There are few dishes more comforting on a rainy day than a warm, hearty bowl of soup. Fortunately, Vancouver has an abundance of restaurants that offer authentic Southeast Asian soups such as Vietnamese pho and Thai tom yum. Finding vegan versions of these, however, can be challenging.
As Mimi Bui, the manager at Hanoi Pho (406 East Hastings Street), explains at her restaurant, “Pho is traditionally a beef noodle soup, and the only vegetables you’re getting are bean sprouts and Thai basil.” Bui's father has owned Hanoi Pho since 2007. The previous owners offered only traditional beef pho, normally prepared with a bone-based broth, but the Buis decided to add a vegan option, prompted by customer demand. “We had a lot of requests from customers who were looking for a vegan soup, and we wanted to accommodate them,” Bui says. The kitchen initially offered two vegan versions—including one with imitation seafood—but the vegetable, tofu, and rice noodle soup proved more popular with patrons. Chock full of broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, onions, medium firm tofu (half of which is deep fried), and rice noodles, with the requisite plate of bean sprouts and Thai basil on the side, it’s easy to see why the dish is in demand. Bui decided to add it to the menu, along with other vegan items the kitchen had previously offered by request only.
While it’s understandably a favourite with the vegan and vegetarian crowd, Bui says many nonvegetarians order the soup as well. “It seems like people are conscious of eating healthier, and the vegan soup is light,” Bui says. “It’s one of the most popular soups on the menu now, which I didn’t initially expect.”
Originally from Vietnam, Eva Lam has been the cook and manager at Pho Linh (325 East Broadway) for six years. She decided to add a vegan pho option to the restaurant’s already extensive menu about two years ago. “I noticed couples and groups of friends come in together, and the vegetarians and vegans had nothing to eat,” she told the Straight in an interview at the restaurant. “I want to make sure that all my customers feel welcome and that they can enjoy the food.”
According to Lam, “It’s not too difficult to create a vegan pho. I just focus on finding fresh, nutritious ingredients [vegetables and spices] to give the broth a full flavour.” She enjoys the creative aspect of adapting traditional dishes for vegans, and also offers vegan, house-made alternatives to fish sauce and satay sauce. “The sign in the window says if the food’s not good, then don’t pay, and we haven’t had anyone take us up on the offer yet!”
Aree Niwatsukino, who owns Aree Thai (1150 Kingsway), grew up in Bangkok, and she remembers the annual Chinese Buddhist vegetarian festival that sees many vegetarian dishes offered around the city. “All the restaurants that would serve vegetarian fare throughout the festival placed a yellow flag outside their door to indicate to those abstaining from meat that they were welcome,” Niwatsukino recalls during a chat at her restaurant. “In some areas, the street-food stalls offered exclusively vegetarian fare as well.”
When Niwatsukino opened Aree Thai last summer, it was important to her that both carnivores and vegans alike felt welcome. The menu offers vegan renditions of most items, including the soups: hot-and-sour tom yum, coconut-milk-based tom ka, and clear tom jead with glass noodles. That’s something many vegans will appreciate, considering how difficult it is to find vegan versions of these soups in Vancouver.
Niwatsukino herself was a vegetarian for five years (she started eating meat again after she met her husband 15 years ago), and draws on her experience when creating vegan-friendly dishes. She knows how important it is to ensure that no animal products are used in the cooking process. “In Thailand, if someone has been vegetarian for five or 10 years and they accidentally eat meat or a meat-based product, it’s as though those years are erased,” Niwatsukino says. Creating a separate space for cooking and using a separate set of utensils for preparing vegetarian food is common throughout Thailand; Niwatsukino upholds the same standards in Aree Thai’s kitchen.
With all of these delicious options, there’s a steaming bowl of soup waiting for anyone who has a hankering: vegan, carnivore, or somewhere in between.