Dressed-up veggies

Asian-inspired vegetarian cooking can be flavorful and fast.

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

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.

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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?

I would say, prepare your own basic sauces because it is the easiest thing to do. All it takes is one trip to an Asian grocery store. Believe me, once you make your own curry sauce – Thai curry sauce, red curry sauce, green curry sauce – and then you compare it with the store-bought sauce, you will realize the difference in taste and the effort is well worth it.

How long would it take, from the prep work and all the way through to the completion, to prepare one of these full Asian-vegan meals?

I would say within an hour and 15 minutes I could prepare an entire meal – provided that I have all the ingredients.... I could make a meal with six dishes, including a starter, a soup, a main dish, a side dish, salad, everything. Once you have your ingredients ready, cooking is actually very quick. And easy.

Don't be in awe of your food, of your ingredients. Just be relaxed. You don't have to follow a recipe to the point of letting it stress you out. Cooking is not like baking, where a fraction of a teaspoon [too much] of any spice is going to damage a dish. Just be free to experiment and be flexible. The important thing is to enjoy cooking. And that is reflected in the flavor.

Can you recommend an Asian dish from your new cookbook for children, who don't always like spicy foods or vegetables?

I think children would like Sesame Potatoes from Indian cuisine. This is put together easily. All you require is a few boiled potatoes that you cut into bite-sized pieces. [Place oil in a frying pan], add some mustard seeds, and let them splatter. Add 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds, because they give a nice pearly look to the dish once it is ready. Add all your spices ... a little bit of turmeric, 1 teaspoon of coriander powder, some chili powder, a little bit of garam masala, some salt and sugar, and toss your potatoes to let them brown evenly, about 5 to 7 minutes over medium-low heat. Once they are browned, garnish with fresh cilantro and they are ready. You can serve them with toothpicks as an appetizer or serve them as a side dish. They will love this dish.

Mushroom Balls

This is a delicious starter made with some of the many mushrooms available in Thailand. Sweet Chili Sauce (see below) is perfect for dipping.

5 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, drained, and sliced

3-1/2 ounces fresh straw mushrooms, chopped

3-1/2 ounces fresh angel mushrooms, finely chopped

3-1/2 ounces fresh wood ear mushrooms, chopped

1 cup corn flour

1 fresh, hot, green chili, chopped

1 teaspoon ginger-garlic paste

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Salt to taste

1/2 cup water

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

Sweet Chili Sauce, to serve

In a deep bowl, mix together all the mushrooms and set aside.

To prepare the batter, combine the corn flour with the chilies, ginger-garlic paste, pepper, and salt. Add the water gradually to make a thick batter. Add the mushrooms to the batter and toss gently to mix evenly.

Heat the oil for deep-frying to 350 degrees F. Take a heaping tablespoon of the mushroom mix and slide into the hot oil. Deep-fry in small batches until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot with Sweet Chili Sauce. Serves 4.

Sweet Chili Sauce

5 large, fresh red chilies, seeded

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 cup plum sauce (or orange marmalade)

3 tablespoons superfine sugar

4 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, grind the chilies and garlic to a smooth paste. Put the plum sauce (or orange marmalade), sugar, water, vinegar, and salt in a saucepan. Add the ground chilies and garlic and stir to mix. Simmer over low heat for 2 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Transfer to a bowl and cool. Makes about 3/4 cup and keeps refrigerated for about a week.

Source: 'The Asian Vegan Kitchen'

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