By Andrew Biggs
The triangular yellow flags first began fluttering in my neighborhood two weeks ago.
A few at the end of my soi. In the windows at the supermarket. Propped up on food carts.
They began as a trickle. By last Monday they had permeated every nook and cranny of my otherwise carnivorous community in leafy Samut Prakan. Farewell, beef noodle vendor — may you enjoy the next ten days’ rest and recreation. The Jaysters have taken over the nation!
Those triangular yellow flags are signposts that the Vegetarian Festival has arrived.
Every year it feels like those flags with the big red letters spelling JAY creep up from behind and surprise me. They evoke two reactions: the first being a feeling that time is rushing forward at an ever-increasing rate. Is it October already? It goes Jay, Loy Krathong and then Phi Mai. In rapid succession.
The other feeling is that of foreboding. Unease. They may have the appearance of yellow, but they are red flags for me. For ten days they do their best to obliterate the culinary choices of the meat-eating majority, including me, though I don’t go down without a fight.
Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival began last Monday and finishes next Wednesday. Ten days of cleansing. Ten days of meditation. Ten days of rest and repose, which seemingly applies to your taste buds as well.
If you’re reading this Sunday morning then it means there are 5,160 minutes left before it ends and yes, I am counting down the minutes. I’m not anti-Jay. I just have trouble finding a good meal.
Newcomers to Thailand need to understand that while it’s touted as the Vegetarian Festival, technically it’s not. It’s a “Jay” festival, as the word is pronounced in Thai. “Jay” does not mean “vegetarian” — there is another word for that, which is mangsavirat meaning “without meat”.
Jay is an offshoot of vegetarianism; a child perhaps, and the Wednesday child if ever there was one. You know how every large family has the one kid who’s a little unlike the others? Dresses in dark clothes, holes herself up in her room for hours, listens to morose entertainers like Lorde and Sinead O’Connor?
That’s Jay in the vegetarian family. It’s non-meat-eating with some unusual exclusions. It also forbids dairy products, making it a full-blood sibling to dull old veganism. But wait. It’s goes even further than that.
Jay also forbids such innocent players as onions. That’s the onion in all its forms; spring onions also get the boot. One wonders where the meat can be found in a spring onion, or is it just because of its ability to make us cry?
Oh well, at least there’s garlic to spice it all up.
Well no, garlic isn’t allowed either. When I start being denied my onions and garlic, I start fighting back. What have onions done to deserve exclusion? If these were humans we’d be screaming racism. But they’re vegetables, and excluding onions and garlic is one of the most blatant examples of vegetablism I have witnessed.
Then there are the grey areas.
I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment about the history of the Roman Empire, in particular Constantinople. In 325 A.D. a group of bishops got together in Nicaea in modern-day Turkey to create what Christians know as the Nicene Creed. Their aim was to bash out the story of Christ so that everyone could agree on the details, which got hotly debated to the point of absurdity, such as how to define God the father, the son and the holy ghost, and whether Jesus was a deity of not owing to his flesh and blood status.
It is coincidental that I read this in the prelude to the Jay Festival. There is a general need for a Nicaean-like council to discuss whether or not honey should be included in the Jay menu.
There are strong advocates for both sides. Some die-hards say absolutely not, while others say it’s a liquid, thus a drink, and thus okay.
Apparently there is a reason for these exclusions. Traditionally, eating Jay ruled out all pungent and exciting ingredients because the diet did not want to evoke any sexual feelings within monks, since it is a festival intertwined with cleansing and good karma. On this point I must defer and accept, not because I’ve ever gotten off on an onion, but because I respect long-standing customs and culture, even if I do prefer to channel my culinary beliefs in diametrically opposite directions.
It is imperative to keep theologically-inclined folk away from temptations of the flesh, and so all the fun stuff is ruled out. If garlic helps in that quest, then so be it. What does that leave?
Beans and fruit, basically, which means Jay must rely on the mother of all dull foods – tofu. You can’t kill onions, but it’s okay to slaughter soybeans. Tofu doesn’t invoke any feelings of lust and desire, a point upon which you will receive no dissension from yours truly.
The end of my soi is a magnet for the Jaysters, as I call them semi-affectionately. All the usual stalls selling chicken, pork, beef balls, prawns, oysters and fish fillets pack up and disappear.
They are replaced by new stalls selling jay chicken, jay pork, jay beef balls, jay prawns, jay oysters and jay fish fillets. This is food made from protein and beans and flavoring.
That is curious. The Jaysters eschew meat and yet fill up on almost identical replicas of meat at twice the price. Things have become so refined it is now difficult to tell the difference between a real chicken and a jay one.
I am wondering if soon we will have jay spring onions and jay garlic. And am I allowed to serve such fake food to monks? Surely that’s a red rag to a bull if ever there was one.
But the centre of all things Jay is not the end of my soi. It is Phuket, where the theatrics of Jay-ism run wild. This is where self-professed shamans claiming to be possessed by ancient spirits wander the streets of Phuket in all sorts of trance-like states. Some of them have bulging eyes and speak in tongues so eloquently, it would put Christian televangelists to shame.
Others clutch giant cleavers and perform nasty acts upon themselves, such as incessantly slicing their tongues, or shoving spikes through their cheeks. Clearly the absence of spring onion and garlic in one’s diet doesn’t extinguish all aspects of exotic behavior.
Back in the 1990s, a local TV station known as iTV did an expose on these rituals. They followed a few of these religious shamen down to the market where they purchased ox tongues. They would later secretly put them in their mouths and slice them to pieces, pretending the tongue was their own. They also featured shamen who revealed their pre-pierced cheeks, so that the process wouldn’t be quite so painful when faced with an audience.
There was a terrible uproar after that program — not because the shamen were exposed for what they were, but because iTV had dared to reveal the truth.
Here in Thailand, diet is weaved into belief and custom, and for this reason we cannot bulldoze over it like a shamen running across pre-cooled hot coals. We must tread a little carefully and afford followers of Jay some respect.
For ten long days I too must tread carefully around those little yellow flags, being tolerant of those who choose to follow it. I remind myself that I live in a country with one of the best cuisines in the world. If that means having to sacrifice 14,400 minutes, when tofu and soy sauce reign supreme, then so be it.