This month we review a cookbook that reveals how easy it is to prepare well known Asian dishes in your own home.
The Asian Vegan Kitchen:
Authentic and Appetizing Dishes
from a Continent of Rich Flavors
By Hema Parekh
Kodansha International Company, 2007
A stranger in Tokyo, she quickly found herself sparked by the exciting, exotic, and earthy flavors of Asian dishes and noted, "The ease with which everyone threw spices and herbs around was fascinating, and in that attitude lay the secret. I learned that cooking delicious food is not about getting the recipe right, it is more about getting a feel for the ingredients and the quantities. It is the flexibility that makes cooking a delightful and enriching experience."
As in many large cities in America, Tokyo, too, is a melting pot that gave Hema the opportunity to meet people from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Korea. Her culinary journey took her into restaurant and home kitchens in Japan as well as in other Asian countries where she learned the intricacies of preparing the traditional dishes of each of these regions.
The author's desire was not to use meat-centered dishes of the nine countries and replace them with vegetarian substitutions, but rather to focus on the many already vegan foods that people regularly cook in their own homes.
Each of the book's chapters centers on a different Asian country. If you've feasted on Indian food, you may have tasted Cauliflower and Potato with Spices, a delicious curry that features spices easily found in Indian markets. The recipe is an exotic spice market treasure that contains eleven different spices. While the recipe may sound daunting, it's actually easy with Hema guiding the reader with four simple steps. Accompanying the curry main dish are several side dishes, snacks, breads, and beverages.
Along with studying the cuisines of each country, the author acquired another set of skills that involved proper etiquette and how to handle chopsticks. Readers will enjoy reading about her first challenging Japanese encounter with slippery lacquer chopsticks and learning how to make Miso Soup with Tofu and Wakame along with salads, main dishes, noodle dishes, rice dishes, side dishes, and desserts like Green Tea Ice Cream.
Chinese food aficionados will enjoy the Sour and Spicy Soup and the spicy Kung Pao Tofu. These easy-to-prepare, familiar dishes are the foundation of the book rather than recipes that focus on intricate dishes seldom made at home.
The dishes of Thailand feature well-loved favorites like Spicy Green Papaya Salad and Red Curry with Vegetables along with a selection of side dishes and snacks, Throughout the book, Hema uses English recipe titles rather than their traditional names.
This innovative cook captures not only the pungent flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, but also the bustling pulse of the country when she describes the floating markets of the Mekong delta in her introduction to the chapter. Vietnamese cuisine delivers irresistible dishes with a pleasing balance of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy flavors, while stir-fried dishes are prepared with a minimum of oil. A popular main dish favorite is the Pancakes Rolled with Vegetables made with rice flour and coconut milk and enhanced with a host of veggies embedded into the pancake.
In the introduction to each country, she reveals fascinating tidbits of culture, color, and traditions that pave the way for a unique taste experience. The Tomato Salad provides a delightful insight into Burmese cuisine with its myriad colors, textures, and flavors that feature cabbage, roasted peanuts, black sesame seeds, and pungent seasonings.
Indonesia is where many of our familiar culinary spices are grown. Seasonings like kaffir lime leaves, tamarind juice, and chiles are part of the cuisine that embraces dishes like Mixed Vegetable Salad with Peanut Sauce known as Gado Gado.
Malaysia, like many of the Asian countries, enjoys a throng of activity with street vendors selling all sorts of customary dishes prepared not in a formal kitchen, but simply cooked to order using simple implements. Hema offers wonderful recipes for Fragrant Lemongrass Rice, Noodles in Spicy Coconut Soup, and Red Lentil fritters.
What sets Korean cuisine apart from other Asian foods is the liberal use of chili peppers, finely slivered vegetables, and Kimchi that accompanies many meals. Hema's selection of recipes captures the Korean heart with Namul and Chorim, simply simmered vegetable dishes that are delicately seasoned and shared at the table along with the main dishes. The author includes four vegan varieties of Kimchi, a highly spiced fermented pickle served at each meal. Traditionally, kimchi includes fish paste.
The book is graphically attractive with sauces, relishes, and recipe enhancements set apart in shaded boxes. Especially appealing are an impressive 32 beautiful full-color photos of dishes from each of the nine cuisines. The photos alone would tempt a browser to want the book for his or her own cookbook collection. An extensive glossary explains unfamiliar ingredients in concise but complete terms. One disadvantage is that the book lacks a lay-flat binding, making it necessary to prop the book open with something heavy while following a recipe.
The Asian Vegan Kitchen is a vegan cookbook gem that anyone from any continent would be delighted to have on the kitchen shelf. Hema's love of Asian foods is joyfully expressed within the book's introduction, the opening orientation to each country's recipes, and many of the headnotes that accompany the dishes. Her passion for vegan Asian cuisine is contagious and inspiring and, no doubt, shines through to the students in her Tokyo cooking classes. She sums it up this way, "In my humble opinion, nothing can compare with a meal put together in the comfort of your own kitchen, in the warmth of your home, for the people you love."