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. 

Going back to the start

Good old stir fry noodles
Self doubt spreads like wildfire. One minute you’re confident, grounded, strong, certain. When the barrage of doubts start to rear its ugly head, within an instant it permeates itself into every inch of your being. Your sense of self wavers and you begin to reassess every aspect of your life – your worth, decisions, abilities, how you fit into your surroundings, relationships, and even down to trivial matters like appearance or running speed.

Every now and then this doubt manifests itself into my safe haven, the kitchen. Recently in the name of being adventurous, I experimented cooking with pearl barley. I should probably explain that I have always had a negative perception of barley, having been forced fed hot barley drinks as a constantly ill child. Growing up, I always associated barley as something you would eat only when you were sick, never understanding why anyone would voluntarily, without a gun to their head, order a barley drink at the mamak. But that was years ago, since then my taste buds have evolved. In an attempt to expand my repertoire of wholesome ingredients, I cooked the grain in a risotto inspired dish. I was excited at this potential new discovery, throwing in an abundance of different mushrooms – portobello, enoki, shiitake, and porcini. I was even more generous than usual in my sprinklings of parmesan cheese, reassured in the knowledge that I could afford the indulgence since pearl barley is a nutritional powerhouse in comparison to the standard Arborio rice. Unfortunately, too much enthusiasm and perhaps a wee bit of over confidence lead to an epic recipe failure. The dish bombed. Badly. I haven’t had a kitchen disaster this bad since my attempt at spicing up a pasta dish led to a whole bottle’s worth of pepper sinking into the sauce (and was forced to eat the meal because my then boyfriend, bless him, still said it was the best pasta he’s ever had, yeah right!). At least the pasta-pepper fiasco dish was edible. The barley risotto turned out looking like mushed up cat food and I found the chewy texture of the barley incredibly disturbing. It’s very rare that I consciously make a decision to throw away food and not force myself to eat what I have cooked.

With a wasted pot of ‘superfood’, my cooking ego was slightly bruised as I questioned my ability to experiment and go beyond my cooking comfort zone. Am I doomed to cook the same thing over and over again? Maybe I should stick to being a safe cook and not be adventurous with food? Or shock horror, could it be that I am really not as good a cook as I think I am? In the last several months, self doubt has been a regular visitor. New environment, new job, new people, new experiences, new wavelengths – I can’t help but question how I fit in amidst all this newness. The culmination of all these elements (some good, some not so great) have left me debating the consequences/outcomes of my decisions. In times when I break into a cold sweat, begging the universe to unfold its master plan to me, I always find that it is best to take a deep breath and remind myself of my original intentions (i.e. I moved back to Malaysia wanting a change in my stagnant London life). Going back to the start, to what I know is true and honest always pacifies any overwhelming surges of self doubt. 

The same logic can be applied to the kitchen. The best way to get over a kitchen disaster without any dents in confidence to your cooking abilities is to go back to making that dish you know you kick ass at. A day after the barley incident, I turned to the first thing I ever learned how to cook, my fail safe stir fry noodles. So I created a monster of a dish with pearl barley but my stir fry noodles are idiot proof, taste good, and no matter what goes wrong when experimenting with ingredients, I know I can fix it. It’s comforting to know that when life starts feeing a bit unfamiliar and questionable, I can always rely on a delicious plate of stir fry noodles to fall back on, reminding me that I am fine and (sort of) know what I am doing, the craziness will pass, everything will be ok. 

Stir fry egg noodles with prawn and tofu

Ingredients
Egg noodles, prawns, tofu, fish balls, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, cabbage, olive oil, soy sauce, nampla (fish sauce), garlic, onion, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. If using dry noodles, cook them in some boiling water. Set aside.

2. Sautee garlic and onion in olive oil.
3. Add both types of mushrooms, fish balls, tofu, and prawns.
4. Pour in soy sauce (about 3 tbsp) and nampla (2 tbsp). Season.
5. Add in cooked egg noodles and cabbage. 

Just like the old days part 2

Pak choi, egg noodle & sesame salad with grilled prawns
I finally watched ‘Midnight in Paris’ and what a beautiful film. I found myself falling in love with the city as the movie unfolded despite initial resistance (what can I say, I’m a cynic who thinks the hype that Paris is the epicenter of romance and culture is highly overrated!). The film touches on a number of themes but the storyline I resonated the most with was the lead character (played by Owen Wilson) and his fascination, awe, and almost childlike wonderment with Paris. I have always felt that my most important relationship in the last 8 years was not the usual boy-girl romance. The one true love of my life during my twenties was my London town. And what a true love it was – there was passion, excitement, laughter, tears, goosebump inducing magical moments, comfort in silence, and also intense disagreements (oh how I did get my ass royally kicked on a number of times). Just like the beautiful relationships where the connection transcends the superficial and you never stop falling in love, the best part was the endless new discoveries and never ending inspiration. But like some of the most memorable relationships, we loved deeply before painfully parting our separate ways.

Like Owen Wilson’s character, I loved to walk around London. This was when deep connections were cemented as the city unveiled its true self. London never failed to surprise me. Almost every corner turned revealed a new discovery. I really do miss being able to walk aimlessly without a plan. It is a sense of liberating escapism knowing that you can walk out your front door, not knowing your path or where you will end up. An early Saturday morning walk to buy a loaf of bread along the vomit paved streets of Kentish Town (I say this with my rose-tinted nostalgia glasses on, reminiscing puke lined streets – we Kentish Town-ers had a good time on the weekends!), could detour to a quirky cafe in Camden for brunch, lying on the grass with a book on Primrose Hill, and before you know it, you’ve somehow strolled up Haverstock Hill to the lovely Hampstead to watch a show at the historic Everyman Theatre, with loaf of bread still intact of course. These walks were a celebration of random, inspiring moments and no one appreciated this more than one of the members of the lovely London foursome. Both of us will always carry a torch for our London town.

The recipe that I’m dedicating to her is actually one of her own. Interestingly, I have always thought this dish best exemplifies her unique sense of adventure and appreciation for all things random. Her excitement towards discoveries, whether a new song, movie, stumbling on a lovely unknown part of a city, or the oh-my-god moment at finding delicious new food, is so incredibly refreshing. In the spirit of randomness, the salad comprises of an unusual mix of Asian ingredients, brought to life by a Western dressing. Raw pak choi (yes this is possible!) and uncooked egg noodles make the foundations of the salad. The dressing, comprised of red wine vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil, is poured over the raw ingredients to help soften the egg noodles. This is lovely as a side salad on its own or can be made into a more substantial meal with the addition of protein (I included grilled prawns). The composition is quite bizarre yet intriguing as under normal circumstances you would never consider using uncooked pak choi or egg noodles. Together. But somehow, the flavours fuse brilliantly and it just works. This has been one of my favourite kitchen discoveries. 

Nidsters, here’s to always finding those accidental moments of enlightenment.

Pak choi, egg noodle & sesame salad with grilled prawns

The Ingredients
For the salad:  Pak choi, egg noodles, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, sesame seeds, flaked almonds.
For the dressing: 2 tbsp Olive oil, 2 tbsp sesame oil, 6 tbsp red wine vinegar, salt and pepper.
For the prawns: unshelled prawns, lemon juice, red chili, salt and pepper.

The Prep
1. Chop pak choi and shred egg noodles into a bowl.

2. Add halved cherry tomatoes, sliced spring onions, and toasted sesame seeds and almond flakes.
3. Mix dressing ingredients together, pour over salad and let this rest so the red wine vinegar has time to ‘cook’ or soften the egg noodles.
4. To make the prawns, marinate prawns with lemon juice, chopped red chili, salt, and pepper. Grill.
5. Top salad with grilled prawns. 

For the morning after…

Ipoh kway teow soup
So simple yet so comforting, noodle soup has recently been my favourite go-to food in the aftermath of a night out, when everything still feels a little hazy and you’re struggling to get with the programme while cursing to yourself ‘never again!’ 

This non-judgmental and welcoming dish ensures a balanced recovery to soothe a sore head: a generous portion of carbs to soak up those pesky toxins, veggies to help replenish any lost brain cells, protein to lift lingering veils of cloudiness, and an inviting broth that not only re-hydrates but more importantly promises to wash away all notions of the world feeling like it’s about to end. With that said, as the festive season and celebrations approach, noodle soup trusty old friend, I’ll be seeing you again this weekend.

My version of Ipoh Kway Teow Soup

Basic ingredients
Kway teow noodles (you can substitute with rice vermicelli or egg noodles), balls of all sorts (squid, fish), tofu (I like using tofu skin), bean sprouts, kale, chicken, ginger, garlic, prawns, nampla (fish sauce), soy sauce, spring onions, red chillies. 

The path to recovery…
1.  Make the chicken broth by boiling chicken with ginger, garlic, salt and pepper. If you’re struggling to even form coherent thoughts then for the love of god, cheat – a chicken cube and boiling water will suffice. Once chicken is cooked, shred and keep aside.

2. Blanch noodles, kale, bean sprouts (all separately if possible!) 
3. To finish off the soup heat chicken broth and add all the fish balls, prawns and tofu. Add nampla and a splash of soy sauce to taste. Season. When you’re about to take this off the heat, add some sliced spring onions.
4. To assemble – fill your bowl with noodles and top with kale, bean sprouts. Ladle over the broth and finish off with fried onions and sliced chillies.
5. Go back to bed.