Street Food: Khanom Gui Chai

Recently, I was walking through the streets of Chanthaburi with my friend Jan. Jan was cycling from Bangkok to Cambodia, into Vietnam and Laos, then back to Bangkok, and he happened to pass through C-Buri on my day off, so I caught the songthaew into town to see him. It was lunchtime, the sun was blazing, we were hungry, and the “Muslim Food” restaurant I had banked on was closed. What were two veg*ns to do? If I had been on my own, I would have stuffed my face with a few naturally vegan Thai sweets, but in Jan’s presence I felt compelled to act civilized, to eat a savory lunch with, you know, vegetables and nutrients and shit.

The truth is, though sweet street snacks are widely available, it’s not always easy to find savory vegan food in Thailand. In fact, I can only think of a few options, and luckily we stumbled across one of them.

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I’ve searched high and low for the proper Thai name for these, and the closest I’ve found is Khanom Gui Chai. Gui chai mean chinese chives, so this name only really describes one of the three types of dumplings we stumbled upon that day. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what was in the other two dumplings except to say that one was a light green filling and the other yellow.

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While Thailand may not have an abundance of savory vegan street food, it does have a very easy way to identify vegan (as opposed to vegetarian) food. Kin Jae (or Gin Jae) is strict vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy. No strong flavors like garlic or onion or cilantro either, unfortunately, but I’m happy do without in exchange for knowing I’m not accidentally eating fish sauce or eggs or gelatin.

So when Jan and I saw a woman frying up batches of these dumplings on a street stall in a narrow alley, I pointed and asked, “Nii kin jae, na?” and she confirmed that they were indeed vegan. She was also selling some fresh spring rolls, but they were “mai jae”.

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She served us a few khanom gui chai hot from the wide flat griddle and gave us two accompanying dipping sauces—one clear and vinegary but flecked with spicy chilis, the other dark and sweet like molasses.

The skin, a translucent and thick rice flour dough, was pleasantly chewy and crispy from the heat of the griddle and the filling of chinese chives was verdant and only mildly pungent. Chinese chives are much milder than their Western counterparts, tasting something like a clove of cooked garlic mellowed out with a mess of spinach.

Here’s a simple recipe to try that seems pretty versatile. If you’re in Thailand, these can be a little hard to track down unless you happen to know where a street vendor sets up. The good news is, once you’ve located the vendor, she’s likely to show up selling the same food in the same place at the same time every day of the week.

Six of these little guys cost us 20 baht ($0.65).

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