Written by Mika Apichatsakol
“The Plant Issue”, October-November 2023
Every year in September or October, a festive mood transpires in Thailand, marked by the widespread display of yellow flags or a symbol in red: “Jay”. During this time, many Thais momentarily ditch their beloved moo ping and gai yang for tofu, mushrooms, and veggies, following the auspicious trail of yellow and red to vegan food havens for holistic nourishment.
Although 90 per cent of Thailand’s population identifies as Buddhist, the Jay Festival has its roots in Taoism. The crux of the tradition is to cleanse one’s body and soul by following a “strict vegetarian diet” for nine days during the ninth lunar month—nine being the number of imperial deities associated with the original Chinese name of the festival: the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
Despite its Chinese cultural origins, Jay (“purity”) is endemic to Southeast Asia. Legend has it that the tradition was actually conceived in Phuket in the early 19th century by Chinese immigrants. According to local accounts, Phuket was suffering from a deadly epidemic. Desperate to save themselves, the local Chinese (in some versions, an opera group) turned towards ancestral wisdom about veganism and physical and spiritual purity. The community started practising the ritual annually, and over time, the custom spread throughout Thailand as well as to nearby countries with similar Chinese influences, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.
So what does the “strict vegetarian diet” of Jay actually look like? The answer isn’t so simple, with Jay observers themselves often differing on what can and can’t be consumed during the period. First of all, it’s important to note the loose usage of the word “vegetarian” during the festival. Although many English translations or reporting of the festival will refer to it as the “Vegetarian Festival”, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to it as the “Vegan Festival” as pretty much everyone agrees that Jay means no animal-derived products will be consumed, including dairy, eggs, gelatin, honey, and fish sauce. However, on top of this, certain plant-based ingredients are also off the table, notably garlic, onion, leek, and chives, as they are considered “pungent” and disturbing to the spiritual cleansing process. Some practitioners of Jay will also avoid chilli and fermented vegan foods for the same reason. It is also not uncommon to witness abstention from alcohol, smoking, and other vices during this Lent-like period.
Traditional Jay cuisine is based in classic Thai-Chinese recipes. Some of the common fare during festival time include clear cabbage soup, noodle or vegetable stir-fries, noodle soups, vegetable baos and dumplings, and the replacement of meat with a starch-based imitation. Desserts are not off limits during Jay either, as many Thai and Chinese sweets are Jay by default—cheng sim ei (shaved ice with condiments) and sweet soy milk, for example.
While these traditional dishes are still very much around during the festival, especially in Chinatown, they have dropped in popularity over the last several years as Jay takes a more modern approach in Thailand’s current food scene. From commercial F&B businesses like Sizzler’s, Fuji, Starbucks, and Dairy Queen to hotels, fine dining outlets, and everything in between, it’s hard to find an establishment that won’t grasp the opportunity to offer Jay specials during the season; many of them promoting the special menus throughout the month. As Thais have widened their tastes for foreign foods, Jay cuisine has simply followed suit—not to mention the increased options of vegan dining in cities like Bangkok in general.
Today, Jay cuisine may look like pizza and pasta, Japanese nabe, burgers, and even French pastries such as croissants. Advanced and more sophisticated meat replacements, such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and the multitude of homegrown versions, have also given the mock meat dishes of Jay a more flavourful and nutritional upgrade. All of this helping to attract younger generations of Jay participants, as well as foreigners.
But Jay is more than just a nine-day long vegan food exploration. The festival typically begins on the first day of the ninth lunar month, or the day before, with grand spectacle and celebration. Many observers will gather in Chinatown or areas around Chinese shrines to witness public processions highlighting elaborate costumes, traditional song and dance, and martial arts performances. It’s a good opportunity for people to make merit at the local shrines and also enjoy the abundance of Jay street food that will be around the procession. However, there is an infamously darker and gorier side of Jay festivities that is best observed in Phuket, the supposed ground zero of Jay.
The Phuket Jay Festival is uniquely renowned for its ma song rituals, ma song referring to religious devotees who welcome powerful spirits to use their bodies as a vessel. During the festival, the ma song will take to the streets of Phuket Town in the vicinity of six main Chinese shrines and perform acts of self-mutilation by impaling or slashing various parts of their bodies with sharp objects, such as swords and fishhooks, while maintaining a very calm demeanour. Some also walk on burning coal or scale ladders made of blades in their trance-like state. These rituals are intended to showcase the Nine Gods’ protection from pain or mortality and predictably draw lots of tourists and other spectators to the Phuket festival.
While ritualised mutilation, or witnessing it, is not for everybody, Jay seems to be whatever individuals want to make out of it. For some, Jay is absolute strictness, piety, and devotion. For others, it’s festive fun or a simple act of forgoing meat for virtuous reasons without tremendous personal sacrifice. Perhaps this is why the hype around Jay hasn’t died down in 200 years and has arguably become more visible in contemporary times. Traditions worth keeping are ones that are able to adapt with present values and lifestyles. So, come this October 15–23, decide how you want to do Jay and have yourself a merry nine days (or more) of personal mind, body, and soul purification.
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