7 Vegan Thai Cooking Tips From Famous Chef May Kaidee
I discovered May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant in Bangkok near the end of my Peace Corps service in 2005. The owner glided across the dining room, dressed in golden Thai flames and perfectly wrapped fabric. She was dancing, she was singing, and I was in love.
It is clear in her vegan Thai cooking classes and cookbooks: May Kaidee is a chef who feeds your soul.
On my last day in Bangkok, I finished producing the first book I ever co-authored, “Guide to Being Vegetarian in Thailand”. I victoriously wrangled 5 copies from the Peace Corps office printer. This was before smart phones and wifi. I stapled the pages together and delivered a copy to one of May Kaidee’s three restaurants in Bangkok. Five years we collaborated with May Kaidee and her friend Jo to create the app May Kaidee’s Guide for Vegetarians and Vegans in Thailand. Soon had 10,000+ downloads helping people order vegetarian Thai food all over the planet.
I was back in Ithaca New York when May Kaidee opened a phenomenal vegan Thai restaurant in New York City. So close! Our friendship built on Northeastern Thai country music, spicy vegan salads and brown rice continues to grow. Here’s a slice of what I have learned from this master chef who has been making magic happen in her restaurants for decades.
- You don’t have to be so serious about being vegan
Most Thai people I have met know how to have fun. Everywhere. All the time. They don’t make space in their lives for seriousness. I have noticed this about May Kaidee and my macrobiotic in-laws Lewis and Priscilla Freedman as well. These amazing vegan chefs focus on enjoying food rather than fearing ingredients and judging others for eating other ways. Happiness and joy makes healthy vegan food even more delicious.
- Wear something unique so people remember you and how well you cook
May Kaidee wears full traditional Thai dress when shopping for produce in the markets of Bangkok and New York City. She looks like a Thai angel on a bike. Sometimes she even carries baskets on a bamboo pole balanced on her shoulder through the markets of Manhattan. People notice, and many find their way to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurants. Once they get there, May Kaidee is again dressed to the hilt and creating a memorable experience for her guests.
- A plate of raw foraged greens makes a perfect side dish
Many people who enjoy lon
g healthy lives in the “Blue Zone” areas of the world eat foraged greens often. Just before lunch May and I picked young dandelion leaves, mint that popped up between my hostas, and arugula and baby collards that seeded themselves in my garden and greeted me in the spring.
- Mint shakes are always better with a couple chunks of pineapple
I popped my head into the kitchen after sipping a divine mint shake at Mai Kaidee’s Restaurant in Bangkok once to find out what the heck was in it. Just a tiny bit of sweet and sour fruit can step up the flavor or your blender drink. Keep a couple chunks of pineapple in the freezer and try it. And check out my Shakes and Smoothies page for tons of unique blender drink ideas.
- How to keep rice noodles from breaking
Pad thai and other rice noodles are very different from wheat-based spaghetti. They absorb flavor and they break easily, and you can try several techniques to really showcase these noodles. Soak Pad Thai noodles in plain water for 5 minutes to 1 hour. Just before serving, cook them quickly in small batches if possible. Gently and minimally toss the noodles with the tamarind sauce, vegetables, etc that you fried in another pan just before you turn off the heat. When making cinnamon soup “Goy Tee-ow Pah-loh”, May Kaidee puts a small amount of noodles in separate bowls and ladles the soup on top so the noodles would not over cook. Her noodles are perfect.
- Some recipes are secret
When I asked May what she put in the Spicy Seitan Salad “Laap”, she smiled and said it was secret. I dry roasted the raw brown rice for her and blended it into rice powder, which is a special ingredient in food from Northeastern Thailand. We picked the fresh mint in the salad together one hour before. It tasted like heaven. And since it was secret, it gives me a recipe to strive to creatively make as delicious as that memory. May’s chili sauce recipe is a delicious secret as well.
- Cooking is a dance when you love it
May Kaidee is focused and playful in the kitchen, and to me she often looks like she is dancing even when there is no music playing. Chopping the vegetables, rinsing the rice kernels, stirring the stir-fry, making papaya salad with a mortar and pestle, and delicately laying a plate in front of a friend.
If dancing is what we enjoy, let us see all parts of our life as a dance. Especially when we are preparing and enjoying delicious plant-based food.