Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Thailand's Vegetarian Festival - Convenience Stores

Convenience stores have long been one of my favourite stops on my travels. I especially love seeing what they sell in different locations around the world; where in the UK there'd be an egg mayo sandwich next to a meat filled pasty in Japan there'll be onigiri filled with all kinds of interesting combinations from the very non-vegan fish eggs to the often vegan friendly ume plum paste sharing space with sweet pockets of inari tofu. On my first ever trip to Thailand this January I was excited to discover things like ketchup crisps (the crisps themselves are shaped like french fries and they come with a little packet of ketchup for dipping), seaweed snacks, plum candy and Jay labelled ready meals stocking the shelves of the convenience stores and it was actually Rika's blog post about this very subject, convenience stores gone vegan, that first alerted me to the awesomeness of Thailand's vegetarian festival. After more digging I found plenty of other things to get excited about, street food, body modification, parades, but the lure of a convenience store stocked with vegan snacks never left my mind.

7/Eleven became a frequent stop during mine and Nick's journeys around Bangkok and Phuket during the vegetarian festival, the familiar blast of air con providing a much needed break from the sometimes stifling humidity outside. Power aisles and shelves were stacked with red and yellow goodies and flags were prominently displayed helping to guide vegan travellers and festival goers alike towards suitable snacks, meals and treats.

The shelf below became my very favourite sight when entering a 7/Eleven, there were sandwiches, cakes and sweet breads galore.

The steamer station also became a daily obsession, would they have my favourite taro bun? Would I stumble upon one of the lesser spotted sweet shredded pork varieties? You can tell which buns are Jay by the pictures on the front of the case as the ones that were suitable sometimes shared space with their meaty counterparts. They also helpfully had the Jay symbol on the paper beneath them which was helpful when faced with a confusingly busy 7/Eleven where you couldn't be 100% sure you'd been understood. Costing around 9THB / £0.17 / $0.25 each these were the biggest bargains of the fest' for sure.

I devoured many a taro steamed bun late at night beneath the glow of the 7/eleven sign.

The fridges were also overflowing with vegan goodies and I picked up deep fried tofu, five spice gluten stew, veggie and sweet taro sticky rice burgers and gyoza dumplings.

The tofu, which just needs heating in the microwave, has become a mainstay of my diet since the festival ended disappearing from shops only yesterday a whole month after the festival ended. I'm really hoping that this is just a stock problem and that it'll reappear soon becuase I'm gonna miss that quick and easy protein boost. Since the fest' I've also managed to find the five spice gluten stew in Lanta Mart on Koh Lanta but I suspect that it was just a hangover from the festival. The taro sticky rice burgers were one of the biggest 7/Eleven surprises for me, I was suspicious at first but after finally caving in and trying one I soon became obsessed. The solid feeling rice that acts as the bun turns into something softer and more appetising as soon as it's taken a spin in the microwave and the warm and slightly sweet taro filling complimented the flavourful sticky rice perfectly. I'm beyond sad that these aren't sold all year round.

Vegan microwave meals are something of a rarity and whilst I didn't actually eat any of them during the festival in either Bangkok or Phuket I was very pleased to see them on both Koh Yao Noi and Koh Lanta. The veggie fried rice with mock meat and veggies was pretty great for something that's ready in seconds and if you're in the market for something more flavourful the mock fish with Chinese kale (not pictured) and the Baked Vermicelli with Vegetarian Abalone offers a peppery alternative.

My favourite microwave meal, the Hong Kong Noodles, which come with cabbage, mushrooms and vegetarian ham seem to have become a mainstay in 7/Eleven's around the country, rebranded and with a new look I'm pretty sure they're here to stay.

Bread in Thailand contains milk and often egg and honey too so bread products are one of the things that I always miss when I'm travelling over here. What can I say, I'm pretty sure that bread's my favourite carb! I was both amazed and excited by 7/Eleven's selection during the festival which ranged from straight up white sliced bread like the kind pictured below and traversed the whole spectrum of sweet cakes, pastries and sweet breads.

On the savoury side of things was this peculiar but wonderful Shredded Vegetarian Pork Pocket Sandwich. This white bread pouch stuffed with slightly sweet shredded pork became my go-to snack when I needed something quick that didn't fall into the dessert category.

This Banana Cake was another one of my first finds and it stuck with me as a favourite throughout the ten days it was in stores. It was super moist, had just the right level of sweetness and kinda made me miss home. I always had counters scattered with browning bananas so banana bread was an almost weekly thing before leaving the UK.

This surprisingly named Vagetarian Croissant was another favourite, it was getting close to the wrong side of greasy but it managed to stay on the right side of the line and became one of mine and Nick's go-to hotel room breakfasts.

Another banana based treat was this Chocolate Banana Muffin which was enjoyed less often than the three previous things but it was just as good as the banana bread and the croissant - a must eat for sure. I used to eat leftover chocolate cupcakes as muffins when I was in Brighton running Operation Icing so this was a nostalgic treat for sure.

In the UK the puff pastry wrapped pies found in the aisles and fridges of convenience stores are usually meat filled and not even close to vegetarian friendly let alone suitable for vegans but these came in Apple Raisin and Pineapple. I have to say that they didn't become favourites of mine, I slightly preferred the apple raisin but it wasn't love at first bite, Nick on the other hand fell head over heels for the pineapple pie and devoured enough for the both of us during the fest'.

Taro Custard Filled pan bread was an entirely new to me sweet treat, I'd never even tried pan bread before and at this point my feelings on taro were lukewarm. This sweet bread elevated my taro love to something approaching a simmer and by the end of the fest I'd describe my taro lust as a rolling boil. I ate plenty of these and their mung bean filled counterpart before they disappeared from shelves leaving me panbreadless again!

The Taro Bread was a late discovery and I didn't actually see it appearing in stores until the festival was almost over. I still managed to squeeze in a couple though, it was soft, so light that it was almost fluffy, and had just enough sweetness that it didn't even need a smear of jam or PB to make it enjoyable. 

These Thai Custard and Black Bean filled buns on the other hand were far, far too sweet for me. They were also seriously greasy and had an off-putting overpoweringly buttery smell which meant that I didn't try more than a bite. Nick was quite into them though as was my pal Jules so y'know, different strokes for different folks. Give them a whirl if you see them next year and let me know what you think.

Green pea snacks are a definite favourite of mine and I snap them up whenever I see a Jay label on the pack.

I also discovered some fun drinks, Nick always buys the Double Choco flavoured soya milk from this brand but during the festival they also brought out a Thai Tea flavour. I'm not the hugest Thai tea fan but the flavour is definitely growing on me thanks to this drink and some wonderful ice cream I sampled in Bangkok.

My favourite soy milk drink has to be this green tea flavoured variation by Tofusan. I can't handle the weird tapioca-esque pearls at the bottom of the drink (yuck!) but the milk itself is tasty - it's sweet and flavoured with just the right amount of matcha. Thankfully this is one product that's stuck around since the festival's finished and I pick up a bottle a few times a week .

Vegan Jay labelled noodles in pots or packs were another feature of the convenience stores we frequented during the festival and whilst I was unable to find any that were chilli free Nick went to town trying all kinds of flavours. 

As I said at the start of this picture heavy post 7/Eleven isn't the only convenience store where Jay eats can be found, Family Mart also have you covered. The stars of their show were the onigiri which came stuffed with tofu and shiitake mushrooms and, in a Laotian twist on a Japanese classic, vegetarian larb pork.

I fell in love with the tofu and shiitake mushroom onigiri at first bite, it was delicately flavoured and the combo of soft cubed tofu and slightly sweet marinated shiitake mushrooms was spot on. I was also excited to spot some Jay labelled daifuku there too. Mochi daifuki is something that I made myself love before visiting Japan, it was far from love at first bite with these peculiar, squishy, rice treats but I persevered and now I'm a big fan. These didn't turn out to be my favourite daifuku of the festival, that spot goes to the matcha strawberry daifuku from upscale Bangkok mall Siam Paragon, but it was still good and I'm sure it would have been even better if I hadn't let it get all smooshed in my bag!

Family Mart also had a few bread products on offer but nowhere near the range that 7/Eleven had piled up on their shelves. My favourites were this soft sweet soy bean bun and the spongy mini banana muffins, the raisin bread wasn't so much of a hit as it was a little on the dry side.

Now that the festival is over I'll admit that getting used to the options that are available year round has been a challenge, I miss my morning banana cake and mid afternoon steamed bun and I totally wish that they were permanent fixtures. In fact, I'd go one step further and say that I wish that all convenience stores could be this vegan friendly all the time. Wouldn't that be so cool? If I've piqued your interest and you're considering visiting Thailand during the vegetarian festival you can learn more about the hows and whys of the festival in my posts on Bangkok and Phuket.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Thailand's Vegetarian Festival: Phuket

As some of my interests lie firmly in the festivals, body modification and eating spectrums I feel like I have a unique take on the happenings at Phuket's vegetarian festival. Nick and I travelled down to Phuket from Bangkok via overnight train and bus which is a great way to get there if you have the time. It's cheaper than flying (unless you can plan a long way in advance), more fun, and you save money on accommodation by spending a night travelling. It's a win win!

I wrote more about the whats and whys of Thailand's vegetarian festival in last week's blog post about Bangkok's festivities but a quick explanation is that for ten days in the ninth lunar month on the Chinese calendar Thai Chinese people with Taoist beliefs abstain from animal products, sex, alcohol impure thoughts and more to honour the nine emperor gods. During this time cities across the country get seriously vegan friendly because the Jay way of eating almost exactly aligns with veganism. Jay labelled foods appear in convenience stores (more on that next time), at malls, on kiosks, in the streets and down alleyways all over the country. As I said last time Phuket is the epicentre of the festivities due to the large Thai Chinese population there and the processions intensify because of this. Towards the end of this post there are photos of body piercings that may not be to everyone's taste. 

At night Ranong Road is lined with stalls selling vegan eats and because of this the street is filled with throngs of people looking for a festival appropriate street food fix. The great news is that from about 6pm the road is closed making scoping out the food sitch' much easier than it is during the day.

The street food options were overwhelming at times and most nights I'd spend ages wandering up and down the street paralysed by indecision before finally deciding where to begin. Dumplings are a firm favourite of mine and the combination of familiar food and this young woman who helped her parents out on their stall every day always brought a smile to my face. The shumai dumplings weren't the best ever but they were always a tasty start and of course the steamed buns were delicious, you can't really go too wrong there though, steamed dough is always going to be a winning option in my book.

These "fried squares" as I came to know them became an almost daily occurrence during mine and Nick's street food wanderings. I think they were made from rice flour and potato and there was a nod in the direction of something green so I'm classing them as a heath food.

This sushi was a one off purchase because it looked prettier than it tasted. I did really enjoy the red pork maki in the back right hand corner as it was the most flavourful of the bunch but the tofu "egg" was a tad disappointing and the seaweed wasn't seasoned to my taste. I wish I'd seen the red pork maki again though because I definitely would have filled up a box.

One of my favourite stalls was this one selling sausages and mushrooms on sticks which, after you'd made your choice, would be brushed with oil and thrown onto the grill for a couple of minutes. They were wonderful hot or cold and I was pleased to be reunited with the little sausages I tried at breakfast one day at Elephant Nature Park earlier this year. 

Piles of deep fried foods are everywhere at the fest' but they weren't my favourite, obviously I like a bit of deep fry just as much as the next person but this was all a touch too greasy for me.

Now I have absolutely no idea at all what this next thing is called but it's a rice flour based pancake that was omelette like in texture and filled with bean sprouts, peanuts and carrots. It came with a side of pickles. It was flavourful and ridiculously messy to eat and I freaking loved it. I'm still feeling a little sad that I left it until towards the end of the festival to try it!

This soup was another favourite of mine, it had an almost sour flavour and was nicely peppery. I can't really describe it's deliciousness but I'm very glad Doni, Rika from Vegan Miam's partner, recommended it to me.

Situated on Soi Phuthom off of Ranong Road road right by Jui Tui shrine Torry's Ice Cream was one of my favourite festival finds. I was beyond excited to find a spot that made me want to come back for more (and more and more!).

I think I ate there every single day of the festival and on some days I visited twice. The corn ice cream was a firm favourite as was the avocado and their other flavours like Lychee, Thai Dessert, Pumpkin and Sweet Potato were delightful. I was of course pleased that they had vegan cones (it's like a cup you can eat!) and I hope that they might continue making them now that the festival is over.

Mind blowingly good ice cream aside the most fascinating thing about Torry's is that, when I was there during the festival, they'd only been open for a week! Run by a brother and sister team they went on an ice cream making course, ordered everything they needed from Italy, opened up shop and jumped into the festival with four feet. Amazing! I chatted to them and apparently there'll always be a couple of vegan options available so keep an eye on their Facebook page if you're heading to Phuket.

Right across the street from Torry's were these lovely ladies who were making vegan doriyaki! Vegan. Doriyaki. Wowza! This was probably the most exciting discovery ever. As I mentioned in my last post I didn't really discover Japanese cuisine until after I'd committed to veganism so I've never tried Doriyaki despite the idea of a pancake filled with something delicious appealing to me more than most other foods I could imagine. Between Nick and I we ate our way through most of the doriyaki available deciding that the matcha doriyaki with a cream filling and the jam filled doriyaki were our firm favourites. Nick also enjoyed the one filled with banana custard which I didn't try because it sounds like a nightmare and not even one dressed as a daydream. If you get that lyrical reference we can probably be friends! One day when we visited they even had little pancakes with a mini sausage in the centre covered in ketchup. I still regret not buying one. Or six.

The next door stall was selling wonderful sponge cake rectangles covered in a fudge like topping so basically I was in dessert heaven on Soi Phuthom for the wholes damned week. It was epic!

There were of course desserts located on the main festival thoroughfare too and two of our favourites were these little sweet fried balls and the super sugary and intensely sweet Japanese Taiyaki which came with four filling options including taro, red bean and banana custard. 

I think banana custard is an abomination but Nick ate one every day so I think they're probably amazing if you aren't averse to such things. The taiyaki I was into was taro filled and I adored the pastry which reminded me of a Spanish palmerita with a creme brûlée-esque burnt sugar topping. They were truly wonderful and probably totally untraditional as I think that that Japanese version is a whole lot less sugary.

Sometimes a break was needed from the relative madness of Ranong Road and we'd take our food back to our hotel to eat in the quiet solace of our balcony from where we could watch fireworks exploding in the sky from a safe distance. This is a classic mix of 7/11 vegan eats, dumplings, banana muffins and taro filled Chinese pancakes.

The Limelight Mall across the road from where we were staying became our go-to lunch spot when we were craving air conditioning and a break from the hustle and bustle of the main area where the festival was taking place. Our favourite stall had no name as far as we could tell but was flying Jay flags proudly and had simple daily lunch plates of rice, mock meat, cucumbers and coriander which you could doctor up with any of the sauces available. We decided our favourite was a hoi sin / teriyaki sauce that we squeezed all over our meals with abandon before topping it off with a few decent shakes of pepper. These plates came with a simple brothy, peppery mushroom soup which rounded out the meal nicely and, as you can see, I headed straight for the sweet red faux pork again because it is seriously the best.

I spent a while trying to decide whether the festival food was better in Bangkok or Phuket and I'm pretty sure I've decided that Phuket wins. There was a winder variety of things to nibble on there and more of the standout dishes were definitely ones I ate in Phuket. Phuket also has the edge because of the sheer amount of processions and rituals taking place. Processions are a daily occurrence during the festival. They depart from shrines all over the city and parade through the city's streets in the early morning bringing with them a cacophony of sound and light shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke. 

The rituals that take place are oft described as aesthetic displays or even as mutilation but I don't like the using the word mutilation in this or any body modification related context but I don't think that body modification is correct in this case either; these aren't really even semi permanent so I think rituals is the best fit. These rituals take place without anaesthetic at the shrines or in the streets just outside them and the ritual piercings run the gauntlet from large scale cheek, tongue and lip piercings to tongue slashing or repeatedly hitting your forehead or chest with an axe or other sharp implement. As the week wears on I spot more and more people with the plasters and brand new scars showing that they had taken part in the rituals. From what I've gleaned the meaning behind them is to shift evil from others onto themselves or to bring the community good luck.

Having had my cheeks pierced (albeit with a much smaller needle) I have no idea how these people have managed to get this done before getting up and dancing their way down the street past hoards of people wielding cameras. I read online that they’re in a trance like state which seems feasible now that I’ve seen this spectacle with my own eyes. Back when I was a body piercer the other piercers and modification artists would head out into the woods to take part in suspensions something that I was told felt like being on drugs. As a recent quitter of all things chemical and herbal I wanted nothing to do with it but from what I’ve heard participants are in a similarly dreamy / out of it state whilst swinging from the trees on the hooks inserted through their skin.

The parades were an amazing thing to have been able to see with my own eyes, to give Brit’s a little context these processions are like Lewes bonfire night happening and nobody considering closing the roads and I was pleased that I threw myself into this side of the festival as well as focussing on the food despite having to set alarms with a five in them! The final night is when things really kick off, as we'd say in the UK, as you can tell by the outfit I donned to go and observe. Scared for both my vital senses and expensive tattoos I dressed in most of my clothes, a mask, earplugs and sunglasses and prepared to get hella sweaty.

Fat slow burning sticks resembling incense are used by children, teens and adults alike to light square red packs of firecrackers which are then hurled over the heads of white wearing worshippers towards the gods and the people and trucks carrying them. The crowd certainly wasn't safe from these airborne missiles and pieces of exploded firework hit me in the head, legs and body more times than I could count. Singed trousers and the red remains of firecrackers stuck to the processors sweaty, often tattooed bodies are a festival mainstay. Fireworks explode under cars and busses and in between motorbikes because, of course, the roads aren't closed - it is both beautiful and terrifying all at once. Every so often the crowd quietens and kneels when the signal is given that someone or something important is passing but as quickly as it began the silence is broken when another firework is thrown, it's quickly followed by another and another until firecrackers rain down like a monsoon and some of the glass shrouding the gods becomes so tarnished from smoke that you can't even catch a glimpse of the god within. 

At one point we bump into who I have come to know as Torry from Torry’s ice cream in the street, we smile and nod a quick hello as we dash in opposite directions giving the night a sense of village like intimacy. As midnight passes and the night draws on white faces are few and far between as most assume that the earlier processions are the main event and retire to hostels to drink, smoke and chat about the evenings events. Eventually the lions are fed with baht and the processions draw to a close, small bonfires are lit and rather than hurling fireworks into the flames people begin to burn their shrines. The streets are left littered with red paper wrappers and it's all over for another year.