Good morning Vietnam

Grilled chicken summer rolls
Holidays = new discoveries, cultural revelations, enlightening moments, and best of all foodie adventures. A recent trip to Vietnam has reignited my appreciation for meals containing fresh, minimally cooked veggies. Vietnamese cuisine in comparison to the offerings of its South East Asian neighbours, by far contains some of the healthiest and wholesome dishes. Unlike Indian food that cooks down veggies into an unrecognizable pulp or Malay food that drowns greens into a soggy mess, the natural texture and flavour of veggies is often the centerpiece of Vietnamese food. Vegetables tend to be eaten fresh to preserve their original textures and colours – if they are cooked, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried.

The renowned gỏi cuốn (summer rolls) are packed with crunchy (non cooked!) herbs while even the traditional pho is always accompanied by a plate of fresh bean sprouts and even more herbs. Peek into a Bánh xèo (omelette) and you will surprisingly be greeted with an array of colorful, light veggies (instead of grease and onions a la the Malay omelette). Some of my travel buddies even pointed out that the Vietnamese seemed to consume a garden with each meal! This healthy approach to their meals is reflected by the fact that Vietnam has one of the highest life expectancy rates out of the developing countries within South East Asia, complemented by a low obesity rate (although obesity amongst children is becoming a trend in the more developed areas of the country). 

In an attempt to prolong the celebration of light, fresh, and wholesome food, I recently created my rendition of the favourite Vietnamese summer rolls (recipe inspired by Taste for Adventure). These veggie-packed parcels were my constant London summer picnic basket staple. Not only are they perfectly refreshing on a hot, sunny day, it is also so easy to impress guests with this dish as everyone always seems surprised that I would go through the effort to assemble all the ingredients and delicately fold the rolls. Here the traditional prawns are substituted with a marinated grilled chicken since I wanted a protein fix to help fuel a much overdue post-holiday run. I also substituted the usual ingredients (bean sprouts and basil) for whatever I had left in my fridge – rocket leaves and red peppers – a slightly Western twist to a Vietnamese classic!

Grilled chicken summer rolls

The Ingredients
 Chicken breasts cut into thin slices, vegetable oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, rice paper sheets, 1 cup glass noodles, 2 carrots – shredded, 2 cups rocket leaves, 1 red pepper, coriander, 1 tsp brown sugar, lime juice, salt and pepper.

The Preparation
1. Marinate chicken with vegetable oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, and minced garlic. Season and leave in the fridge for half an hour. Grill.

2. Make sure all ingredients are ready to go – carrots are shredded, red pepper sliced thinly, glass noodles hydrated, and coriander is chopped. 
3. Fill a shallow dish with warm water and add a rice paper sheet one at a time for about 5 to 10 seconds. Remove from dish and place on a flat surface. Top with glass noodles, red pepper slices, shredded carrot, sliced chicken, and coriander leaves. Fold both ends and roll the sheet tightly. 
4. For the dipping sauce combine soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, lime juice and chopped coriander. Serve with summer roll.
5. Folding the spring rolls can become a tad boring after a while – if you give up half way, combine all ingredients into a bowl, add sliced cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced mangoes for a refreshing salad!

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In pursuit of happiness

Orzo with chicken, asparagus, and red pepper
And so it’s finally June. Halfway through the year. The month has been off to a bit of an emotional start for me due to a number of reasons. There’s the dreaded date of turning another year older looming round the corner. June also marks one year of my move back to KL. What an adventure is has been so far from surrendering myself to work and its chaos, reconnecting with old friends, swearing off men forever, to discovering a renewed passion for cooking. I’m trying my best to focus on the positive rather than drowning in the depressing, existential thoughts of whether I achieved what I had set out to do with my move back home from KL. Was it worth it all?

Despite certain setbacks, KL is still one big journey of discovery, so I’m choosing to practice positive thinking. Focus on the good side of things and everything becomes an exciting opportunity or blessing. Wallow on the negative and defeat takes over in an instant. Happiness is a state of mind. It’s all about the little joyful moments of enlightenment that make it all worth it. I’m applying this philosophy to food as well. It’s a known scientific fact that certain foods act as natural anti-depressants and have the ability to alter moods. The dish below contains two key ingredients that have been proven to raise the spirits and banish the blues. Asparagus has high levels of folate and tryptophan. Tryptophan is used by the brain to make serotonin, which is one of the brain’s main mood-stabilising neurotransmitters. At the same time, asparagus replenishes the body’s levels of folate – low levels of folate have been linked to depression. The bold red hues of ripe red peppers instantly brings images of warm sunshine-filled days. Guaranteed to bring a smile to my face. 

So move over June blues, I banking on good, happy food and positive thinking to get me through the month. 

Orzo with chicken, asparagus, and red pepper (inspired by BevCooks)

Basic Ingredients
Orzo, 1 onion, 2-3 cloves of garlic, olive oil, chicken breast, asparagus (trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces), sliced red peppers, chicken stock, chopped spring onions, parmesan cheese, 1 lemon, salt & pepper.

The Preparation
1. Season chicken with salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil. Either pan fry or grill until cooked.
2. Blanche asparagus. Drain and set aside. 
3. Sautee chopped onion and garlic in olive oil. 
4. Add orzo and cook for about 3 minutes to toast.
5. Add a ladle of chicken stock and stir until this has absorbed into the orzo. Keep repeating this technique of adding stock and stirring, as if you were making a risotto. 
6. When orzo is three quarters cooked add asparagus, peppers, and spring onion. Keep stirring.
7. When orzo is al dente, add parmesan cheese, juice of 1 lemon and zest of lemon.
8. Season and serve  

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.