Many recipes online for Asian dishes require ingredients that are animal-based, such as fish sauce and shrimp paste. So we need to look at alternatives in order to make these dishes plant-based. I’ve done a bit of research and found the advice from Thai Grocers quite useful. I’ve also summarised advice below from other sites too.
Many south Asian dishes include the addition of fish sauce in their curries to give it an extra umami dimension to the flavour. But naturally, vegan and vegetarian diets preclude the use of this. If you’re flexitarian or pescetarian, then you might consider using it – but for the rest of us?
Well, you could just leave it out – or we could try and be a little inventive and substitute it for something else. The best places to go for this are the Buddhist monasteries of south Asia.
Most temples in Asia are strictly vegetarian, if not vegan. Buddhism and Jainism introduced the concept of vegetarianism to the Hindus of India many hundreds of years ago, and even today, whilst most lay Buddhists may not be vegetarian – kitchens in temples usually will be.
To get a close proximity to fish sauce, Thais often just use light soya sauce and add a little extra salt. I have seen a number of blogs or recipes suggest that using nori flakes is a great way to add a fishy flavour – but, others recoil at this idea and think it plain stupid.
However, many agree that soaking some dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms in a little water and soya sauce will give an additional umami flavour to the dish. This is the option I often go for.
If you live near a good, well-stocked Thai supermarket, you might be able to pick up a bottle of vegetarian fish sauce called nuóc mam chay.
If you’re making a beautiful red or yellow curry and really want to make the best of that colour – don’t use soya sauce! It will darken your curry – instead, use a small amount of yellow bean paste. I’ll mention this in each recipe I upload for you.
Another reason why vegetarians and vegans often cannot eat in Asian restaurants, even from the vegetarian menu, is because shrimp paste is ubiquitously used. Always ask the server before ordering.
Shrimp paste cannot really be substituted – there’s nothing quite like it. The nearest a vegan or vegetarian can get is fermented bean paste such as miso paste. I’ve included this in the recipes where shrimp paste is often called for – but it’s entirely up to you whether you include it or not.
If you’re reasonably new to veganism or vegetarianism, or experimenting with it just now, you might remember how food tastes with these animal products. Therefore, you’re the best judge of whether bean paste and / or soya sauce adds anything to the dish.
Experiment – and share your findings with the rest of us.
Image from Canva.com
Seb is a nutritionist registered with the Association for Nutrition and a writer specialising in plant-based nutrition and men’s health. He graduated from Chester University with a masters degree in human nutrition and loves discovering new and vibrant plant-based recipes.