Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Vegetarian and Vegan Cookery - Asian Style

I love to prepare vegetarian and vegan dishes, especially for my daughter who does not like to eat meat and who has trouble with dairy. Vegetarian cooking, even for omnivores, is an important part of a balanced lifestyle. Even Mario Batali, poster-boy for cured meats, has declared Mondays to be meatless.
I know that when I prepare vegetarian and vegan foods I feel better, and the culture(s) that I generally turn to for great veggie fare are Asian. Japanese, Thai, Indian and other Eastern recipes offer the best flavours and most interesting vegetarian fare and are family favourites.
These are the two vegetarian books I have been cooking from this week. Fun, slim volumes with lots of great vegetarian fare with an Eastern flair.

Japanese Cooking
Contemporary & Traditional
Simple, Delicious, and Vegan
Miyoko Nishimoto Schinner
Paperback, 174 pages

Miyoko prefaces her book with an introduction to Japanese cuisine and food history, sample menus for the different seasons, and the all-important glossary. The latter being my favourite part of a book like this, so very helpful when shopping in Asian markets.
She does lean fairly heavily towards soy products and meat alternatives, being a strong advocate for vegetarian and vegan cooking, and has developed a line of meat substitutes that sell in health food stores in the U.S.

We quite enjoyed the dishes we cooked up this week:

Curry Udon, a dish from Miyoko's childhood that represented comfort when she came home from school. Indeed it was warming and comforting in these high winds we have been having. "A big bowl of fat udon noodles swimming in a thick, curry broth."

Everybody's favourite deep-fried Japanese fare, Vegetable Tempura. These ultra-light breaded veggies are fun to eat and perfect for dipping.

Vegetable Tempura
Yasai Tempura


Oil for deep-frying

Various vegetables of choice
Thinly sliced onions
Whole or halved mushrooms
Broccoli flowers
Zucchini sliced diagonally 1/3 inch thick
Slices of sweet potato
Slices of kabocha or butternut squash
Slices of eggplant
String beans
Asparagus spears
Very thing carrot sticks (almost slivers)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached pastry or all-purpose white flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
A pinch baking soda
1 cup ice water

The three important points to remember are:
1. Mix the batter ever so lightly;
2. Have the oil at the proper temperature;
3. Never crowd the fryer.

Have all your ingredients ready before you begin frying so that you can dip, fry, and drain quickly and systematically. For deep-frying, refined oil usually works best. Never reuse frying oil as it not only imparts an unpleasant flavor but is not good for one's health.

Wash and drain or dry the vegetables and cut them into sizes that can be eaten in 2-3 bites. Onions and carrots are usually combined with the last of the batter and fried in clumps, so save them for last. Have all the vegetables ready for dipping and frying.

Start heating the oil to around 350F. Mix the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and water gently, leaving in some of the lumps and making sure that you do not over mix it. Test the oil for frying - a small bit of batter dropped in the oil should sink and rise to the surface fairly quickly.
If the batter sinks and does not rise, or rises very slowly, the oil is not hot enough. If it hardly sinks before sizzling at the surface, the oil is too hot. Dip the vegetables in the batter one piece at a time, and fry immediately. Do not fry any more vegetables at one time than will cover half the surface of the oil or the temperature of the oil may drop, and you will end up with soggy pieces of tempura. Fry until golden brown, about 1-2 minutes. Remove and drain and continue with the remaining vegetables, mixing up more batter if necessary. Onion slices and thin carrot sticks can be combined with the last of the batter and be fired in clumps.

Serve with Tempura dipping sauce. (A recipe is included in the book, or you could use a store-bought one.)

The perfect complement to the fried tempura was this Cucumber Salad with Wa-Fu Dressing. Almost a quick-pickle, the light and vinegary vegetable was the perfect foil for the breaded foods.

All in all an enjoyable little book, with notes and memories with each dish that make the book seem very personal and personable.


Buddha's Table
Thai Feasting Vegetarian Style
Chat Mingkwan
Paperback, 191 pages

Another fun, slim volume - Buddha's Table - is Chat Mingkwan's second book, a vegetarian follow-up to his popular The Best of Regional Thai Cuisine.
Chat's vision of Thai food is that it be, "Tasty, spicy, flavorful, colorful, fresh and healthy". The recipes reflect his commitment to Thai style and flavour as well as his commitment to animal welfare. In fact, part of the proceeds of the book go towards the preservation of endangered wildlife.
The book is formatted much like Japanese Cooking, with the all-important glossary at the front.
I now feel quite prepared for my next journey to the Asian market, and am excited to try some more new ingredients.

We started with a favourite, the Green Papaya Salad. Delicious, healthy and crunchy, this salad is perfect for the warmer weather. I find that having a Y-shaped julienne peeler is very handy for shredding Thai-style veggies.

Green Papaya Salad


2 cups peeled and shredded firm, fresh green papaya (1 1/2 - 2 pounds papaya)
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup shredded jicama (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh Thai chilies, more or less to taste
1/2 cup sliced long beans, in 2-inch lengths
1/2 cup coarsely chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts
1/4 cup fresh lime juice, or more to taste
1/4 cup light soy sauce, or more to taste
2 tbsp finely minced or melted palm sugar, or more to taste
1 head cabbage or lettuce, cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces

Select a firm green papaya. Peel the papaya completely and use only the white meat. Rinse with cold water and shred into fine matchsticks with a shredder or mandolin. Peel the carrot and optional jicama and shred into fine matchsticks.

Crush the garlic in a clay mortar and pestle or a bowl with a rolling pin. Add and crush the chilies, then add the long beans and continue crushing until well mixed. Add the papaya, carrot, and jicama. Lightly pound the pestle while simultaneously using a large spoon to toss the mixture. Continue pounding and tossing until well combined. Add the tomatoes, peanuts, lime juice, soy sauce and sugar. Continue pounding and tossing to mix well and evenly distribute the flavors.

Taste the salad and adjust the flavor with more soy sauce, lime juice, and sugar to taste. Serve with the cabbage or lettuce on the side.

Who doesn't like food that comes in little packets? These Mini-Purses were fun to make and fun to eat. Likely also fun for the neighbours who watched me go out in the pouring rain to gather Chinese chives to tie up the little purses. Highly seasoned, and crunchy from the water chestnuts and deep-fried wonton skins, they are delicious dipped in Thai sweet chili sauce.

And what better way to top off a Thai meal than with Sticky Rice and Mangoes? The Thai version of rice pudding. And I love rice pudding. I have also discovered that the leftovers are excellent for breakfast. Well, we can't be good all the time.

Japanese Cooking and Buddha's Table, two great little books to inspire your meat-free cooking with great flavour and diversity!