It’s the 3rd week into the vegan culinary course and the theme for today was Thai cuisine. To recap, we spent the first two weeks familiarizing ourselves with the Japanese Shojin Ryori (Zen Buddhist style cuisine) and Macrobiotics which are two styles to food and eating that are pretty concept heavy. For example, Chef R (who is teaching us for the first 5 lessons) mentions that Macrobiotics stresses balancing opposing energies of Yin and Yang therefore frames food and eating in energetic terms rather than in scientific terms of nutrient specificity.
Today’s focus on Thai food was a considerable departure from the previous two styles in its less dogmatic nature. Mention Thai food and I’m willing to bet it evokes more of the culture and fresh flavors characteristic of its geographical location.
First up was an absolutely divine Vegan Tom Yum Soup to whet our appetites. Actually it pretty much filled me up because of the robustness and sheer intensity of all the different fresh flavors. Flavored with all the essential herbs and ingredients such as galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and lime juice, the soup really took on a full bodied flavor.
What I found to be most intriguing about this was the use of young Thai coconut water as part of the soup base as well as pieces of the white flesh as soup ingredients, incidentally resembling squid both in appearance and in its firm, chewy and slightly rubbery texture. With the natural sweetness from the young coconuts, the soup needed nothing more than a bit of Thai soy sauce (which tastes clearer and slightly sweeter than Chinese or Japanese soy sauce) and lime juice to taste. Once again I am blown away by how much flavor this soup had in contrast to the simplicity of ingredients and steps taken to materialise it.
Pan-fried Tofu with Sweet Tamarind Sauce
My eyes really brightened up when I saw the recipe for Pan-fried Tofu with Sweet Tamarind Sauce because those ingredients are just totally right up my lane. I can’t think of anything simpler and more rewarding to cook on a weeknight than a tofu smothered in a delicious sauce. And it was dead, dead, dead simple to make.
My classmates and I agreed that the taste was very similar to the kind of black-ish sauce you find served over steamed fish in Chinese restaurants. A definite plus when it come to cooking for non-vegans. We sectioned the tofu horizontally, which was then pan-fried to brown and crisp up. We actually tried this with supermarket and wet market tofu, the latter we found more palatable due to its softness and slight tanginess compared to the former which was really firm and more ‘sterile’ tasting. Then the sauce which consisted of tamarind juice, gula melaka (or palm sugar), soy sauce, shallots and oil was reduced to a thicker consistency. Pour over tofu, garnish with fried garlic, shallots and fresh coriander. Second easy dish done.
The third dish – Warm Quinoa Salad with Tofu and Tempeh seemed a little too finicky for the likes of me but is absolutely nutrient packed and makes a wonderful one-dish meal that also keeps well.
A very useful tip I learnt was how to flavor the quinoa, a method that can also be used for other grains. Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass are added to the cooking mixture of grains and water resulting in a very fragrant dish which I can only think will make even staunch skeptics of whole grains buckle.
A collection of characteristic Thai herbs – coriander leaves, Thai basil, mint and spring onions, as well as red chillis are finely chopped and tossed into the cooked quinoa, and pan-fried tofu and tempeh are crumbled in to resemble the minced pork in this traditional dish. Then the dressing of lime juice, sugar, garlic, soy sauce, shallots and oil are mixed in. At this point the quinoa becomes a bit wet, so Chef R sprinkled on a few teaspoons of toasted brown rice powder which also adds a nice toasty fragrance to the overall dish.
I’ve never encountered brown rice powder in dishes but apparently it is used in certain kinds of Thai dishes or so Chef alludes to. Taste-testing this, I find the taste of herbs to again be an important part of this dish, with the tofu and tempeh providing a meaty texture and extra protein, while the simple seasonings of umami-rich soy sauce, sugar and lime juice really work in tandem to bind the different ingredients together in this entire dish. The flavors were vibrant yet not overly strong, truly a beautiful nutritious dish.
Green Mango Salad
Then we made Chef’s easy version of Green Mango Salad which can be easily made using substitutions such as blanched okra, burdock, mountain root and cabbage. I was surprised to say the least about the texture of green mango, which was actually a lot juicier and sweeter than I’d imagined. Grated up it actually tasted uncannily similar to guava.
Again, simple is the keyword because the ingredients only consisted of green mango, carrot, long beans, tomato, red chilli, garlic and toasted cashews. Traditionally, the salad is pounded in a deep Thai-style mortar as the ingredients and seasonings are thrown in by the handful. We certainly didn’t miss the fish sauce in this one, which had everything it needed in the three seasoning ingredients of lime juice, soy sauce and gula melaka. I find you do need to use Thai soy sauce though, which will give a taste profile closer to fish sauce.
This time round Chef threw in a lot of bonus recipes which was a big help to say the least because they give us ideas as to how Thai herbs and ingredients can be utilised other in the main recipes. Its always a bit of a hassle to find out what to do with all the leftover ingredients you bought just to make one dish, so her provision of practical recipes all simple, do-able and really yummy-sounding was a big plus for me today. I especially can’t wait to make the Lemongrass Tea and Tom Yum Red Chilli Paste as they are some of my (and I’m sure many others’) favorites when it comes to Thai food.
We didn’t make all of the bonue recipes due to time constraint but Chef did have time to whip up one of these – a Pumpkin Hummus which is bean-free and consists mainly of cooked pumpkin and toasted cashews. Keeping with the Thai theme, she flavored with lime juice and soy sauce and also added some tahini. Coriander leaves also went into the blender which added a herby accent. The texture of this was really soft, creamy, nutty and tart and would be good more as a kind of dip for crudites, chips or flatbreads. Personally, this was one of my least favorites. I still prefer a traditional chickpea hummus classically seasoned with tahini, garlic and lemon juice but this is definitely for you if you’re into a more easily digestible yet fibre rich version with the aroma of toasted nuts and seeds.
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It continues to be an amazing learning experience each week at Onaka with Chef R who always seems bursting to share with us her personal collection of about a ton of excellent and practical recipes. I have so much respect and gratitude for her as her life experience of being a concerned mother and commitment to eating mindfully as well as healthily shines both through her constantly radiant disposition as well as her role as a chef.