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Dressed-up veggies

Asian-inspired vegetarian cooking can be flavorful and fast.

By / May 28, 2008

Appetizing: Hema Parekh, author of 'The Asian Vegan Kitchen' cookbook, prepared a platter of mushroom balls on a recent visit to Boston.

Mary Knox Merrill – staff

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Hema Parekh is the author of two cookbooks on Japanese cuisine. A lifelong vegetarian, Ms. Parekh grew up in India but has spent the past 25 years living in Tokyo with her husband and two children. Her most recent cookbook is a fusion of Asian traditions, "The Asian Vegan Kitchen: Authentic and Appetizing Dishes from a Continent of Rich Flavors." She recently sat down for an interview with the Monitor to talk about vegetarian and vegan dishes following a cooking demonstration at Northeastern University in Boston.

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How has cooking vegetarian or vegan meals changed over the past 20 years or so?

I think it is a revelation that vegetarian cooking can be fun. The flavor of each of the dishes comes from the ingredients and fresh herbs.

When I [first arrived in Japan] 25 years ago, [many people] did not understand what it meant to be a vegetarian. They presumed that vegetarians only ate salads or stir-fried dishes, steamed or boiled vegetables. So it was very important to explain ... that you could be eating delicious food from different cuisines and still be a vegetarian [or] a vegan.

In your cookbook, you emphasize how the different Asian cuisines have influenced one another. Do you feel that Asian dishes are constantly evolving?

Oh, absolutely. More and more you feel as if the boundaries, the lines that distinguish each cuisine, are getting less and less distinct as they are almost merging in flavors. That's the beauty of sharing and exploring [what] each cuisine offers.... You can be cooking ... Burmese food with Indian ingredients, and you can add two more ingredients and make Thai food. So it's very easy to move from one cuisine to another just by altering a couple of ingredients. Literally, food is a way to penetrate barriers and erase boundaries.

What dish would you recommend to a home cook who hasn't cooked a lot of vegan or vegetarian dishes?

I would recommend starting with a simple cabbage dish, which is easily available. Finely shred the cabbage, put it aside in a bowl. If you use red and green cabbage, you'll have a pretty color.

In a separate frying pan, take 2 teaspoons of oil, add 1 teaspoon of mustard seeds; let them splatter. Add 1/4 teaspoon of turmeric powder, 1/4 teaspoon of chili powder, a little salt, and toss this over the shredded cabbage. Add some lime juice, and you'll have a delicious cabbage salad.

I add ground peanuts to this, to give it a crunch. You could add walnuts, or pine nuts – any nuts. I call this the Crunchy Cabbage Salad and garnish it with some fresh cilantro. It's delicious. I could make a meal of it.

Why is cilantro so necessary for Asian dishes?

Cilantro is the most fragrant and delicious herb used in Asian cooking. It is an absolute must in Asian cooking. It adds flavor to Thai cooking, Chinese cooking, Vietnamese cooking. It is amazing the power this simple-looking herb has on the flavor and taste of a dish. It just enhances everything that is part of the curry or the appetizers or the vegetables. It just has that magical quality.

A lot of Americans don't feel they have the time to do all the slicing and flavoring that is required for a good Asian dish. What could home cooks do to help them embrace these kinds of dishes?