May Kaidee the Vegan Thai Goddess and My Visit to Plum Village Monastery

An interview by Yasmin Radbod

May owns and runs vegan cooking schools and restaurants in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand called May Kaidee's Vegan Restaurant & Cooking School. Her cooking classes are world-renowned and have excellent ratings on TripAdvisor. I had the pleasure of getting to know May and took a one-on-one cooking class, learning to make Thai curry pastes, soymilk, tofu, and vegan fishballs. Her cooking classes are fantastic, loads of fun, and include a little singing and dancing, too. May is approachable and her staff is incredibly friendly.

Q: How long have you been vegetarian/vegan?

A: I went vegetarian in 1991 and I've been vegan six years.

Q: Why did you go veg?

A: In the past, I ate too much and ate mostly junk food. Food is everywhere here and I used to eat all day and went to 7-Eleven frequently. I had horrible digestive problems and was very overweight.

Q: Why did you open your own restaurant?

A: Actually, I used to hate cooking. It was in 1991; I was working at my aunt's restaurant here in Khao San, and at first I would only wash dishes. After some time, though, I became interested in cooking and wanted to change my diet and eating habits. I began experimenting with making traditional Thai food into vegan recipes that were much healthier and easier to digest. In 1993, I opened my first food cart in Khao San and it was very popular and quickly became too crowded on the street. I noticed, too, that people wanted to learn how to cook vegetarian Thai food, and I had the idea to start a cooking school as well. The cooking school where we are at now [in Khao San] has been open 22 years, and this was the first cooking school I opened.

Q: Is everything here in the restaurant and cooking school vegan?

A: The restaurant is totally vegan, but in the Thai cooking class for beginners, we offer eggs as an option to include in our Pad Thai recipe because some people like to include eggs, but the vegan option is of course available.

Q: Do you ever miss eating animal products?

A: Never, and that's because I feel so healthy now as a vegan. I know now my body is very sensitive and in the past I ate a lot of fried food, sugar, milk, and cheese. These products made me feel sick. Now I don't suffer from the digestive problems I used to have when I ate those things. I also have a raw food cooking class, which is becoming very popular. I prefer raw foods.

Q: What is the biggest struggle or challenge you face running your business?

A: Our clients are mostly foreigners and I wish we had more Thai customers, but in reality it's too expensive for most Thais. We don't make a lot of money from the restaurants, but the cooking school's profits help a lot.

Q: Do you ever face problems with customers in the cooking school?

A: Well, sometimes people sign up without knowing it's vegan; they only booked online because it's so famous. So sometimes I have to encourage them a lot at the beginning and then the delicious food we cook speaks for itself, and they're satisfied. Sometimes master chefs from all over the world come to our cooking school and I have to adapt to whatever they are specifically interested in, too.

Q: What is your favorite cooking class, favorite dessert, and favorite curry?

A: I love our Thai Cooking Class. It's perfect for all ages and levels. My favorite dessert is our raw vegan cheesecake ice cream. My favorite curry is Tom Yam.

Q: What are your essential herbs?

A: Galanga, kafir lime leaves, coriander, lemongrass, chile, and garlic. Coriander is my favorite herb, but sometimes it's too strong for foreigners' tastes. I don't like parsley, though.

Q: Besides Thai food, what other international cuisines do you like the best?

A: To be honest, I really love only Thai food. When I go to Europe, for example, European food is too heavy. When I go, I always bring my mortar and pestle, wok, and steamer with me in my luggage. I cook Thai food every day myself.

Q: What are your future business plans?

A: I'm planning on opening a small shop or food truck in New York City in the future. We aren't sure yet when it will be up and running, but I'm going to NYC soon to start preparing. I'm very excited about this because sometimes Thai food in the USA isn't authentic. One time I was in New Jersey and my friend wanted to take me to her local Thai restaurant. When we got our food, I could tell right away it wasn't authentic, and I went to speak with the owner. Turns out it was owned and run by Chinese Americans, not Thai Americans! So of course it wasn't authentic.

Q: Why is Thai food special?

A: Because it's popular everywhere! Everyone knows it's delicious.

Q: Last question, what does "May Kaidee" mean?

A: It means "good business!"

Visit and click on "Products" to download free recipes and video tutorials from the chef herself! Here are some of May Kaidee's recipes to get you started. Enjoy!

Chili Paste

(Add to dishes like a curry or soup to taste. Recipe makes approximately 1 3/4 cups of sauce.)

  • 6 Tablespoons oil
  • ½ cup chopped carrots
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon dried chilies
  • 2 Tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons organic sugar
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
  • 2 Tablespoons oil

Put 6 Tablespoons oil (vegetable, soybean, or peanut) in a wok or deep frying pan. Add carrots and onions.

Fry 3 minutes in the oil. While frying, add garlic and dried chilies. Let it become a little brown. Then remove everything from the pan and put in a food processor or blender. Add soy sauce, sugar, and lime juice. Blend or liquefy all ingredients for a minute or two until it looks smooth. Remove everything from the food processor or blender and fry everything again with the 2 Tablespoons oil because it gets dry. Stir around and cook until the paste is smooth and the oil mixes in.

You can use the paste as a dip for sticky rice or veggies, or use it as a marinade, curry sauce, or a soup base. If you cannot handle spicy foods, omit the chilies.

Total calories per 1 Tablespoon serving: 39 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 1 gram Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 45 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Homemade Soymilk

(Serves 2-3)

  • 3 cups dry soybeans, with or without hulls
  • 4 ¼ cups water

Note: If you buy soybeans without the shells, they will make more milk.

Soak soybeans overnight or for at least eight hours.

Squeeze off shells or buy soybeans without shells and these will make more milk. Drain water, and then put three cups of beans in a blender or food processor bowl along with 4 1/4 cups water. More water makes it thinner. Blend until smooth, usually for a couple minutes. You can add a bit more water and blend again after blending the first time to make the leftover thick chunks smoother. Pour the blended bean milk into a cheesecloth over a bowl and squeeze the milk out gently.

You can get the leftover thick chunks to produce more milk by adding another cup of water to them and squeezing again. Or, save the thick leftover chunks and use it to make vegan burgers or use in a curry. Be creative! Most people throw those chunks away but you can use them in many recipes. One cheesecloth might not be strong enough to filter all the chunks and milk; you do not want to have any small pieces in the milk bowl, only the liquid, so use another cheesecloth if necessary.

Pour the milk into a wok and boil over a low heat for 10 minutes. Stir and be careful not to burn the milk. Now, you can add herb or other ingredients to flavor, such as vanilla or lemongrass, or cocoa to make hot chocolate. You can also add almond or coconut milk.

To make tofu skins (up to you): take any bubbles out with a slotted spoon and any leaves of herbs out, lower the heat, and fan it to make tofu skin form on the top. Do not touch. Pick up the skin with two chopsticks carefully and dry one day in the sun to make it crispy. Then use the skins for any delicious curry or deep fry!

To continue with the soymilk recipe: take out bubbles with a slotted spoon; take out any herbs or leaves; turn off the heat and allow the soymilk to cool. Enjoy it immediately, use in a recipe, or keep it refrigerated for later!

My Visit to Plum Village Monastery in Thailand

I also had the great pleasure of staying at Plum Village Monastery, a couple of hours outside Bangkok, Thailand, for one week. The monastery is in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has dedicated his life to helping others become more compassionate and peaceful beings. There are several of his monasteries around the world, including a few in the U.S. and one in Paris where he resides in a hermitage.

The monastery is unique because I was able to spend most of my time with monks and nuns rather than being isolated. I was able to build meaningful relationships with other visitors. It is affordable and anyone is welcome to stay for at least one week. It is easy to register on their website. This visit was the highlight of my experiences in Thailand.

The monastery is vegetarian and all the monks and nuns have cooking duty. It is very nice to eat buffet style with all the monks and nuns at large tables. The food is always fresh with an abundance of vegetables, and the tofu is made by the monks and nuns on site. Everyone eats together in silence, and always very, very slowly, unless it is a lazy day when everyone is able to talk while eating and eat wherever they like. The food they cook is usually vegan, but sometimes they buy pizza or sweets from outside that include dairy or egg products. They mostly do not distinguish vegetarian from vegan, although some of the meditations we did included focusing on the environment and committing to not support any act of killing in the world. As a vegan, this was my only disappointment with the monastery. I wish that they committed themselves to being one hundred percent vegan.

I was intrigued by many of the vegan dishes I ate there. One simple, delicious idea that I had never thought of trying is black sesame seeds in their oatmeal. A little salt, sesame, and oatmeal mixed together is super-fast and delicious. The monastery used black sesame seeds in many of their dishes. One of those dishes was a simple and toasty tofu wrapped in seaweed. All they did was take fresh, raw tofu, wrap it in fresh seaweed, and add black sesame seeds, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and chile as toppings. The taste was good but the texture was a bit too slimy for me. I wanted to make my own version of this recipe, so what follows is my own adaptation of that dish.

Seaweed Tofu Wraps

My recipe is richer in taste because I deep fry the wraps. If you want, you could bake them to make lower fat wraps, or pan fry them for another way to lighten up calories. Experiment to find which recipe and taste suits you the most.

I like to use already roasted seaweed because it adds to the flavor and makes very crisp wraps when they are deep fried. Try to find packaged seaweed roasted in olive oil so that you can deep fry the wraps in olive oil, too. I have had good luck using Korean brands that are roasted in olive oil and then using roasted black sesame seeds as a topping.

Begin by taking one sheet of seaweed and cutting it neatly into four equal pieces. Each piece should fit one piece of tofu. Using extra firm tofu, or any mock meat of your choice, cut it into rectangular pieces that will fit inside one piece of the seaweed you just cut. Place the tofu at one end of the seaweed square piece and wrap it as tightly as you can. Make sure it can sit flat properly because when you fry it, you don't want the seaweed to come apart.

In a wok or deep frying pan, boil three to four cups of olive oil; just make sure there is enough oil to submerge the wraps completely. When the oil is boiling, carefully place the wraps into the oil. You know they are cooked when the seaweed becomes crispy and brown. If you press on the wrap, the tofu inside should feel thick and tough. Then, using a slotted spoon, remove the wraps from the oil and place on a paper towel to soak up excess oil. Sprinkle roasted black sesame seeds on top and eat right away. You can also make a dipping sauce using soy sauce, dried chiles, ginger, garlic, and black sesame seeds as you like. Sometimes I cut up the wraps and serve them cold over rice or noodles, too.

Yasmin Radbod is a former Vegetarian Resource Group intern and a Fulbright recipient.