The messy art of cooking

Grilled salmon with wilted spinach & coconut milk
Even before starting Joy Discovery Invention, I am often asked why I bother going through all the effort of making food appear ‘restaurant presentable’ if I am cooking just for myself. Why spend the extra time arranging food in the absence of someone to impress? 

The funny thing is I have never been good at anything involving arts & crafts nor do I have an eye for aesthetic detail. Leave me with the simple task of frosting cupcakes and you risk the kitchen looking like an icing explosion has taken place. Oh and cupcakes that look as if they have been decorated by a three year old. As I have mentioned previously, I cannot bake to save my life. The skills of precision, following instructions religiously, math, and attention to technical details are not my forte. For this very reason,  I have never been drawn to chefs like Delia Smith or the adventurous Heston Blumenthal. When you need to measure out 1/4 teaspoon of salt to add to your omelette to create the perfect rise, food becomes a science that is no longer fun. Instead, I relate to Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi, and even Nigella Lawson since they approach cooking as a carefree yet exciting journey. It does not matter if things go slightly chaotic or disastrous, you can always create something completely different from what you intentionally set out to make and still have a gorgeously delicious meal. In case anyone has not noticed, I hardly ever measure my ingredients because to me cooking should not be a formula. The perfect omelette should not require counting every granule of the 1/4 teaspoon of salt – it’s about feeling, taste, what appeals to your sense, and personal preference. Hands down I would take Jamie’s messy but liberating technique of beating the crap out of a bag of almonds with a rolling pin over Delia’s precise slicing into the perfect slithers. Despite the unpolished and unlady like approach, the mess still has the potential to be turned into a meal that appears lovingly crafted to exude a genuine passion for food, flavours, and ingredients. 

The dish below is a classic example of a meal so simple (no long list of ingredients or 1/8 teaspoon of any ingredient required) yet still looks gorgeous to the eye. The spinach and coconut milk sauce is creamily messy but when paired with a hero piece of grilled salmon, the meal naturally looks like it required much more skill and time than the mere 18 minutes it actually took to assemble. For me, every opportunity to sit down to a delicious looking home cooked meal (even if it is cooked just for my lonesome self) is a reason to celebrate the simple joys in life that you can easily create for yourself. A quick 18 minutes for this simple pleasure is worth all the effort.

Grilled salmon with wilted spinach & coconut milk

The Ingredients
For the salmon: sesame oil, soy sauce, minced ginger, chopped garlic, salt & pepper. For the sauce: sliced onions, sesame oil, sliced red chillies, a dollop of chili paste, coconut milk, spinach leaves, juice of half a lemon, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
1. Marinade salmon with sesame oil, soy sauce, minced ginger, chopped garlic, salt & pepper. Grill for 15 – 18 minutes depending on thickness of salmon.

2. While salmon is grilling, make sauce by sautéing onions in sesame oil.
3. Add sliced red chillies and cook for 5 minutes.
4. Add chili paste, coconut milk, salt & pepper, and spinach. Cook until spinach has wilted. 
5. Finish off with lemon juice.
6. Serve grilled salmon on top of spinach and coconut milk sauce.  

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Head over veggies

Fried beehoon
Mushroom fritatta and tofu & long beans
Baked pasta with mushrooms, red peppers, spinach and aubergines
Bulgur wheat with tofu & broccoli

I love cooking for people I care about. For those within my inner circle of people I cherish, preparing a meal takes on a new, meaningful challenge. I love dedicating an insane amount to recipe brainstorming. How do I naturally integrate WTF (Weird Tasha Food) with the type of food I know the other person loves to eat?

Recently, a colleague has been taking a very close interest to my food habits. His curiosity towards my almost veggie and ‘strangely’ wholesome diet has led him to decide to become vegetarian several days a week for Lent. This is a big deal coming from someone whose diet is mostly comprised of meat based Asian (Malay) dishes. Trust me, there was an earthquake of jaws dropping to the floor in sheer shock when he announced his mission. I on the other hand, cannot even begin to express how excited I am to introduce him into this new world of food. 

To guide him on his mission, I now cook extra lunchbox portions to ensure he has easy access to healthy vegetarian dishes. My first challenge was planning a weekly menu to ensure a gradual transition to this new diet without scaring him on Day 1. For me, planning an ongoing menu is a very big deal. It carries the same weight as putting together an ultimate playlist of songs to guarantee the success of an event (i.e road trip, party, Sunday blues pity party). The following must be taken into utmost consideration:

1. Understand what the listener (or in this case eater) is already familiar with and enjoys
You would not start off a playlist for someone who thinks metal is devil music with a Slipknot track right? Same thing here. Does the person generally like vegetables? If the answer is no, then jumping straight into the deep end with more alien ingredients such as artichokes, beetroot, or even the lovely swiss chard will without a doubt lead to a complete rejection to these unfamiliar ingredients. In this case, baby steps with potato centric dishes (rostis, lentil dahl with potatoes) or tomato based sauces (pastas) may be required. However if the eater already consumes vegetables beyond potatoes as part of his everyday diet, even if veggies may not necessarily always take centre stage to his meals, more adventurous legumes can be introduced earlier on.

2. What is the context to which they will be listening/eating?
If the listener is going through a devastating heartbreak then songs about being absolutely in love or the perfection of relationships are probably best left off the mix. For road trips, out of courtesy to the driver so he/she does not fall asleep on the long drive, slow songs are an absolute no-go. Similarly, if you know the eater will have a stressful, hectic week filled with back to back meetings or late nights in the office, then a wilted spinach salad with a sprinkling of pine nuts and feta will not cut it for lunch. For such chaotic times, a salad may just cement the image that veggie food is for rabbits since it does nothing to fill the human tummy. Being able to predict their mood will help you plan for a more substantial (or lighter) menu. 

3. Transition is key!
One of my pet peeves is a playlist where the transition between songs is not considered at all. The surreal sounds of Jose Gonzalez’s ‘Heartbeats’ immediately followed by the lets-get-the-party-started beats of ‘Empire State of Mind’? Fail! The intention of a good playlist is to take the listener on a journey thus the change between each song must build up to tell a story. In the case of food introductions, a gradual transition that starts off with more familiar flavours which slowly but eventually leads to newer ingredients is essential to ensure that you do not lose the person while on this new adventure. 

In the colleague’s case I started week one of his mission by creating veggie versions of his favourite dishes. I prepared a lunchbox of stir fried rice noodles with plenty of vegetables for Day 1 and on Day 2 brought rice served Malay style with accompanying side dishes of a mushroom fritata (my healthy take on the oil drenched Malay telur dada) and tofu with green beans. I immediately scored brownie points since he already loved green beans. More importantly, I secured his trust that vegetarian food was palatable and flavour filled, rather than scaring the bejesus out off him with the odd looking black rice. For week two, I stepped it up a notch but venturing away from Asian dishes to cook a baked pasta with mushrooms, spinach, red peppers, and aubergines. This cheese filled, but healthy, meal still fell in the realm of comfortable Western fast-food territory. It is amazing how a hot layer of melted cheese can camouflage the absence of meat (I kept getting asked ‘this is vegetarian?!’). Finally this week, I was brave enough to incorporate bulgar wheat on the menu. I was initially worried that he would scoff at the dish and we would have to grab a backup veggie sarnie from Subways. Amazingly though, out of all the dishes I had cooked, the bulgar wheat with tofu and broccoli was by far his favourite! I made sure to include the recognisable Asian/curry note to the bulgar wheat by cooking it with cumin to minimize any sign of foreignness – he loved it! Apparently it reminded him of nasi goreng. Not quite, but I’ll take that comparison over a rejection. 

So our Veggie for Lent mission continues for a couple more exiting weeks. I am enjoying trawling away for new recipes to surprise him with. Who knows, I may just have him reciting the different varieties of quinoa by heart by the time Easter Sunday comes around. 

Stir fried rice noodles (Beehoon Goreng)

The Basic Ingredients
Rice noodles, sliced baby corn, sliced red peppers, sliced shiitake mushrooms, long beans cut into finger sized strips, tofu, 1/4 cup of veggie stock, soy sauce, kicap manis (sweet soy sauce), chopped chillies, chopped coriander, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, ginger.

The Preparation
1. Blanche the rice noodles in a pot of hot boiling water. Once cooked drain and run under cold water.

2. Saute onion, garlic, and ginger with some olive oil.
3. Add in the baby corn, red peppers, long beans, and mushrooms to the wok. Season.
4. Stir fry for several minutes and add the soy sauce and kicap manis.
5. Stir in rice noodles and add in veggie stock to avoid from drying.
6. Top with sliced red chillies and coriander.  

Rice with mushroom frittata and tofu & long beans stir fry

The Basic Ingredients
For the frittata: onions, enoki mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, chili flakes, 3 eggs, a splash of semi skimmed milk, soy sauce, salt, pepper. For the tofu & long beans: tofu, long beans, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp brown sugar, crushed red pepper, coriander, 1 tsp corn starch, garlic, ginger, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
Mushroom frittata
1. Saute onions, chili flakes and mushrooms until golden brown. Add soy sauce.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and a splash of milk. Season.
3. Pour egg mixture into the pan and cook until eggs have set.

Tofu & long beans stir fry
1. Whisk 1/4 cup water, soy sauce, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, sugar, red pepper and 1 tsp cornstarch in a small bowl. Set aside.
2.  Pan fry tofu until each side is golden brown. Transfer to a plate.
3.  Sautee garlic and ginger with olive oil. Add green beans, remaining water, soy sauce mixture, and tofu.
4. Top with chopped coriander.

Baked pasta with mushrooms, red peppers, spinach and aubergines 

The Basic Ingredients
Penne, sliced mushrooms, sliced red peppers, spinach, aubergines, 1 can of chopped tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato puree, oregano, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, grated mozzarella cheese, onions, and garlic.

The Preparation
1. Cook penne in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain pasta when cooked and set aside some of the liquid.
2. Cut aubergines into cubes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Slice red peppers. Place both under grill until vegetables are slightly charred.
3. Saute onion and garlic. Throw in mushrooms and all grilled veggies.
4. Pour in can of chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, pasta liquid (about 1/4 cup).
5. Once sauce has started to bubble add oregano, balsamic vinegar and season.
6. Add cooked pasta and mix well.
7. Transfer into a baking dish, top with grated cheese and bake until cheese is golden brown.

Bulgar wheat with tofu & broccoli

The Basic Ingredients
Bulgur wheat, vegetable stock (1.5 – 2 cups stock to 1 cup of bulgar wheat), onions, paprika, cumin, tofu, tomatoes, broccoli, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1.  Saute onions with olive oil. Add bulgar wheat and cook for 2 minutes.

2. Pour in vegetable stock and allow to cook for 10 – 15 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes.
3. Once most of the liquid has been absorbed, add in paprika and cumin. Season. 
3. Blanche broccoli.
4. Pan fry tofu until golden brown on each side.
5. Mix cooked bulgar, broccoli, and tofu.
6. Serve warm. 

Plenty of joy

Pasta with aubergines, tofu, and mango
I love Yotam Ottolenghi. I absolutely love everything about his philosophy on food – from his regular column with The Guardian (The New Vegetarian), his deliciously inspiring restaurants, to his breathtakingly beautiful cookbooks. I was fortunate enough to work round the corner from the flagship restaurant in Notting Hill. Although the occasional treats at inflated Notting Hill prices would leave numerous dents in my wallet, this did not stop me from my daily food-window-shopping-mouth-drooling ritual. Every morning while on my way to the office, I would peek into the store to salivate over the gorgeous display of cakes and pastries, while trying to constantly remind myself that it would be absolutely sinful to start the morning with brownies, even if they were London’s very finest. Stepping into any of Ottolenghi’s restaurants, whether it is to enjoy a meal or ogle, transports you into a world of food where where fusions of flavours know no boundaries.

The thing I love most about his style of cooking is that it is so very distinctive. There are certain unique flavour combinations that automatically scream Ottolenghi. Some of my favourite Ottolenghi signature combinations are featured in his book Plenty. This is without a doubt one of my all time classic books – flipping through the pages of recipes and mesmerising photography, you completely forget that Plenty only features vegetarian dishes. The book is pure storytelling at its best as readers are taken on a journey chapter by chapter celebrating the different varieties within the vegetable kingdom. One of the most enjoyable sections is where the humble aubergine is transformed into the king of all vegetables, with creations such as Lentils with Grilled Aubergine, Aubergine Tricolore, and Aubergine Croquettes. The best part about the recipes in Plenty is that they are not designed to be vegetarian alternatives to popular meat based dishes. Here, vegetarian dishes are heroed and revered in their own right, without any lengthy discussions on the absence of meat. 

The dish below is one of the star standouts from Plenty. Originally the recipe calls for soba, but I figured it was a safe swap using wholewheat spaghetti since I am deathly allergic to buckwheat. The substitution still works to allow the meaty aubergines to infuse the sweetness of the mangoes and tart dressing. This vibrant dish helped brighten up a long and dreary Thursday after a very long, tiring week. I am looking forward to more joyful discoveries as I make my way through the palate changing journey that is Plenty

Pasta with aubergines, tofu, and mangoes

Basic Ingredients
Wholewheat pasta (or soba noodles), ripe yellow mango, aubergine, basil leaves, coriander, red onion. For the dressing: 1/2 cup rice vinegar, 3 tbsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 garlic cloves, red chill finely chopped, 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil, grated zest and nice of 1 lime, 1 cup sunflower oil. 

The Preparation
1. In a saucepan, warm the vinegar, sugar, and salt for up to 1 minute until the sugar dissolves. 
2. Remove from heat and add garlic, lime zest and its juice.
3. Heat up sunflower oil and shallow fry aubergines. Once golden brown, remove to a colander and sprinkle with salt and leave to drain.
4.  Cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente.
5. Cut tofu into small rectangles and pan fry (I did not use oil).
6. In a mixing bowl, toss the noodles with the dressing, diced mangoes, aubergine, basil leaves, coriander, and thinly sliced red onions.
7.  Set aside for 1 to 2 hours. When ready to serve add the rest of the herbs and mix well. 

To farewells and inspiration

Grilled salmon with black rice
Having moved around from place to place all of my life, I thought I would be used to saying goodbye to people. When I was younger, I trained myself on the art of detachment so when it was time to leave a country, bidding farewell became effortless with minimal tears. “I’m leaving on a jet plane” became a sort of sarcastic theme song that I would constantly sing to myself to help ease the pain of parting.

In the last few years though I’m noticing that as I grow older, it is becoming harder for me to say goodbye. It’s funny really. With relative financial security and a paying job, I can hold on to the comforting thought that the people I love are only an affordable plane ride away. However I’m finding that each new farewell leaves a bigger dent in my heart, making room for insecurities of loneliness to take over. I suppose with age, you meet enough people to recognise that absolute true friends who help define you as a person are few and precious. With this important realisation, you will do anything to hold on to these friendships.

Two weeks ago I bid adieu to yet another dear friend who left to pursue his exciting journey of self discovery. This friend was my rock that ensured my sanity during my first few months of adjusting to the realities of living in KL. He introduced me to my safe haven that is our yoga studio. He would listen to me consistently whine about the chaos of working life. He patiently offered a shoulder to cry on as I chased a stupid ‘I told you so’ path but was never judgmental. He was the first person I would call when I was successful at a new yoga pose and when I discovered that aubergines with cumin were a match made in heaven. My first moment of enlightenment in 2012 was with him as we drove through the KL night, car top down, wind in our faces listening to the beautiful sounds of The Album Leaf. Philios leaving KL has left me with a heavy heart. Not only is he no longer a quick phone call/drive away, I am at absolute loss as to who to call to discuss the joys of discovering new uses of quinoa. 

I cooked this Black Rice and Grilled Salmon recipe in honor of our wonderful conversations on food, strange ingredients, wellbeing, and to our constant quest for inspiration. The recipe is inspired by Nigella Lawson’s Prawn & Black Rice Salad. I swapped the prawns for the salmon that I had lying around in my fridge, still achieving the fusion of Asian flavours and the dramatic effect of the black rice against the bright coral of the salmon (that’s Nigella speak for you – i.e. translation it looks interesting!). Be prepared though, black rice has a tendency to turn everything in sight a shade of purple so it might be safe to consider darker colored utensils when handling the rice.

Happy birthday Philios. Here’s to friendships that inspire you and believing that goodbyes are never permanent.

Black rice with grilled salmon

The Ingredients
2 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 red chillies, grated ginger, 4 tbsp fish sauce, 2 tbsp lime juice, 4 tbsp water, 2tbsp sugar, black rice, salmon, teriyaki sauce, coriander, salt & pepper, and lemon juice.

The Preparation
1. Make dressing by mixing the garlic, red chillies, ginger, fish sauce, lime juice, water, and sugar. Season.
2. Cook black rice as per packet instructions.
3. Grill salmon with teriyaki sauce, salt and pepper.
4. Once rice and salmon have cooled, spoon the dressing of the rice and flake grilled salmon through the rice.
5. Add chopped coriander.
6. You can serve this either warm or cold as a rice salad.