Yay, summer's here! Can you tell that this tropical sun worshipper is jumping for joy? Salads are usually in heavy rotation for us during the warmer months of the year here in California and when I want a taste from my sunny home of Southeast Asia, this tofu salad with a flavorsome spiced peanut sauce is what I make.
This salad is inspired by a tofu street snack in Malaysia that goes by the name tauhu bakar (grilled tofu) or tauhu sumbat (fried tofu stuffed with vegetables). It is fried tofu filled with bean sprouts, and shredded cucumber and carrots. The fried tofu pieces are cut into squares or triangles, and pockets are made by cutting their midsection, which is where the vegetables go. The fried tofu may also be grilled to a crisp just before serving.
I love it when a recipe challenges and teaches me a few new tricks. This vegetarian Pad Thai sparked an entire post about fishless fish sauce, in which I set out to investigate the commercial fish sauce substitutes available in my local Asian supermarket and put three vegan fish sauce recipes to the test at home. Click here to read the results and find the vegetarian fish sauce to make this all-time favorite Thai noodle dish.
There are a few things we can learn from this recipe found in the brilliant vegetarian cookbook Good Veg by Alice Hart. Most important of them is that whether you call yourself vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or lessmeatarian, meatless cooking poses more delicious opportunities than you realise. This book is filled with ideas highlighting flavor profiles from all over the world, including to my delight many recipes inspired by Asia and Southeast Asia.
The first time I wrote about fish sauce was for the Thai Glass Noodle Salad (Yum Woon Sen) recipe. It's difficult to talk about Southeast Asian food without talking about fish sauce. Made with anchovies fermented in salt, fish sauce is a staple condiment in Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, and Lao cuisines.
I also mentioned vegan fish sauce in that post and promised that I will explore the subject further. So here we are! I tested three vegan fish sauce recipes, used them to make the same Thai glass noodle salad, and took tasting notes. In the process, I learned a few things about umami ingredients, lessons that are valuable for everyone, vegan or not.
I only started using cookbooks after I moved to the US and had to learn how to cook Malaysian food while away from home. It was equal parts desperation and curiosity that led me to the kitchen and the creation of this blog to document my culinary adventures. I am a much better cook these days but I didn't achieve that all by myself. I had my parents on the phone for guidance, friends showing me recipes to save my life, and cookbooks providing the proper foundation for lifelong kitchen skills. Yes, an urgent craving for rojak is a matter of life and death!
So this is why I've started writing this cookbook series. Maybe you're homesick like me and need to soothe it with food from home. Maybe you've been to Malaysia or other parts of Southeast Asia, tried the food, and your life is forever changed. Maybe you're curious about Southeast Asian food and want to try cooking it.
This list is made up of classic Southeast Asian cookbooks with recipes that are as reliable as time. My focus here is on Malaysian food, but you will soon realise that some of the recipes from the neighboring countries are closely related.
To see the travel-themed books in the first part of this cookbook series, click here. To start cooking, click here for a list of recipes on my blog.
"The lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud." – Buddhist proverb
I'm starting this post with this popular saying to give you an idea of the symbolic significance of the sacred lotus plant in Buddhist and Hindu art and literature. Straightforwardly, it means rising above the murk and resembles the purification of the human spirit.
More importantly, I'd like you to get a mental image of where lotus roots, today's featured vegetable on the Spring Discovery series, come from. Mud. Yes, mud.
Lotus roots are rhizomes of the lotus flower that grow in muddy ponds across Asia, known for the striking pattern of holes that reveal themselves when cut crosswise. As a young child in Malaysia, I called lotus root the "telephone vegetable", and I grew up having them boiled in soup with peanuts. The lotus root soup recipe I'm sharing here is a vegetarian version that I now make.
Vermilion Roots is TWO! So I made two cakes. Not that I need any excuse to crowd your screen with the plump, juicy colors of seasonal fruits and fresh berries, but I can't think of anything more suitable for this blog's status as a Spring baby. Besides, these beauties are for sharing. They deserve attention and we, my dear friends, deserve to celebrate.
You'd probably realised by now that I'm a fan of unconventional cakes. I'm known to show up at potlucks with a green cake in hand, and to commemorate this blog's first birthday, I made a savory Chinese turnip cake served with spring onions and Sriracha sauce! Continuing the tradition of unconventional cakes this year, I present to you Thai Basil Avocado Cake and Kaffir Lime Leaf Mango Cake, both smothered with all the berries the land has to offer this season.
Today's featured vegetable on the Spring Discovery series is technically a fungus. Since I've told you about white fungus, it's only fair that I also bring your attention to black fungus. This edible fungus grows on trees and is commonly available as cloud ear or wood ear mushrooms, owing no less to its appearance. Do you see ears in the bowl?
These mushrooms don't impart a whole lot of flavor but are enjoyed for their unique rubbery and gelatinous texture that adds a slippery yet pleasant crunch to dishes. They are also rich in dietary fiber, high in iron, and used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with blood circulation.
They are one of the key ingredients in a popular Buddhist vegetarian dish known as Buddha's Delight or Lo Hon Jai that is traditionally served by the Chinese in Malaysia during Lunar New Year and other festive occasions.
When we think of Indian food, the first few things that come to mind are red curries and naan bread. Little do we know that these are generally North Indian staples and there's a whole different world of cuisine in South India.
Take this fresh-looking curry for example. It hails from Karnataka, a state in the south-western region of India, and gets its appetizing green color from a chewy curry paste made with grated coconut and cilantro. It's nothing like the curries we usually get in Indian restaurants here.
Taro root (wu tao in Cantonese and keladi in Malay) is probably not the friendliest looking vegetable in town. It has an irregular shape with dark shaggy brown skin that is an irritant to our skin and its flesh is mildly toxic when consumed raw. Yet, we eat it and we love it. It is regularly available in Asian grocery stores and farmers markets here in the San Francisco Bay Area, which tells me that there's a healthy demand for it. I personally think it deserves a little spotlight, which is why I've picked it as the featured vegetable of this week's Spring Discovery series.
Cookbooks on Malaysian food are rare in America but that is about to change when three cookbooks solely dedicated to Malaysian cooking hit the market in the next few months. Yes, three, and I am beyond thrilled! This shows a growing interest in Malaysian cuisine, the food I grew up eating, the food I learned to cook from my parents, and the food that soothes a homesick heart in my American kitchen.
Before we get to the new books (covers shown above), I'd like to tell you about the cookbooks that have helped me cook Malaysian food at home since I moved here. With suggestions from friends in the food business, bookstores, and publishers, I've assembled a collection of cookbooks with Malaysian recipes that I think is worthy of the attention of anyone interested in Malaysian cooking at home. These are books that I cook with and I'd like to share them with you through a series of posts starting with this one.
Today's line-up is a mixture of old and new Southeast Asian cookbooks inspired by travel.
With the arrival of spring comes the desire to go outside and explore, and one of my favorite things to do is visit the farmer's markets and peruse the stands for new vegetables to try, a passion I've diligently documented in the Spring Discovery series on this website. With the help of friends and vegetable-focused cookbooks, I've made many delicious discoveries since moving to America from Malaysia.
This year, my focus turns to Asian vegetables, some I grew up eating and took for granted, some I've known about but lost track of since I moved due to name inconsistencies or differences in appearance, and some completely new to me. It's time to get reacquainted with some old friends and make new ones.
I make porridge a lot. When I feel under the weather and need something light on the stomach, I make a simple rice porridge. When I do not have the time to cook, I make a big pot of rice porridge and have it over the week with various toppings: dried fruits, nuts, and seeds for breakfast or ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, and ground white pepper for dinner. In fact, I've written about the various styles of Chinese porridge here and shared a recipe on the Protest Fuel zine (which you can order here).
Porridge is good for anytime of the day, especially in the colder seasons when a warm bowl of food can bring so much comfort. This winter, I've been making an Indian-style rice and mung bean porridge known as kitchari that I learned about from Ayurveda cookbooks.
Lately I've been making foods that I've never had before, allowing books like Shane Mitchell's Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World to guide me in my exploration of new flavors. Whenever life stresses me out, I retreat to the kitchen. If I had to express myself succinctly without delving into the current political climate in the US, I'd say the last few months have been really disturbing.
In cooking I seek solace and I always find it, the discovery of a new ingredient or the excitement of trying a new recipe never fails to provide me with a sense of meaning in a time of confusion. Having Indian-style spiced okra with Kenyan coconut rice on the same plate makes perfect sense for me right now. And yes, they are tasty together!
I'd like to talk about an ingredient I always pick up when we go to Chinatown: monk fruit. Hard, dry, and rather featureless on the outside, it is understandably a mysterious fruit even though it is a common ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine. I grew up having it as a tong sui (sweet soup) or tea to help suppress coughs and cool down on a hot day.
Like goji berry, another age-old ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, monk fruit has entered the Western market in the form of monk fruit sweeteners. Though seeing it on the alternative sugar section of my local grocery stores piqued my curiosity, I didn't get a chance to try it until I attended the recent Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
The addition of dried orange peels in dishes gives it an inviting citrus aroma. You can buy the dried peels (known as chen pi) from Asian herbal stores but I've decided to make my own from the mandarin oranges I've been gobbling. Peels from different citruses will, of course, give different flavors. I used mandarin because it's in season now and the peel is usually thinner with less of the bitter pith (the white spongy layer between the fruit and the skin).
Peanuts for a long life, sticky rice for togetherness, red beans for love, oranges for good fortune... And all that sweetness for a sweet life in the new year!
Make no mistake, Chinese New Year is about food: the preparation, cooking, and eating are all a part of the ceremonious celebration that lasts about two weeks. It is when we eat special foods that carry symbolic significance for a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year. It is also when food is in abundance and generously shared to bring forth a full and contented spirit to start the year with. At this time of the year, more is always better and sharing truly is caring!
Today, in celebration of the lunar new year, I have two sweet recipes for you: Red Bean Soup and Peanut Mochi that are especially delicious enjoyed together. The recipes are adapted from the impressive China: The Cookbook, my friendly cooking companion this festive season. And it could be yours too as I'm giving away a copy! (Scroll down for details on how to win.)
There's a joke among Malaysians that we'll travel far and wide for food, and that includes speed driving across town for that special plate of char kway teow during our workday lunch break or making a road trip out of an intense desire for laksaon the island of Penang. That habit is a persistent one and even after relocating to the US, my husband and I often find ourselves making the hour-long drive to Oakland for our favorite Malaysian restaurant in the SF Bay Area. And because the restaurant is located in Chinatown, we get to kill two birds with one stone: eating and shopping!
Many Southeast Asian dishes just wouldn't be the same without the fruity and citrusy sweet-sour flavor of tamarind, although I've used lime juice as a substitute during desperate times. The tamarind commonly used in cooking comes from the seed pods of the tamarind tree that can usually be found in pod form, as a hard block of pulp, as a concentrate, or in a powder form.
Tamarind concentrate and powder may present themselves as attractively convenient but I find the best results to come from making tamarind paste from the tightly packed pulpy block (preferably seedless), which is usually available at Asian stores and storable in the refrigerator for quite a long time. Based on my experience cooking in Malaysia, online research and trials at home, this is how you can prepare tamarind paste.
"There is so much comfort in familiar tastes," writes Nigel Slater in The Kitchen Diaries. Laksa, a spice-strong noodle soup considered by some to be the unofficial national dish of Malaysia, is one of those dishes that serves up both comfort and surprise for me. There are countless variations and almost every state in Malaysia has its own version of the recipe. Depending on where I'm having it, the familiar dish can sometimes be a completely new discovery for my palate.
On New Year's eve, we stayed in and had sushi with Japanese whisky mixed with coconut water, watched two episodes of Black Mirror over popcorn and ice cream, and fell asleep at 11.30pm. The next day, we woke up without a hangover nor that feeling of regret in the pit of our stomachs. It was the best countdown ever, and the most obvious sign of um, graceful aging.
Another day, another year. 2017 is here. I slept through its arrival, but I have a whole year to catch up so I'm not going to worry too much about it. Around the same time last year, I was standing on an old wooden ladder to put a fresh coat of paint on our kitchen walls. This year, on the first day of the new year, I was standing in the same kitchen making a cup of Gratitude Tea and counting my blessings.
Family traditions are often created over the holidays. This year, we're thinking of spicing up our first Christmas in the new apartment. As we plan this year's Christmas menu, it's looking more and more like a multicultural feast made up not only of Western holiday staples but also some of our Asian favorites, like this spicy Basmati Saffron Pilaf and an East-meets-West pumpkin laksa soup I've been experimenting on (watch this space!). It appears a holiday tradition is in the making in our household, and it is one that embraces diversity as a delicious opportunity.
For a year we lived in a house with a big fig tree. It was the best thing about the house, along with the plum, kumquat, orange, and avocado trees. During a year fraught with challenging life transitions, these magnificent trees, so exotic and peculiar to my tropical origins, blessed us with their alluring fruits.
We know tomato as the quintessential warm-weather treat, literally bursting with flavor, minimally handled and enjoyed raw, only lightly adorned with a pinch of salt or a dash of balsamic vinegar to let its best qualities shine.
At other times of the year, especially in colder months like now, this recipe is how I like to eat semi-decent tomatoes still clinging to the heels of summer. Cooked with a rich mix of spices, it turns even subpar supermarket tomatoes into a scrumptious dish that will sustain any tomato craving all through the winter. In fact, hardier tomato varietiesthat are more readily available year round like beefsteak and roma are best used to maintain a chewier texture.
The last time I shared a kitchen with my family in Malaysia was on the night before my little brother's wedding, making tang yuan with aunts, uncles, and cousins I had lost touch with for many years.
Tang yuan are sticky balls made of glutinous rice flour that sometimes have a sweet peanut, black sesame seed or red bean filling, served in a spicy ginger soup. These dumplings are usually made during the Winter Solstice festival (happening soon) or on the occasion of a family reunion.
In Chinese tradition, the roundness and stickiness of the balls symbolize harmony and unity within the family. Rarely do we make tang yuan for no special reason, and they are almost always done around a table full of family members involved in various stages of the cooking process. Kneading, the shaping of balls, boiling and scooping, talking loudly, and laughing are all part of the ritual.
That night, we were honoring the union of two people, and it was one of the most joyous tang yuan making sessions I've ever had in my life.
That question has been on my mind ever since it was brought up on the #WhyIWriteAboutFood interview series I host (read the interview here and and check out the entire collection of delicious conversations here).
Vermilion Roots was born out of the necessity to find a sense of place after I moved from Malaysia to California. In many ways, it has given me a space to confront my feelings about the place I left and to explore the place where I now live. Along the way, I made a few new friends, met many more at the recent SAVEUR Blog Awards in New York, started volunteering on a farm, tried a bunch of vegetables I'd never heard of before, picked apples and pumpkins for the first time in my life, and became a better cook. A whole new universe opened up for me. All thanks to the universal love of cooking and eating.
Early autumn. Ah, the air is getting thinner, crisper, and colder. After living in California for two years, I've had a chance to deliberate over the changing seasons and even pick a favorite. It's a toss between spring and autumn, the transition seasons that allow my mind and body to prepare for the extremities of summer and winter.
You can read about my initial thoughts on spring, summer, and autumn, but I've yet to embrace the dark age of winter. Brrr. (I know what you're thinking. California winter is nothing, but don't forget I grew up in a tropical country!)
Right now, I'm feeling comfortably cuddly in an oversized sweater the color of mustard yellow, an intentional choice to contrast the grayness of my day. I suppose I do the same with food, responding not only to my body's need to pack in heat and my craving for spices, but also an ocular desire for a bright dish to show up for dinner.
For that, I have turned to a basic rice preparation using turmeric, known in Malaysia as nasi kunyit and in Indonesia also as nasi kuning.
I'm going to New York again, this time for the SAVEUR Blog Awards, where Vermilion Roots has been nominated as a finalist in the Best New Voice category. I can't thank you enough for your support in voting and cheering me on. The nomination itself has already been such a great honor and I look forward to meeting all the talented bloggers from around the world.
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