Vinita Chumsri is no ordinary 20-something. Between full-time university, an internship and completing a diploma in fashion business, she runs vegan Thai restaurant Little Turtle.
Little Turtle was two years in the making and is the pinnacle in her recovery from an eating disorder. Chumsri battled the illness throughout her late teens but began her journey to loving food again by adopting a vegan diet and cooking her own meals. The result is a clean, green space with a menu that draws from Chumsri’s parents’ hometowns and regions; her mother is from Lampang in northern Thailand and her father is from Udon in the north-east.
The hor mok (a typical northern Thai fish curry steamed to a thick custard-like texture) is served in a hollowed-out coconut. Instead of fish it comes with pearl mushrooms and firm tofu, and is gently spiced with house-made red curry paste. There’s also hard-to-find northern Thai dishes such as khao soi, a light curry and noodle dish from Chiang Mai; and kanom gui chai, dumpling-like parcels of mushrooms, tofu and asparagus in a delicate, rice-flour crepe. It’s a labour-intensive dish because the crepe wrappers are steamed fresh to order. It’s also Chumsri’s mum’s favourite.
Larb is a “salad of mixed mushrooms” – where a combo of pearl, shiitake, enoki and button mushrooms stand in for the usual minced meat. Mushrooms make a meaty substitute in a number of dishes, as does lightly battered cauliflower – Chumsri’s Thai-vegan version of American Buffalo wings. And then there’s the tofu – soft tofu, light tofu, firm tofu and tempeh. The latter (although typically used in Indonesian cuisine) has a meatier, more substantial texture, and gives a flavour boost.
The pineapple fried rice is the most popular, and the most unusual looking, item on the menu. The rice is dyed blue with butterfly pea flower.
The challenge for Chumsri was cooking Thai food without its more pungent, animal-derived essential ingredients, particularly fish sauce and shrimp paste. She’s reluctant to divulge the recipes for the shrimp-less curry pastes, but notes that vegan fish sauce and oyster sauce are readily available.