A Vegan in a Refugee Camp on the Thai-Burma Border

By Yasmin Radbod

For eight months, I was teaching in an English higher-education program, living in a refugee camp inside Thailand but very close to Burma/Myanmar. My students were from various ethnic groups inside Burma/Myanmar, including Shan, Karreni, Sgaw Karen, Po Karen, and Arakanese. For my meals, I was very lucky to have access to a variety of vegetables sold in the market for a very inexpensive price. Long green beans, kabocha pumpkin, cauliflower, carrots, several green, leafy vegetables including morning glory, as well as tofu were among the selection. Fruits like oranges, mangoes, papayas, and apples were sometimes available. Because everyone in the camp except the Thai officers was from Burma/Myanmar, the food was Burmese, too. My students had cooking duty and cooked breakfast and dinner for me. They knew I was vegan. I taught them the meaning, and they were really wonderful about cooking separate meals for me. They did not eat a lot of meat, but fish paste is in most products and used as a base in soups and curries. Dried fish and eggs are also very common in their cuisine. The smell of dried fish is horrible! As in many other parts of the world, white rice is the staple. Soup and curry are almost always served with the rice; that way it is not necessary to drink water when eating. Whole stalks of leafy, green vegetables are commonly boiled and eaten. Sometimes I would spend five minutes just trying to chew one stalk and swallow it. Other times I would give up and throw away the half-chewed piece. MSG is usually used to cook, and if not, people will say the food has no taste. Instant noodles were frequent, too, accompanied by rice. People love to drench their food in oil and, as a foreigner, I found it totally repulsive at times. Sometimes I would just eat rice with a little salt and avoid the curry because the oil was so rich it made me sick.

Several small sweets were available to buy throughout the camp, including fried dough balls, deep fried bananas, deep fried squash, sticky rice with coconut, and rice stuffed inside bamboo. While I was there, I met one Burmese woman who was vegetarian and had her own fried-snacks shop. She was so happy I was vegan. Some of the Rohingya refugees prepared delicious snacks of all kinds of breads, fried or deep fried, sometimes putting chickpeas inside the dough. Once in a while, sticky purple rice was available early in the morning, which was a special treat for me. Every morning, beginning around six, there was a market in one dirt field of the camp. All kinds of vegetables and sweets could be found there, but one never knew what would be available.

After a couple months I had access to a small stovetop and was relieved and delighted to try cooking on my own. I started to visit the morning market and experimented cooking with my students and friends. Mung bean thread noodles were available everywhere and were very cheap. I grew to really love the taste of them. They make a great alternative to egg noodles, which are frequently used in Burmese cooking as well. One recipe I include below is made with okra, which was always plentiful in the camp, and tomatoes, and mung bean noodles. Here in the United States, you can find mung bean noodles at international or Asian markets.

Some vegetables and fruits were grown inside the camp but most were brought from Mae Sot, the nearest town to the camp. Mae Sot is a great place for tourists and expats to relax and find a shady spot to enjoy a cool drink and use wifi. The Thai community there is Buddhist, and there are several vegetarian and vegan options in the town. The best place to visit is Borderline, a vegetarian restaurant, Burmese cooking school, and fair trade gift shop. They do use egg noodles in several recipes; so just ask to make sure what you order is vegan. The cooking class they offer is a lot of fun. The group chooses which dishes they want to cook, most of which are vegan or can be made vegan. Then the group goes to the local Burmese market, buys vegetables, and finally cooks and eats together. I learned how to make steamed banana wraps, their classic tofu salad with chickpea flour, lemongrass juice, and a Karen pumpkin curry. Chickpea flour is delicious when it sticks to freshly fried tofu. The second recipe below is my variation of Borderline's tofu salad.

Okra, Tofu, and Tomato Stir-Fry

(Serves 4)

The okra and tomatoes stick together and form a pasta sauce. Adding mung bean noodles makes it even better! Please note this recipe is high in fat.

  • 2 ½ cups okra
  • 5 tomatoes
  • 7 ounces tofu (about half a container of tofu)
  • ½ cup oil, for frying
  • 2 six-ounce packages mung bean noodles
  • Soy sauce, curry powder, chopped onions, garlic, lime or lemon juice, and chilies, to taste

Wash okra and slice them into halves crosswise. Core then slice tomatoes into quarters. Drain the tofu and cut it into rectangular or square pieces.

Pour 1/2 cup oil into a wok or deep frying pan and let it boil. Then add the tofu pieces. Fry them until they are golden brown on both sides. Remove the tofu and cook the okra and tomatoes in the same oil in that wok or pan, adding some water if necessary to prevent sticking. Let the okra and tomatoes cook into a kind of stew, until the okra is soft. Return the tofu pieces to the pan. Add soy sauce, curry powder, onions, garlic, lime or lemon juice, and chilies as you like.

Meanwhile, put mung bean noodles into a bowl and soak in water for five minutes. The noodles look like a lot in the package, but they cook down and absorb liquid. After soaking the noodles, drain the water and add them to the stir-fry. If they stick to the pan, add a little water to cook longer.

Total calories per serving: 628 Fat: 30 grams
Carbohydrates: 84 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 27 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Tofu Salad

(Serves 3-4)

This recipe is simple. You could try it with other vegetables, too. It can be served as a salad to accompany a main curry dish or served over noodles. Please note this recipe is high in fat. Eat in moderation.

  • 3 cups fresh spinach, washed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 5 tomatoes, quartered
  • 7 ounces tofu (about half a container of tofu)
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • Small handful chickpea flour (or use other flour)
  • 1 lime or lemon
  • Black sesame seeds, to taste

Put spinach in a large bowl. Add red onion and tomatoes.

Drain the tofu and cut it into rectangular or square pieces. Fry pieces of tofu in oil. When the tofu is golden brown, remove it and add it to the large bowl. While the tofu is still very hot, add a small handful of chickpea flour. The flour will stick to the ingredients, especially the tofu. Stir to spread the flour until it seems like it has melted into a creamy, nutty-tasting sauce. Add more according to your taste. Squeeze one lime or lemon over the ingredients in the bowl. Add black sesame seeds as you like. Serve with noodles or rice.

Total calories per serving: 454 Fat: 41 grams
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 46 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Vegan Cuisine in Penang, Malaysia

I also spent two weeks in Penang, Malaysia, which is an incredible place for vegans to gorge on Chinese, Japanese, and Indian vegan cuisine. Penang has a beautiful historic area called Georgetown, with quaint shops and a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim temples and culture. The art scene is incredible, too, and it is easy and fun to ride a bike around in the touristy area and discover every nook and cranny that the area has to offer. Georgetown is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is an all-vegetarian Chinese eatery called E.E. Beng in Georgetown. It serves tasty dishes, and every day has a wide range of freshly cooked curries with mock meats, tofu, and lots of vegetables! They also make authentic Chinese-style buns with delicious fillings like tofu and bean pastes. The buns tend to sell out quickly, as do the various soups they make fresh in the morning, so you have to get there early. Additionally, they serve brown rice, and you can eat in or take out. It is truly delicious vegan food for a very cheap price!

There is also an all-vegan, authentic Japanese restaurant, called Sushi Kitchen, which is a little pricey but well worth it. Imagine an assortment of vegan sushi, one-of-a-kind soups, and seaweed, tofu, and miso dishes.

Penang is home to incredible Indian food, too. Some temples offer free meals, especially the ones near Georgetown, and some require you to eat in silence, which can be pleasant sometimes. Just make sure what you get is dairy free.

Penang is artsy with a growing mix of expats and foreigners. There's always something to do, and it's easy to meet people and make new friends. It's also convenient to take a one-day train ride to Bangkok, Thailand. Take the very inexpensive ferry ride, which runs daily, to or from Georgetown to the Butterworth train station. At the train station, buy a second-class seat to meet lots of interesting people who will share your coach with you!