.

Som tam, papaya salad. Photo credit - WordRidden & Tarik Abdel-Monem.

Som Tam (Papaya Salad)

Originally from Laos, this dish has spread through to Northeastern Thailand, combining the four main tastes of Lao/Thai cuisine – sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. It’s made from shredded unripened papaya, tomatoes, garlic, carrots, string beans, with a mixture of lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce for the flavoring, topped with roasted peanuts and tiny dried shrimps. You can skip the shrimps, but missing out on the fish sauce would very likely alter the taste too much.

Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Photo credit - sheilaz413 & Live Laugh Love.

Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Photo credit - sheilaz413 & Live Laugh Love.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Filled with all kinds of goodness from rice vermicelli, fried tofu, lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro, this tasty appetizer is a crowd favorite. They are a refreshing change from the usual deep-fried variety, and usually served with chili sauce, oyster sauce, or a combination of both. Be sure however, to ask for the vegetarian variety – the version with shrimp are quite popular, and there are other meaty versions as well.

Singapore popiah. Photo credit - melosh & Su-Lin.

Singapore popiah. Photo credit - melosh & Su-Lin.

Singapore Popiah

Some people will find similarities between this local favorite with that of the Vietnamese Spring Rolls, but as an avid fan of both, I can definitely tell you they are different inside out. The ingredients of Popiah are cooked vegetables, while that of the Vietnamese Spring Rolls are fresh raw vegetables. Popiahs are wafter-thin crepes wrapped around braised shredded vegetables, bean sprouts and garlic, with a dash of oyster sauce and chili, according to preference. Be warned however, that some stalls may add pork lard or fried fish skin to add crispiness into the popiah.

Rojak, a mixture of flavors and taste. Photo credit - boo_licious & BurpSean.

Rojak, a mixture of flavors and taste. Photo credit - boo_licious & BurpSean.


This fruit and vegetable salad dish is common in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, where the term “rojak” simply means “mixture”. Fruit rojak typically consists of slices of assorted tropical fruits, such as pineaple, mangoes, cucumber, sweet potato and others, topped with a sweet and spicy dressing made out of water, palm sugar, tamarind, shrimp paste and chili sauce. The vegetable version of this dish usually contains fried dough fritters, bean curds, hard boiled eggs, bean sprouts and cucumber mixed with a sweet thick and slightly spicy peanut sauce.

This post is part of WanderFood Wednesday, a Blog Carnival held by Wanderlust & Lipstick. Check them out for a visual treat of tasty dishes, or take part in the carnival yourself!

About the Author. Nikolas Tjhin. A graphic and web designer in its previous incarnation, Nik’s journeyman career has seen him do work for various creative studios in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Singapore and Jakarta. Now, he’s settled down for the time being and focusing his efforts as the editor of an Asia travel zine, Unearthing Asia.

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22 Comments on "Classic Asian Vegan Dishes"

  1. Sherry Ott on Sun, 7th Jun 2009 3:03 pm 

    Makes me hungry just looking at the lovely pictures! Great collection of veggie ideas from all parts of SE Asia! Thanks!

  2. Craig Ferguson on Tue, 23rd Jun 2009 9:18 am 

    Those dishes look great. Had some som tam this afternoon but I think they left the chili’s out. Tasty but no spice – that’s Thai food in Taiwan for you.

  3. Veg on Mon, 13th Jul 2009 9:35 am 

    Ummm, only 2 of those dishes are actually vegan (dumplings when you can find them, and the Vietnamese spring rolls – also not common in a meatless version in Vietnam). Nice try, but sorry, FAIL!! (But I still love your site!) Gado gado crackers are always made with prawn. And for the record, vegan som tum with soy sauce instead of nam pla? Delish!

  4. Nik on Tue, 14th Jul 2009 7:46 pm 

    Good to hear your love of our site Veg! =) And yes, we did ask for a few wiggle rooms here and there. But for the extremely strict vegan, you can opt for Gado-Gado crackers that are made of nuts, usually called emping here in Indonesia.

    For Rojak, I’m not sure why that doesn’t qualify as Vegan, but if there are indeed meat items added into the mixture, you can always opt out! Rojak is up to everybody’s preferences, and everybody has their own take of favorite Rojak ingredients. My personal favorite? The You Tiao, or You Char Kway!

    As for the Singapore Popiah, they use shrimp paste sauce as a base, but it is definitely not uncommon to skip that and replace it with hoisin (oyster) sauce instead. Some vendors do add fried pork lard, or other meat items such as prawns, pork or crab meat, so be sure to ask what is in the popiah before you ordered one. The point however, is that they are ingredients that are usually not included, so you can simply ask them to skip these without missing too much of the original flavor.

    As I said, a few wiggly room here and there! =)

  5. Veg on Tue, 28th Jul 2009 9:17 am 

    I don’t know much about Rojak but you listed “shrimp paste and …hard boiled eggs” amongst the ingredients. Not helpful if you and your server don’t speak a lingua franca and you end up with rojak or som tum or whatever with shrimp paste.

    Good to know about “emping” for my next trip to Indo as I love gado gado. I wonder just how common it is, though?

    Eh, don’t take my critique the wrong way – I do love your site. :)

  6. Nik on Tue, 28th Jul 2009 11:52 am 

    :) no hard feelings here Veg, I just wanted to share a little bit more about the food listed above in the articles. From what I gather, there are quite a few different types (or levels is it?) of vegetarianism, and each has their own different rules. So it’s always good to be more thorough! :)

    So hey, you often visit Indo? Jakarta? Let me know if you do and I’ll ask around for a good vegetarian place to bring you to! 😉

  7. Myscha Theriault on Wed, 30th Sep 2009 4:56 pm 

    Very thorough food post with fantastic pictures. I love the two image per recipe layout idea. Thanks for participating over at Wanderfood Wednesday.

  8. jessiev on Wed, 30th Sep 2009 5:56 pm 

    YUM!! these look fantastic. and now i am hungry!!

  9. marina k. villatoro on Wed, 30th Sep 2009 10:30 pm 

    I lived in Manhattan and was vegan the best places for me were in China Town. They had the best vegan food!

  10. Wanderluster on Thu, 1st Oct 2009 10:41 pm 

    As a vegetarian (and on some days vegan), I really liked this. I’ve been served “meatless” soup in Vietnam, only to find chicken in it! I think it was the only time in the last 20 years I’ve had meat, other than seafood.

  11. Michael on Thu, 5th Nov 2009 6:32 am 

    what the hell is vegetarian (which in general was the meaning of todays veganism) about these dishes??? fish sauce, oyster sauce, hard boiled eggs..

    VEG(etari)AN – cut the crap out, cause the animals dont need your excuses!

  12. Nik on Thu, 5th Nov 2009 12:18 pm 

    I understand your concern Michael, and I apologize if you misinterpret the article that way. We did note that some of these dishes aren’t exactly “vegan” but they can be, with “a few wiggle rooms” here and there.. The purpose is just to share a few inspirations for vegan travelers because Asia isn’t exactly very vegan-friendly (yet).. =) In any case, enjoy your travels.. and eat well!

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