I am a crap cook. Not because I don’t like cooking, but because I am surrounded by kickass cooks who complain when I do things wrong. And… why bother. But I am familiar with food, and what I like, and have picked up some simple recipes and cooking techniques just by watching others. So now, with 3-months housesitting, alone, I thought I would set myself some fun challenges between my hugging and stroking cats. And the first of my fun challenges is to be vegetarian for a week.
So this starts just after New Year, using the leftover food from the festive season, along with a cupboard of spices, sauces and condiments. All bought locally or from the nearest Tescos or, at its furthest, the Asia Supermarket in Belfast. Supplemented by little more than veg. and cheap stuff from the shelves of my local shops. And don’t expect food porn (as you’ll see below) but I have always been more concerned with how food tastes that how it looks. And most foods that I do love look aesthetically ugly anyway. It’s also home-cooking, so what do you expect?
I Love Vegetarian Food
I love food, I generally prefer it with meat, but I’m otherwise more than happy to eat it without. As long as it’s on my own terms. And, in Thailand, there is a festival called the ‘Kin Jay’ (Eat Veg) festival celebrating the Chinese ‘Nine Emperor Gods’ of ancient China. When most of the country go vegetarian/vegan for 10 days straight in a real Scrooge of a festival. I thought celebrations were meant to be fun.
But what really annoys me about the Kin Jay festival is that it focuses more on replacing meat with imitation meat, and they just dish out obscure and unappetizing Chinese noodle dishes. So it just fails to showcase the potential deliciousness of vegetarian foods, and it really just feels like an insult to vegetarianism, and food. Therefore this challenge is more for personal curiosity on whether or not I can cook tasty vegetarian meals without the use of imitation meat.
I’m a Crap Cook
I would struggle to cook an egg, yet, at the same time, I could probably throw together a tasty fried rice without much thinking at all. And this is a lot to do with timing and familiarity with certain foods, whereas cooking in Asia there’s relies a lot on instinct and throwing together ingredients. So I am pretty much throwing these meals together without any recipes, 10-15 minute jobbies at the most. No measurements, no timing, and I rely simply on instinct instead. Just winging it in the kitchen.
But this is probably the best way to learn how to cook, through trial and error, and, like many people, I really don’t have the time to read or plan extravagant dishes in advance. Otherwise, it does come together relatively well in the end, at least given my own skills in the kitchen, and while I may not create the sexiest of food porn. It’s all part of a culinary journey to understand food and the basics of cooking. And I was happily fed. Anyway, I’ll share all of the cheap/crap ingredients I use along the way.
Winging it in the Kitchen
I’m hungry, I like food, and I’m just too lazy to spend hours studying cookbooks and culinary techniques. And while there are some impressive technical and science-based books e.g. The Food Lab, cookbooks are more for people wanting to impress, where many cooks have little to no understanding of the food they are making. There’s also a big difference between cooking dishes and perfecting them and they’re sharing one person’s preference on flavours and tastes.
So your salt doesn’t need to be kosher and your sugar doesn’t have to be palm, and a lot of the ingredients may even be redundant. So cookbooks can occasionally be a bit off-putting for someone trying to just throw something tasty together.
For example, if I flicked through any western recipe book to find “the Bestest” Thai Green Curry or whatever. I’m generally thinking “what the **** are you doing?” “You don’t put that in there…”, “where’s the pea aubergines…”. As these recipes were otherwise world-renowned before random chefs put their messy fingers all over them. In somewhat of a racist way as well, towards themselves, because us “Western folk can’t handle proper Asian cuisine”. Anyway, authenticity is authenticity, and cookbooks tend to be a copy of a copy showing how some else likes to eat it.
Starting with the Snacking
Most of my snacking through the week is fruit anyway, where I’m always munching on apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, and whatever’s lying around the counters in the kitchen. I could probably live off fruit as well were I to make this challenge even lazier.
Otherwise, the only thing I would really be dropping meat-wise would be my love for a tasty Polish sausage, like kabanos and kielbasa, and packs of wafer-thin ham, chicken and roast beef. But when it comes to snacking and food, I honestly can’t remember microwaving a ready meal for a good 10 years, because they don’t really exist in Asia, at least not as they do here.
I did try early in this though to make some snackish dishes to use up the leftover potatoes, sprouts, and chestnuts littering the shelves after Christmas. And they were fine, the baked potato, garlic sauce, and baked beans were spot on. But the sprouts with chestnuts were woeful and I was desperate to move on to some Asian cuisine.
Asian Vegetarian Food
As a nation brought up on meat and 2 veg, it does make this challenge a bit tricky. And I had recently been writing about Northern Irish Food and Scottish Foods, where pretty much none of our local cuisines are vegetarian-friendly. Even our local “vegetable roll”, a spiced beef pudding, is no more than 4% vegetable. So we are very much a meat-eating nation. And while there are always vegetarian options available, I can never remember being in a restaurant and thinking ‘that veggie option sounds delightful’. At the same time, I do rarely eat out in the UK, so this is really not a problem.
However, British food has evolved rather diversely in the past decade (not so much on the veggie shelf) and there are just so many international options to choose from in every supermarket. But for me, Asian food is the way to go, for example, in Indian, they have decent meat alternatives such as lentils (dahl), potato (aloo), Chickpeas (channa) and Cottage Cheese (paneer). Although tastiness tends to be down to awesome curries and tasty spices. And while my personal knowledge is mostly in Thai cuisine, I will mix it up a bit to try and showcase, or not, the various dishes and flavours of Asia, that will always satisfy my love for spice.
Bangin’ Massaman Curry
First off, Massaman Curry, the King of Curries, and the winner of The World’s 50 Best foods by CNN Travel. So I’m starting with Thai cuisine which is closest to my own culinary ‘expertise’, although I will be making it simple as I can using a store-bought massaman paste I found kicking about in the cupboards (Mae Ploy Online). With lazy cooking, like myself, I always stick with the tried-and-tested before reinventing the wheel.
Traditionally massaman curry would be made from beef (occasionally chicken) and it is one of very few beef dishes in Thailand. It is also one of few dishes that is slow-cooked, and it pairs well with another unlikely ingredient in Thai food, the potato. So it is almost better suited for a western kitchen.
Anyway, ignoring the whole measurements and timing issues. I’d start by frying a bit onion in a pan before adding the recommended dollop of massaman curry paste and a tin of coconut milk/cream. Then in go chunks of potato and stew them until the ‘taties seem about ready. Stir in some peanuts. I vedged it up a bit with some frozen peas. And taste.
In my experience, premade pastes bought outside Thailand are for “tourist tastes” and they generally skimp in proper spice. Massaman as well is often ruined by recipes adding too much sugar/palm sugar. So, instead, I stirred in a couple of cardamom pods, cinnamon, dried chillies, cloves, and bam. A Banging Massaman Curry.
Yum Egg Salad
I’m only adding this because salads are often misunderstood, it’s the whole healthy weight-conscious dieting aspect, yet a caesar salad from Tescos has more fat than an entire cheap pack of wafer-thin chicken or ham. But there is an exciting new world of salads in Asia, perfect for both vegetarians and meat-eaters, and some of my favourite foods are in fact salads. As a salad is pretty much just a mix of veg, seasoning and dressings, and meat, fish etc.
Back to Thailand, where, straight off, I can’t think of a vegetarian salad. A good example is ‘Laab’, also the national dish of neighbouring Laos, which is traditionally made with minced pork. And even ‘som tam’ papaya salad traditionally uses both ‘nam pla’ fish sauce and ‘koong haeng’ dried shrimp and occasionally some smashed up soft-shelled crabs. In fact, it’s quite hard to eat vegetarian food in Thailand (outside the backpacker trails) without knowing the language (‘kin jay’ is otherwise the simple term).
So I’m more or less using this opportunity to recreate some tasty salads using the fresh veg shelves of Tesco. Or at least try. But really it’s not that hard. And I am using a Thai salad that is literally named ‘Yum’. As, like most salads, it celebrates the usual signature cliches of Thai cuisine; hot, sour, salty and sweet flavours. And here I am using chillies (hot), lime/lemon juice (sour), a light soy sauce replacing fish sauce (salty), then sugar (sweet). Add in some smashed garlic, a taste of pickle juice, some ground peanuts, and it’s a Yum Salad. Not because it’s Yum but that’s its name.
So I made this sauce on the side, throwing all the above together in a small bowl and roughly in equal parts. Then it’s easy to adjust to taste (although 4 red Birdseye chillies may not be to most people’s tastes). Pour it over your boring ass salad. And, Pow! Right on the kisser. A one-way ticket to tasty town. Etc etc. You’ll never look at salads the same way again.
Japanese Omelette Curry
Japanese Curry is considered to be one of the national dishes of Japan, although it was ironically brought by the British, only to be perfected in Japan. For me at least. As it would forever beat any “Chinese” fakeaway recipe, and it’s simple, and I do make it a lot. So the Japanese curry is probably better known by most people as “katsu curry”, only “katsu” refers to a crispy fried cutlet of meat (a bit like Vienna’s Wiener Schnitzel). And this would obviously be hard to replicate as a vegetarian dish. Anyway, I used a paste again, or a roux as it’s called, where it’s spices thickened with flour. And few roux’ will ever better ‘S&B Golden Curry’ which is a staple in pretty much every Japanese kitchen.
I would typically make similar curries only I start by browning and stewing some tasty meat in beef stock for near an hour, before adding in the Japanese Curry Roux. But with veg, it is all thrown together fairly quickly, as very little time is needed to cook things like onion and mushroom, and the frozen peas and sweetcorn. Again winging it. I also added optional dried chilli powder to heat it up again, CocoIchibanya style.
This recipe felt a tad simple tbh (I eat it a lot), so I challenged myself on the side with a simple ‘omurice’, which is another westernized Japanese dish, wrapping cooked rice (normally flavoured) in a thin egg omelette. And this is obviously where it all went wrong, as I ended up with what was more like rice topped with a scrambled egg. I can’t even make an omelette. Anyway, place the ‘omurice’ on a bowl/plate, and then pour over the Japanese curry. Other than obvious aesthetic differences, it all tastes the same, and I could happily eat it all week.
Intermezzo: Half-Time Burritos
This is an intermezzo of sorts, between Asian food, as I was working with leftover rice, and I really didn’t want to fall back on a boring bowl of fried rice. I’m also challenging myself. So I have a lot of sauces and flavours in the cupboards that go really well with Mexican food, and I guess rice makes it kind of Asian-ish. So straight-up I was thinking burritos, and I was soon out to buy some cheap-ass kidney beans and vegetable chilli to mix with my rice. Otherwise, I have absolutely no clue whatsoever on how to make Mexican food. And I probably still don’t.
So I fired the kidney beans and veg chilli into a pot to heat up for a bit before firing on some random sauces like Sriracha, dried chilli flakes, Worcestershire Sauce, randomly Jalapeno pickle juice, and, I dunno… (no I was obviously not working with a recipe). I slopped it onto a tortilla wrap, and just went to town with a load of random sauces and condiments in the cupboard including jalapeños, guacamole, sour cream, Cholula (obviously), and a Snow Patrol Hot Sauce.
It was easy to put together (around 6 minutes) but technically it is crap (think of a crappy Boojum). And I was obviously relying a lot on banging flavours, which I normally anyway, although there was arguably too much flavour. It’s just hard to go wrong. The wrap really wasn’t necessary either, as I was happily mashing it all up afterwards, to eat like baby food. Anyway, I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow this recipe.
Super Spicy Pasta
Pasta is obviously an Italian creation? Fun fact, pasta is (said to be) a descendant of Asian noodles brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo in the 13th century. And it’s hard to ignore the similarities. So I like to reimagine the humble Italian pasta with a mix of spicy Asian flavours. But I also remember ordering a spicy pasta dish at a random Costa Del Sol restaurant as a teenager when I was served what looked like a bland-looking plate of spaghetti. Without the bright red tomatoey sauce. But I was blown away by the flavour, and the chilli heat, so these days I rarely eat pasta with a pasta sauce.
It may not be ‘Asian’, but it’s Asian-fusion, I guess, and it uses similar ingredients that are easily found in the cupboard of everyone. A proper Italian/Mediterranean treat with a spicy Asian twist. Again the hardest/longest process in this delightful dish was cooking the pasta (I’m not good with timings) and I went with the bow tie ones, Farfalle, because they look cute/kawaii.
So I heat up some olive oil in a pan, throw in some smashed fresh chillies and garlic, and added extra chilli dry chilli to cheapen the heat. Then in goes the mushroom, tomato, onion, and olives, before stirring in the cooked pasta. Lastly, flavour with soy sauce (or salt) and I added in optional black olives and dry chillies. People don’t often like olives. But this is an easy carb-packed meal no more difficult than any other pasta recipe. Only with added heat and spice.
Dorty Phaal Aloo
I was waffling at the beginning of this blog about easily eating a vegetarian diet through Indian food. I do love Indian food. But I also have no clue at all on how to cook Indian foods, and the complex recipes and measurements of spices kind of scare me. But it again adds to this challenge. As I did resort to recipes here, online, and few cooking websites beat Serious Eats. So I searched the site looking for vindaloo, only it didn’t include potatoes/aloo and I needed to use up my near mouldy potatoes from New Year. And I also found had tins of tomato sauce in the cupboard. So next up is Phaal.
So I followed the Serious Eats recipe for Phaal, only I tore it apart, given the time it takes is 1hr 30mins, using lamb, and a Dutch oven. While I’m aiming to throw together meals here in no more than 20 minutes. But I did use the base spices, and raided the spice rack for some cumin, curry powder, garam masala, turmeric, cayenne pepper (paprika here), and garlic (missing the ginger). Then I mixed it up a bit with some cloves, cinnamon and cardamon. And you could probably reverse the recipe and cooking times and still come out with a tasty meal. Not perfect, but tasty. I just threw it all in.
Actually I did start this by frying some fried onions and mushrooms before throwing in a tin of Napolina Chopped Tomatoes (for a true taste of Italy). Then the rest went in to stew. And the curry ended up a ridiculously tasty, tomatoey and super spicy sauce of sorts. But I wasn’t sure if it was best with rice (I forgot to cook rice). So I instead made use again of the New Year potatoes by crisping them up in the air-frier, and I then just dumped them all into the curry/sauce. Along with more frozen peas. And it became a crispy, spicy, and awesome, potato curry.
I did eat a lot of it on its own, like a spicy stew, and it reminded me of Dum Aloo. Then the rest I ate with leftover tortilla wraps, crisped up in the toaster, and not so different to Indian roti/flatbreads. And I’m always improvising with leftovers.
Hot & Sour Noodle Soup
We do need a soup on this list, although it is one of the harder to sell dishes, because whoever wants to eat soup. And it is up there as one of the least appetizing meals alongside salads, at least when it comes to meat-eaters. And I feel the same, as soups really are just not that filling, so I added noodles to this soup, to make a noodle soup Giving some chewiness and ‘meatiness’, I guess, to an otherwise boring bowl of liquid. Testing myself one more time.
But Asian soups are otherwise full of amazing flavours, and I spiced this otherwise boring veg stock with a chilli jam called ‘Prik Pao’ which is probably one of the most versatile condiments in Thailand that is tricky to find elsewhere. But there are always hot and sour Tom Yum pastes etc. in the aisles that do somewhat similar.
The simple basics of any noodle soup is a broth, with noodles, and a choice of toppings/flavourings. So I went with what I was familiar with:
- Soup/broth (as above): Made with a tom yum chilli jam, but I also added a load of ground peanuts to thicken and make it well tasty.
- Noodles: Which I just bought from Tescos, simple premade egg noodles, that are ready to just throw in (or microwave).
- Toppings: I did some fried garlic, laced on some Sichuan mala oil, and failed at soft-boiled salty ramen eggs.
Again, I actually put some effort into making the eggs, boiling them for 5-minutes, and I left them overnight in a bag of soy sauce. But they came out closer to your typical hardboiled egg. Although it wasn’t a huge disappointment tbh, as they worked well, and it’s a just good example of how failing with recipes and timings can make next to no difference in the overall meal. Yet I’m still determined to make some of them softboiled runny ramen eggs.
Mala Veggie Macs
I’m trying to bring it back here to more basic western staples, replicating more common meat meals for most households. And you can’t go wrong with burgers. So this brought me, for the first time in my life, to the ‘veggie shelves’ in Tescos, in search of some appetizing veggie ‘burgers’. Which was hard. And I just went for the cheapest I could find (Tesco Plant Chef Burgers), realising I could have a proper beef burger for the same price, and I can say that the hardest part of this meal was the smell when I first opened the packet. At best I was hoping for no smell, only it smelt more like rotten tomatoes, or bin juice. So I was put off from the start.
But I ploughed on, going Big Mac-style, because who doesn’t love a Big Mac. And they are also relatively easy to replicate these days using pickled gherkins, plastic cheese, and a decent burger sauce. So I mixed 2 ‘burger’ paddies with some Mala spice mix, to fit the spicy Asian theme, then spiced it up with some chilli cheddar cheese, sriracha sauce, and red jalapeños to garnish. How could it go wrong?
So I tore the veggie burgers apart and mixed them with a mala spice, before rolling them into balls, as I planned to properly sear/burn them on high temps like smash burgers. But the veggie mix just stuck to the bottom of the spatula, and it was a mess. They were fired into a bun and garnished with all the awesome flavours above, but I would never eat it again ever. It was terrible food.
At the same time, pretty much all the ingredients were similar to beef burgers I’ve made before, and I guess it just lacked the meatiness and maybe umami that I had hoped for. Leaving me with a second, pretty much inedible, burger in the fridge. So I fed this to my nephew, and laughed when he gagged on every bite. Tbf he did tell me that Quorn do a decent vegetarian mincemeat which would almost definitely work a lot better here.
So, how Did it Go?
This overall challenge was to create tasty home-cooked vegetarian meals, ignoring the obvious ethical and environmental issues in eating meat. And I chose to do it by just removing meat from recipes that I already love and kind of know. And I feel I was successful in doing so, without sourcing obscure ingredients, or going out of my way to find stuff. And everything I used in this challenge was sourced locally from big supermarkets with occasional additions from the nearest Asian Supermarket in Belfast. But I didn’t have to travel outside of my local area, given a lot of the stuff was already in my shelves, and all ingredients can be found online for next day delivery anyway. It’s not hard.
Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet?
I did find a number of benefits in cutting meat out of my daily diet
- It was cheaper buying just basic fruit, veg and ingredients from Tesco than I would with meat.
- Recipes and overall tastes were not so different from how they normally would be with meat.
- Cooking times were quicker when not prepping and stewing meats.
- I was eating more of my recommended “5 a day” with fruit and veg.
Otherwise, health-wise, this is hard to say. Given my other love for whisky. But I don’t generally eat fried food outside of chip shops and takeaways, and I can’t remember the last time I cooked a microwave meal, given you really don’t find them in Asia. And the first meat I ate was sausage meat, from Christmas, which I oven-cooked with Paxo sage and onion stuffing. I normally love stuffing but it admittedly made me feel a bit nauseous and fatigued, although I did eat the whole lot to myself. So I guess I did feel healthier in some respect
Plant-Based Foods are Expensive?
Remember my first ever visit in the veggie shelves? I was kind of shocked at the time to see the silly expensive meat alternatives, like ‘Beyond Burger’, where it was £5 for 2 burgers (£22.03 per kilo) compared to £2.50 for 4 beef burgers (£5.51 per kilo). That’s literally 4 times the price (minus a penny). And while I did go with the cheapest veg option of Tesco Plant Chef Burgers (£6.64 per kilo) it was kind of horrible. So it does seem to be expensive to be vegetarian, which may be a demand/supply issue/efficiencies of scale etc. As I feel it will always be a hard sell for organic and sustainably sourced food to families treading the breadline as most probably are these days. It makes vegetarianism and veganism appear more privileged and middle-class, which really, it is not. At least when you buy your own ingredients from the cheap aisles.
Could I Give up Meat?
Easily. Would I give up meat? No. As most of my favourite foods include meat. Isaan Barbecues, Nasi Kandar, Mala Kebabs, Bulgogi Grills, … Tonkotsu Ramen, just to name a few. Because food for me is more to do with travel, culture, and new experiences, and there is no way I would ever give it up. Also, steaks, it is hard to replicate a proper well-marbled wagyu.
I remember feasting alongside a vegetarian one time at a homestay in rural Thailand, where we were presented with a fascinating spread of food which were all unsuitable for the vegetarian. So the mom of the house had to go back to the kitchen to cook him some separate fried rice so he wouldn’t starve. And I just feel like you’re cutting yourself off from the world and, in part, cutting yourself off from the experiences of being human. As the only vegetarian/vegan culture I can think I’ve come across is Jainism. It’s a very rare exception.
All Animals are Equal?
No, not really. Maybe in the eyes of God. But not when it comes to deliciousness and whether or not people are going to eat them. And in some Gods eyes, like in Islam, pork is a no go while in Hinduism cows are pretty much sacred. They both prefer to carve up cute and fluffy sheep for some tasty mutton dishes. Often slitting their throats and draining their blood before munching on them.
At the same time, I could have easily eaten all sorts of meats through Asia, cats and dogs, turtles and frogs, but I personally chose not to. As there were always many more appealing dishes on the menu. And I’m a tad squeamish. I certainly have no desire to munch on bugs and insects with backpacker bravado. Anyway, meat is otherwise just one ingredient and one flavour, whereas there’s pretty much an infinity of flavours and meals out there to find. So I don’t feel I’m missing out much. And, cats are cute.
What about Veganism?
I don’t even know where to begin here. To be vegan I would have to throw out most of my furniture and clothes, and I would have to give up many of things I love most in life, like cheese. So I have always seen veganism, at least staunch veganism, as a mental illness of sorts, like Aspergers. Because a lot of it makes little sense to me. And I guess it is a lot to do with personal conditioning and how we have been brought up in cultural norms.
Again, back in Asia, many cultures are completely off-put by dairy products, cheese even, yet they would happily tuck into a juicy steak, liver, shrimp, chicken, pork… As humans are (arguably) designed to eat meat, with their meat-eating teeth, etc. and it is hard to convince them otherwise. Yet the more militant of vegans almost expect humans to quickly evolve to not eat meat. Expect them to do as they do. Which will never help their cause.
You’re Either In or You’re Out
I feel this is what gets lost a lot in the whole vegan vs. meat-eater debate. Where you are either a vegetarian or you’re not. You’re either a vegan or you’re not. You’re either in or you’re out. Which is kind of true. But there are some more welcoming diets to consider, like Pescetarian (eating seafood) and Pollo-Pescetarian (eating chicken and seafood), but again most of it ignores the middle ground.
Instead I feel we should be picking and choosing, ignoring the labels, and following our own conscience, rather than just listening and not learning about what we eat. Everyone has a line that they will and will not cross, for example, I’d certainly find it easier to kill a fish than to carve up a cow. And I think everyone draws a line at human meat. But again, as above, I personally wouldn’t eat cats or dogs or shark fin or whale, and there are just some practices that are more inhumane than throwing some shrimp on the barbie.
Anyway, I don’t ever see myself worried too much about for plight of silkworm larvae for silk, or the poor sheeps involuntarily shedding their wool in the summer. There’s a lot worse going on in the world for people to fight about. Just think how many chickens there would be in the world if we didn’t eat their eggs. We’d probably have to cull them or just eat them.
Soo, What next?
I do think it is a good idea for people to consciously cut down on eating meat and, coincidentally, a scientific article was published this week saying that “People should cut the amount of beef, lamb and dairy produce they eat by a fifth to combat climate change“. Many vegans were horrified by this, at the same time it sets a realistic target for realistic people. It just means cutting down daily meat portions by a fifth or eating 1 vegetarian meal in every 5 days. That’s something most people could get behind.
Most of us are trying to break a habit, and it’s a habit I have had for as long as I’ve known, as my conscience was pretty much lost to eating meat when I was born. Therefore it feels like building an entirely new conscience from the bottom up, questioning my own ethics and diet more often than not. Until a self-righteous vegan spiel tempts me to go face-first into a cow.