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Does Thai Curry Have Fish Sauce? (Yes; Vegan Solutions!)

Thai food is known for its distinctive flavors. Things like lemongrass, garlic, peanuts, and tamarind, to name a few. I was vegetarian for 10 years though, and while I loved how many vegetables there were in Thai food, I often wondered does Thai curry have fish sauce?

Most Thai food contains fish sauce, even if it’s not listed in the ingredients. Even if an item sounds vegan, you should assume it has fish sauce in it unless clearly labeled vegan. Thai soups, noodles, curries, and stir-fries will all contain fish sauce in them unless the restaurant intentionally caters to vegans.

But that’s just a quick answer, and for vegans and those looking to avoid fish sauce, there are some workarounds. So let’s dig in a little deeper!

If you’re looking to eat a more plant-based diet, you’d be happy to know that Thai food chock-full of fresh vegetables. Most Thai dishes don’t contain any dairy or cheese, either.

But what about that fish sauce? What can you substitute for fish sauce, and what is it made of? Can you ask for substitutions at Thai restaurants?

I’ll answer all of these questions, and talk about what the best vegan Thai dishes are.

Just keep reading!

Does all Thai food have fish sauce?

Yes, is the short answer. Most Thai food contains fish sauce. 

Now these days, there are plenty of restaurants that cater to vegans. So if they went to the trouble to list an item as vegan on the menu, I would trust that. Unless their Yelp reviews say otherwise.

But fish sauce is REALLY common in Thai food generally.

Your best bet would be to ask that your dish, no matter what it is, is made without fish, shrimp, or oyster sauce. The restaurant should be able to substitute in soy sauce or leave out sauce completely without affecting the meal too much.

Sometimes restaurants may pre-make some of their marinades or curries for convenience and for quicker service time to guests. Because of this, you may not be able to get your sauce vegan-friendly. You may want to call ahead to your favorite restaurant to see if they can accommodate you.

If you are unable to get a vegan curry, several other items are safe to order.

Spring rolls and salad rolls are great options. As are Thai salads. Green Papaya salads are flavored with spicy Thai chilies and Thai salad seasoning. Thai Mushroom Salads come with a Thai lime salad dressing.

Rice stir-fries are excellent vegan entrée options. As are Drunken Noodles or Spicy Noodles.

Fried rice is delicious and can easily be made to be vegan. Just don’t forget that fried rice is typically made with eggs. So just ask that they are left out.

It’s when coconut milk gets involved that Thai food can get a little heavy-handed with that fish sauce.

Is Thai curry usually vegan?

While Thai food is deliciously vegetarian-friendly, it can still be a little challenging to navigate as a vegan.

That’s because a tiny amount of seafood, like fish, shrimp, and oyster sauce are incorporated into most savory Thai dishes.

Curry is no exception. Many Thai restaurants put ground shrimp into some of their curries (panang in particular). And curry pastes are typically premade, so there is really no way to order a vegan-friendly curry.

If you want to make Thai food at home, you may want to consider making your own curry paste, leaving out the shrimp. That being said, Thai Kitchen is the most well-known brand of Thai condiments, and their Red Curry Paste and Green Curry Paste are indeed free of fish sauce and are vegan.

Just click those links to grab ’em on Amazon if you don’t have them in a store near you.

If you happen to find a vegan-friendly option, you may be pleasantly surprised to know that it will last quite a while unopened in your pantry.

Curry paste has been known to last several years or more in the unopened jar. But once it’s opened, it will last up to 4 weeks. Just be sure to keep it in a clean, dry place.

Read this recent article on my site to learn more about how to store Thai curry paste for optimal freshness.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What can I substitute for fish sauce in Thai food?

If you are vegan and still want that unique Thai flavor, there are a few non-seafood substitutes you can use that you can use. For one, you can follow this recipe. In about 20 minutes, you’ll have about 3 cups of vegan fish sauce.

If you don’t have the time, or simply don’t want to make your own fish sauce, you can use Thai Thin Soy Sauce (click to see a well-rated one on Amazon).

It’s also known as “see ew cow” or white soy sauce in Thai. It has a similar taste profile that is salty and savory.

Soy sauce is also a good substitute. It’s made from fermented soybeans and roasted grain. It won’t have the same flavor as fish sauce, but it will add that tang and saltiness the fish sauce adds to dishes.

If you’re at a restaurant, you should ask what they can substitute for fish sauce. Restaurants are really innovative and want their customers happy so they want to come back. They’ll likely have a vegan option available.

Like fish sauce, coconut milk is used in many Thai dishes. You’ll find both canned and carton coconut milk at the grocery store. So which one should you use?

Check out this recent article to read about why you should choose coconut milk in the can.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What is Thai fish sauce made of?

Most of the flavor in fish sauce comes from, surprise, surprise . . . fish.

Small fish like anchovies are covered in salt and packed in large barrels. They hang out in these large barrels to ferment for anywhere from a couple of months to a few years.

The natural bacteria break down the fish, into a briny, fishy, savory liquid.

That’s it. Fish sauce is made out of fish.

One of the reasons that fish sauce can’t be left out of Thai curry, is because Thai curry is typically a wet paste. This paste gets mixed with coconut milk to form a rich sauce.

When choosing substitutions for fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce should be avoided as it is made with anchovies. I did find a recipe for a homemade vegan Worcestershire sauce on this website. But honestly, the tamarind flavor of Worcestershire lends itself more to Indian curry than Thai curry.

A lot of people think that curry is curry.

In fact, that’s not even close to true. As we’ve discussed, Thai curry usually isn’t vegan.

Indian curry, on the other hand, can be completely vegan-friendly. It’s a mixture of dried Indian spices that is rubbed on meat or vegetables. The veggies may be cooked with tomatoes, but overall, it isn’t heavily sauced.

And there’s certainly no fish sauce used in traditional Indian cooking.

To read more about the differences between Indian and Thai curry, check out this recent article. I get into all the differences, and I even explain why the leaves of the curry plant are often missing from most curries.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What are the best Thai dishes for vegans?

Thai food is rich in fresh ingredients and flavors. As a result, there are many options for vegan-friendly dishes.

Pad Thai is a noodle dish that typically contains meat and eggs. You can easily substitute those for tofu, or just leave them out completely. And because it’s made with rice noodles, it is also usually gluten-free.

Just ask to make sure the pad thai sauce doesn’t have fish sauce. 

Thai pineapple fried rice is fried with chunks of pineapple and cashews, peas and currants. Just order it without the eggs to make it vegan. Sometimes fried rice is made with curry so be sure to ask your server about it before you order.

If it is made with curry, just ask them to leave it out, unless they can confirm it’s vegan.

Thai green mango salad is a classic Thai salad that is made of unripe mangos. To make it vegan, swap the fish sauce for soy sauce. Add fried tofu to add texture and protein.

Spring rolls are always a good option. They are just overflowing with fresh crispy vegetables and chewy noodles.

Making Thai food at home is a way to try Thai dishes that traditionally have fish oil in them. Some options to make at home include vegetarian tom yum soup, stir-fried eggplant, and baked tofu in peanut sauce.

I found this website that has an excellent and extensive list of vegan-friendly options and recipes to try at home.

Final Thoughts

While the majority of Thai food contains fish sauce, there are plenty of delicious vegan options out there for vegans.

Thai curry is not going to be a vegan-friendly option at most restaurants, but you can make your own, omitting the shrimp. When ordering at a restaurant, you can either substitute soy sauce for fish sauce or leave the sauce out completely. Thai food is deliciously vegan-friendly.

What is your favorite Thai dish?

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Jeff Campbell