It’s all in the family

Vegetarian fried brown rice
Green chicken curry
Chili & spring onion omelette
A good friend of mine once fairly pointed out that although he has found a few recipes on my blog that he could not wait to try for himself, I did not have any dishes that would help him when it came to cooking for a family. Actually, this thought is pretty spot on. Although I am absolutely passionate about cooking for loved ones and introducing people to new foods, I must admit that preparing dishes to suit the more conventional Malaysian family palate (my very own Aziz clan included) is not something I am very good at. In fact, for someone who spends most of her time in the family kitchen, I have NEVER cooked a proper, traditional meal of rice and accompanying dishes for my family. The honest truth is that my strengths as a cook lies in solo centric dishes or more experimental wholesome meals that I try to convert close friends to. The only person in my family brave enough to indulge in my kitchen adventures is my dear mom who has an open mind when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. On the other hand my dad, who enjoys his meats, spices, and rice generally will not touch any of my dishes with a ten foot pole. 

My focus towards solo experimental cooking can be traced back to my early teenage years when I proudly (well bordering arrogantly in that ‘everything I say is right’ teen way) proclaimed to my parents that I was denouncing meat to become vegetarian. I can still remember the smugness running through me as I held back from saying “bow down you lowly carnivores, vegetarianism is the true way. PS Please still cook for me.” I stood in front of them naively waiting for reassurance from my mom that she would still cook vegetarian versions of my favorite dishes. To this day, I have no idea why I thought my mom would happily volunteer to slave through the extra effort of cooking additional meals for her demanding daughter. No such luck of course. My mom raised an eyebrow and countered with a “No problem. I denounce cooking for you then.” And she was not kidding. From that point onwards I was forced to learn how to cook my own meals. Looking back, I am so grateful she told off her bossy daughter since it was during these years that my obsession with cooking was borne. I was constantly preparing meals for myself and only in these recent years has my mom become open to the thought of someone else being in command of the family kitchen. Trust me, moms are very territorial when it comes to THEIR kitchens. I can put in a bucket of salt and my recipes still apparently need more seasoning. So having her actually enjoy my cooking now is one of my greatest accomplishments. My lovely dad however still gets the deer caught in headlights look when he thinks that my mom has passed the cooking-for-the-family-tonight baton to me. I suppose you cannot win everything.

I know that I cannot stay in my comfort zone of solo or cooking for much smaller groups forever. Times are changing, new people come into your life, and there are new families beyond my own that I want to embrace and show my love for by cooking. Two weekends ago, I surrendered myself to a traditional rice and accompanying dishes meal that included the mandatory meat, kuah (gravy), and additional condiment. I made a spread of fried rice, green chicken curry, and chili & spring onion omelette for a very special family. Like I said in Head over Veggies, cooking for others should not be an avenue to show-off your culinary skills by imposing that you think they should eat. To me, the joy of cooking is derived from combining the ingredients you love with what you know others would love to eat. Having said that, there’s no reason why I can’t add a Tasha twist to the experience though! 

Vegetarian brown fried rice (recipe inspired from The Year in Food)

Basic Ingredients
2 – 3 cups cooked brown rice, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, 2 eggs, spring onions, onions, grated ginger, onions, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt & pepper. 

The Preparation
1. Sautee onions with sesame oil on high heat until onions become crispy. Set aside.
2. Beat eggs and fry with a drop of sesame oil. Once omelet begins to form, set aside and slice thinly.
3. Sautee mushrooms with a little sesame oil. Once cooked set aside.
4. Sautee garlic and ginger with sesame oil. Add in cooked mushrooms, diced carrots, sliced tofu, brown rice, eggs, and soy sauce. Season. When rice is thoroughly mixed with the other ingredients, add in the slice spring onions.
5. Sprinkle pre-cooked onions on top of dish before serving. 

Green chicken curry
Chili & spring onion omelette (aka telur dada)

Basic Ingredients:
For the green chicken curry: chicken breast, aubergines, cherry tomatoes, peeled & quartered potatoes, coriander, yoghurt (or coconut milk), salt & pepper, spice mix containing: 3 green chillies, 1 red onion, 3 cloves of garlic, ginger, galangal, 5 kaffir lime leaves, a bunch of basil leaves, and olive oil.

For the omelette: 3 eggs, sliced red chillies, onion, spring onions, a splash of milk, olive oil, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
For the green curry:
1. Place all spice mix ingredients into a food processor and blend.
2. Place chicken breasts in a cooking pot and marinade with blended spice mix  for half an hour.
3. Following this, bring pot to the heat and add about 200ml water.
4. Add potatoes immediately since these take a while to cook. When chicken breasts are three quarters cooked add aubergines and cherry tomatoes. Allow all vegetables to cook down. Season.
5. Once curry starts bubbling and chicken is cooked, add half a small pot of natural yoghurt (if you wanted to be more indulgent about 200ml of coconut milk instead of yoghurt is heavenly).
6. Garnish with chopped coriander before serving.  

For the chili & spring onion omelette:
1. Beat eggs, add splash of milk. Season.
2. Sautee onion with olive oil. When onions are fragrant add red chilies.3. Add egg mixture and allow this to set. Add spring onions.
4. When add looks three quarters cook flip over and cook the other side.
5. Serve once the outer of the omelette starts to firm slightly and the insides are not fully cooked (I hate over cooked eggs!).


Pesto power

Grilled chicken with pesto pasta
I love weekend afternoons spent at BSC’s centre court. It’s as close as I will get to the Borough Market experience here, with its cosy bakeries, luring delis, and wonderfully quirky artisan products. The prices of these products however can often be not as enticing. A recent Sunday afternoon stroll admiring the aisles lined with beautifully packaged homemade looking jams and condiments had me stopping dead in my tracks after spotting a 100g jar of pesto, apparently crafted from a secluded town tucked away in the lush Italian hillside, selling for RM 45! That’s barely two not-so-generous servings of pesto in a pasta dish at such a wallet damaging price!

Determined not to be duped into paying exorbitant Bangsar prices, I accepted the challenge of creating the comforting joys of homemade pesto without leaving a hole in my wallet. A quick stop at the neighbouring supermarket and I was armed with a shopping bag of necessities for my own DIY blend, spending the same price I would have paid for the rip-off-in-a-jar. The main difference? I could make enough pesto to get me through my cravings for the next three months (fresh pesto is freezer friendly) and would still be left with a surplus of ingredients for lunch over the next few days (think pine nuts and Parmesan shavings to garnish a salad – yum).

Lesson learned that while it may be nice feeling of escapism to enjoy a taste of traditional Italy via fancily packaged jars of imported products, the true artisan root of cooking often starts in your very own kitchen.

Grilled chicken with pesto pasta

Basic Ingredients
For the pesto: 2 bags of fresh basil, 2-3 garlic cloves, a handful of pine-nuts, grated Parmesan to your heart’s content, olive oil, salt & pepper.
For the pasta: spaghetti, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken (I marinated the chicken with olive oil, lemon juice, salt & pepper and grilled this), creme fraiche (or sour cream of creme fraiche is too crazily priced where you live), chili flakes, onion, garlic, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. To make the pesto: Chop the basil and garlic. Blend in a food processor. Throw in  a handful of pine nuts and Parmesan to your liking. Keep adding olive oil until pesto becomes a thick but moist consistency. Some people like more olive oil in their pesto (makes the mixture more runny) whereas I prefer my pesto still quite thick and less oily. Season.
2. Cook pasta in salted boiling water. Once pasta is al dente, drain but reserve some of the cooking liquid.
3. Saute garlic and onion with a bit of the olive oil. Add chili flakes.
4. Add cherry tomatoes. Cook until this has softened.
5. Add pasta, grilled chicken, 4- 5 tbsp of the fresh pesto mixture, creme fraiche/sour cream, and season. Add reserved pasta cooking liquid so that dish is not too dry.
6. Tadaa – a taste of Italy on a plate.

Saying no to the golden arches, but yes to golden grains in three ways

Quinoa with caramelised onions and mushrooms
Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi
Bulgar wheat with spiced aubergines
Following in the footsteps of the novel Eat Pray Love where main character Elizabeth Gilbert challenges her friends to describe their respective cities in one word, I  have been thinking about the word that defines KL. In the book, the city of dreams New York is full of “ambition” while sensuous Rome exudes “sex”. My beloved London town is apparently “stuffy”, to which I would wholeheartedly disagree. Spontaneous would be more like it.

So what about KL, the garden city of lights? During my initial months, I thought KL was “chillax”. There is A LOT of casual (almost apathetic) chilling out and everything seems to move at a slower pace, even the lazy speed that most people (annoyingly) choose to waltz at (sorry, walking speed is a big pet peeve of mine!). Fast forward eight months later to insane rushed deadlines and chaotic traffic, chilled out would be far from describing the city.

Ask me today and I would describe KL as being the land of “quick-fixes”. It seems that just about everyone is after an easy way out to all their problems. Extremely bad pot holes on a road? Cover it up with cheap, low quality tar to solve the problem for a week before it resurfaces again. At the slightest tinge of a cold, many people I know rush off to the doctors demanding a mountain of pills and antibiotics. No time to cook or just plain too lazy? Order McDonald’s delivery. Yup the heart attack in a wrapper can be delivered to your very doorstep. Even after 8 months, I am so incredibly amazed at the acceptance of the local fast food culture. Quick, easy and most importantly cheap food is everywhere. It is often the default choice, creating a difficult battle with myself to try to resist and turn it away. Under normal circumstances, I cannot even begin to understand how KFC or McD’s can count as part of the consideration set when trying to decide what to have for a proper meal. However upon getting numerous disapproving “you psycho, snobbish health freak” looks when I turn down a lunch/dinner invite to the Golden Arches, I sometimes wonder whether my food decisions will result in a loss of friendships and social invitations. Is taking an active stand to reject fast food really worth the risk of ostracizing yourself from the people around you who see food as something to be enjoyed and not taken so seriously? How do I not offend someone by turning away his kindhearted gesture of buying me a shop-bought sarnie made with processed white bread laden with a tub of mayo and fake cheese? 

To a certain extent, I have already isolated myself from colleagues who have given up on asking me out for a quickie lunch knowing that I would without hesitation turn down an offer for crispy fried chicken in favour of a lonely lunch at the pantry with a cold quinoa or bulgur wheat salad. Sadly, I am quite comfortable with this setup because I know that every now and then you do meet like-minded people who appreciate the importance in making the right food choices. My lovely yoga teacher left me with a glimmer of hope. Following a class this evening, he pointed out “you have just detoxed yourself so please don’t go wasting that away by putting toxins into your body”. So there are people who understand. Sorry Ronald, you will not take this away us, no matter how convenient your patties of meat are are or how your damn drive through lights entice me during my late night drive home after leaving work past midnight on an empty stomach. So long as I am still passionate about food, I will choose to cook my golden grains at 2am, thank you very much. 

Spiced aubergines with bulgar wheat salad

Basic Ingredients
Olive oil, smashed garlic cloves, 2 tsps cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, paprika, 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, aubergines cut into circles, bulga rwheat, vegetable stock, small red onion thinly sliced, coriander, toasted pine nuts, and lime juice.  

The Preparation
1. Mix oil, garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper. 

2. Brush spice mix onto aubergines – score aubergines with diagonal crisscrossing lines so that the marinade soaks in. Roast until soft and tender, about 50 minutes.  
3. Cook bulgar wheat with vegetable stock.
4. Once cooked stir in onions, coriander, pine nuts and lemon juice. 
5. Serve with aubergines once cooked. Drizzle with olive oil to finish.  

1. Quinoa salad with grilled halloumi (top)
2. Quinoa with caramelized onions and mushrooms (bottom)

Basic Ingredients
Recipe 1: Quinoa, vegetable stock, 2 tsp red wine vinegar, a sprinkling of brown sugar, small garlic clove chopped, red pepper flakes, salt & pepper, cucumber, spring onions, parsley, lemon, halloumi cheese, and rocket leaves to serve.

Recipe 2: Quinoa, vegetable stock, sliced red onions, sliced button mushrooms, halloumi cheese, butter.

The Preparation
Recipe 1: 
1. Whisk together red wine vinegar, brown sugar, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt & pepper. Add cucumber and spring onions to this mixture and let it stand for 15 to 20 minutes. 
2. Cook quinoa with vegetable stock. Season.
3. Add olive oil and lemon juice to the quinoa. Once cooled at parsley.
4. Grill halloumi until golden brown, squeeze a little lemon juice over the cheese.  
5. Combine quinoa, halloumi, and marinated cucumber and spring onions mixture to serve.

Recipe 2:
1. Cook quinoa with vegetable stock. Season. 
2. Saute onions with a bit of butter and salt until caramelized. Set aside.
3. Pan fry mushrooms with a bit of olive oil and seasoning. Set aside. 
4. Combine quinoa, onions, and mushrooms to serve. 

 

The pumpkin girl

Pumpkin soup
Societal labels are an interesting thing. Jock. Geek. Goth. Popular. Loser. Emo. Drama queen. We’ve all at some point or another have been wrongly or in some cases accurately defined by others. I myself am guilty of believing in these stereotypes sometimes. Looking back, those high school years were never my favourite. I went through a journey of labels – starting off from ‘the nerd with pink glasses’ in 8th grade, to ‘the shy and quiet girl’ in 10th grade, and somehow by the time I hit graduation, I had mysteriously evolved into ‘the angry goth girl’ (who got sent to the counselor for listening to Marilyn Manson).

To a certain extent labels make it easier to compartmentalise the people in your life. Sometimes a person’s quirky characteristics are better understood or are more relatable through simplified definitions. Recently a colleague of mine received a pumpkin from a client who was leaving the corporate world to venture into organic farming (lucky him). The pumpkin then went to live on my colleague’s desk for a week or two until her last day at work clear out, after which I was bestowed the honor of the organic pumpkin. She said confidently “you are the only person I know who would appreciate an organic pumpkin. You would know what to do with it. You’re the foodie. The pumpkin girl.” I would like to think that I have a close relationship with the people that I work with although the majority of them do not know me THAT well. Many of them do not even know about the existence of this blog. However it is a nice feeling that from what little they know of me, they automatically associate me with ‘Tasha the foodie’ or ‘Tasha the healthy food person’. The pumpkin girl. For once these are labels/associations that I openly embrace and welcome. I love knowing that food, wholesome home-cooked food, is so engrained in every part of me that it has become something that I automatically (and unconsciously) project in everything I do – what I say, how I act, the choices that I make – even to those who do not know me very well. This has become a defining part of who I am. 

So what did the pumpkin girl do with her organic pumpkin? Pumpkin soup of course.

Pumpkin Soup

The Basic Ingredients
One whole pumpkin, one leek stalk, 1 small potato, garlic onion, groups cumin, nutmeg, ground coriander, 1L chicken or veggie stock, olive oil, salt & pepper, creme fraiche and coriander to garnish.

The Preparation
1. Slice leeks, cube the pumpkin, dice the potato, and chop garlic and onion.

2. Sautee garlic and onion in olive oil.
3. Add the chopped veggies and cook with lid on until pumpkins are slightly tender.
4. Add stock and cook for 30 – 40 mins.
5. The pumpkin should be almost broken down at this stage, season, and remove from heat.
6. Blitz soup mixture in a blender.
7. Garnish with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprig of coriander. 

 

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.  

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. 

The search for the signature dish

Quinoa patties and roasted aubergine salad
My priorities in life have always been off the beaten track in comparison to most people I know. When faced with turning the big 3-0, rather than be a normal girl panicking about the fact that I am no where near walking down the aisle or popping out babies, I was hyperventilating about ‘the more important things in my life’. I still could not run 5km under 27 minutes, I had never been to an outdoor music festival, and I was no where near being able to fund my dream of spending a year traveling around the Nordic region. As I blew out the significant birthday candle, I did take a moment to rejoice my biggest accomplishment to date – touching my toes after a lifetime of inflexibility, all courtesy of yoga. So yes, my priorities in life are a little less conventional. 

Perhaps the most important goal on my bucket list was the quest for the my signature dish. As a person who cooks a lot and loves experimenting with new foods, one would think that by now surely I already have a dish I can proudly cook with my eyes closed. Wrong. I have been on this mission for years now, feeling like I was fruitlessly searching for the holy grail. You see, THE signature dish is so much more than just an ordinary meal you can comfortably cook. It’s THE DISH that best exemplifies your attitude to food and your style of cooking. I see the signature dish as an extension of yourself – it personifies your personality, character, experience, and outlook on life with every single bite. It’s THE DISH you want everyone to associate you with. THE DISH you are best known for. THE DISH people ask for when they think of you. 

For a while now I was confident that my signature dish would be a hearty plate of pasta. I even thought I had discovered it with my Prawn Pasta – it has a sense of carefreeness combined with soulful indulgence. That’s so me! Or so I thought. Don’t get my wrong,  I love my prawn pasta and without a doubt it is the dish I go to when trying to mend a broken heart or when life has kicked me in the ass. But face it, prawn pastas are aplenty. There are so many more talented cooks and restaurants that do even more amazing prawn pastas. So rather than have a mediocre signature dish, I would rather own something that is more unique to me. 

And last week, eight months post turning 30, I found it. It even sparked a term for the food that I cook. When trying to explain the dish to a friend (who is not so familiar with the world of veggie cooking/ingredients), I said something along the lines of ‘It’s just weird Tasha food.’ He then replied ‘WTF food?’ To which I sarcastically said ‘Yeah, you’ll be guaranteed to taste it, spit it out, cursing what the f**k?’ So he tasted a bite and said, ‘It’s WTF food alright – wonderful Tasha food.’ Ok so it was rather cheesy, but depending on how adventurous your taste buds are, my style of cooking can always be summed up as either one of the three 1) What the f**k? 2) Weird Tasha Food 3) Or if we’re on the same wavelength, hopefully, Wonderful Tasha Food.

The Quinoa Patties creation was a result of trying to finish off some leftover ingredients, while the Roasted Aubergine Salad was inspired by a recipe I saw on The Kitchn. Despite stemming from other recipes, I feel confident to own both dishes since I’ve tweaked them to my liking and will always insist on serving the two together. I’m ecstatic that my signature dish is vegetarian, with slightly more intriguing ingredients than the average meal because that’s what I’m about. It’s a reflection of my dedication to veggies, my passion for experimentation and ‘weird’ ingredients, late nights experimenting on flavor combinations, and my absolute commitment to healthy eating. 

And oh the absolute joy of crossing this off the ‘Things to do before turning 35 list’ (containing a mix of carryovers from the 30s list and new quirky missions). I cannot stress the importance of having a bucket list of amusing and accomplishable goals that will help make you appreciate the small, joyful moments in life. I read somewhere that many people go through a depressing life crisis between the ages of 30 – 40 as a result of setting unrealistic deadlines that place pressure on needing to be a certain degree of success, wealth, position and normal societal labels (i.e. mom, wife, have-it-all). So for now, with signature dish discovered, it’s time accelerate that marathon training to get than 5km under 27 minutes.

Quinoa patties

The Basic Ingredients
1 cup cooked quinoa, cumin, paprika, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, grated parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, chopped parsley, chopped capers, juice of 1/2 a lemon, 2 tbsp flour.  

The Preparation
1. Mix all of the above ingredients and form into patties/ball shapes.
2. Bake until patties are golden brown.

Roasted aubergine salad

The Basic Ingredients
2 aubergines, olive oil, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon honey, paprika, cumin, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, juice of 1 lemon, 1 tbsp soy sauce, chopped parsley, chopped walnuts, feta cheese, chopped spring onions. 

The Preparation
1. Cut the eggplant into 1 inch cubes in put in a large bowl with salt. 

2. Whisk together olive oil, red wine vinegar, honey, paprika, and cumin
3. Toss aubergines into the marinade and spread onto baking sheet.
4. Roast for 40 minutes until aubergines are tender and brown. It helps to stick every 15 minutes to make sure aubergine cubes are not burning. Remove from the oven and cool slightly.
5.  In a large bowl whisk lemon juice and soy sauce. Add aubergines to mixture ad stir parsley, walnuts, spring onions, and goats cheese. 

You really are what you eat

Brown rice salad with tofu, grilled aubergines and zucchini
Tonight is absolute testament to the fact that constantly eating outside food and lack of exercise has a significant impact on the way you feel. I’m feeling like a cliched social experiment now while I lie in bed on a Saturday night with a high fever and my conscience smugly taunting me ‘I told you so’. Yes that’s right. I’m sick. Not the minor ‘I’ve got the slight sniffles’ bug but the ‘every muscle in my body is aching and it feels like someone has just submerged me into hell’ type ill. For the first time in two years. I should probably be sleeping this off but I think the temperature has slightly gotten to my head. On top of the cocky conscience gloating away, I’m also feeling a euphoric epiphany moment that my outlook towards food and life may have some truth in it (and is not a load of hippy BS as some would think). I just had to get these words down. 

These past two weeks have been a bit of a haze for a number of reasons. Blame it on the fact that I’ve been walking on cloud nine, stressful late nights at work, anxiety over the avalanche of work that has been thrown at me, and well too much partying (music festivals and visiting friends – all have been worth it though). While I’m still forcing myself to get up for my early morning runs, yoga has taken a slight back seat in priority. At the same time, despite being religious about my packed lunches,  my dinner routine has involved a lot of eat out. I do try my best to make healthy choices when I’m out – noodle soups over anything fried, stir fried veggies instead of curries, and salads over unhealthy sarnies but what can I say, when you are on cloud nine even the most oily maggi goreng will taste like a slice of heaven.

As a result of these circumstances, my track record of not being ill for two years now ends with my body feeling like it is on fire and my head wanting to explode. Despite being in pain, I do feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that the decisions I have made to eat healthily, prepare my own meals, surrendering to yoga, and running have all taken care of my body over the last few years. I did not have much of an appetite earlier tonight but was adamant to redeem myself so I made the salad below using some of the leftover ingredients that have been lying around the fridge since my Orzo lunchbox. Side note to self, a recipe that calls for grilling different veggies, cooking brown rice, and sautéing is probably not the best thing to cook when you can barely stand. Hopefully this magical concoction of veggies and whole grains will nourish me back to health. More than ever I remain committed to my philosophy of healthy eating equals a healthy self. 

Brown rice salad with tofu, grilled aubergines and zucchini

Basic Ingredients
Brown rice, tofu, zucchini, aubergine, red pepper, sun dried tomatoes, onions, butter, cumin, olive oil, feta cheese. For the dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard.

The Preparation
1. Cook brown rice as per packet instructions. I like cooking rice as I would do pasta when  using in salads to retain an al dente texture. Once cooked, I transfer the rice into a sieve, pour cold water and let it strain. 
2. Pan fry tofu.
3. Grill zucchini and aubergines with olive oil, salt and cumin.
4. To caramalise onions sauté with a bit of butter and salt.
5. To assemble salad add brown rice, aubergines, zucchini, caramelized onions, shredded tofu, chopped sun dried tomatoes, chopped red pepper, and crumbled feta.
6. Whiz dressing ingredients and pour over salad.