It was back in the eighties and the young Chinese waiter must have stepped off the boat just as I had, with a hope for material or mental advancement in the promised land of America. I chose my favorite noodle dish, Lo Mein, which was offered with a choice of pork, shrimp, chicken or beef.
No beef, I said firmly. The young man nodded and bowed. No pork, I continued. No shrimp. No chicken. Puzzled, he left, only to return within minutes. No pork? More vigorous shaking of the head, mutual bowing and smiling. No shrimp? He turned away, hesitated, and gave his last shot at reason, no chicken? Nope. Defeated, he left my table but gazed at me pensively, from the baize door to the kitchen. I watched, as his face lit with comprehension and he hurried back to me beaming! Hindu, he announced triumphantly! Well, I was more of a lapsed Hindu, but since I had been raised on the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence towards all creatures, I shared in his joy of having discovered the reason behind my meatless madness.
I’ve never been able to get past the mental block of eating meat. I like to think that I’m logical enough that should I be stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but cadavers, the will to live would rule supreme. I once proffered this opinion to an evangelistic vegetarian convert and she never spoke to me again. This pragmatism served me well on a recent trip to South Korea where the concept of vegetarianism is not exactly clear. “It’s just soybean”, my friend assured me, as I spread the homogenized paste on a cabbage leaf and took a bite, “with only a bit of shrimp”. Oops, sorry! He was all apologies as he guided me to fried and battered zucchini rounds. I savored the humble vegetable with relief and reached for a second one. Too bad it was battered fish.
What’s a vegetarian to do, but cook up decidedly unauthentic alternatives guaranteed to have no fish sauce <shakes fist at Thai restaurants> or errant morsels of meat that find their way into the wok? I know I’ve looked down my sharpish nose at those generic “curries” while guiltily making my own transgressions into a foreign cuisine. So I offer abject apologies to authentic Asian cooks everywhere, while serving up my favorite non-denominational “Asian” dinner…fast, flavorful and free of flesh.
The tofu is delicate, not deep fried, in this dish. Perfect for soaking up the complex flavors in the spicy sauce.
- Begin by cubing a block of firm tofu. Finely chop an inch of ginger, two cloves of garlic, a couple of fresh green chilies, and a few scallions.
- Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok or seasoned pan. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper and let sizzle (not burn!).
- Add the scallions, chilies, ginger and garlic and stir around until they look bright green and smell heavenly.
- Add the tofu cubes and mix gently.
- Add the trifecta: chilli-garlic hot sauce (Sriracha, store bought or homemade), hoison sauce, and black bean paste. I use about a tablespoon each, but use less hot sauce if you can’t stomach it.
- Drizzle some soy sauce, a few drops of sesame oil, and stir it all together.
Baby Bok Choy Stir Fry
This is a recipe adapted from my friend David Crowley’s blog Cooking Chat. A feast for the eye, it combines the fresh crunch of stir fried vegetables with the roasted richness of cashew.
- Roughly chop a couple small bok choy, white and green parts. Chop a red pepper into similar size pieces.
- For the sauce: Mix 3 tbs soy sauce, 1 tbs honey, 2 tsp rice vinegar and 1 tsp sesame oil. Add a clove of minced garlic.
- Stir fry: In a tablespoon of vegetable oil on high heat, toss together the bok choy and red pepper until just tender but still brightly colored.
- Add the sauce, and blend together. Add roasted, whole cashew nuts.
Ginger Noodle Salad
This one is lifted, with thanks, from my Korean friend Shinae Robinson’s recipe (check out her food blog, Ridiculously Hungry). I didn’t have any pickled ginger (“gari”) on hand, so I quickly made my own with help from the internetz.
- Make your own Gari: Thinly slice fresh ginger (I used a vegetable peeler). Sprinkle with coarse salt. Meanwhile, heat some rice vinegar in a small saucepan. Add sugar and wait for it to dissolve. Most recipes call for a third measure of sugar for each of vinegar. Add the ginger and watch in amazement as it turns a little pink. I’m told that a “quality” rice vinegar will enhance the pinkness. I guess mine was of modest “quality”. This keeps in the fridge for months, and can be used right away.
- Cook some noodles– soba would be great, but I only had some spaghetti on hand.
- Make the dressing: Mix together 1 tbs soy sauce, 1 tbs sesame oil, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp (more or less) Sriracha or chilli-garlic sauce, 0.5 tsp sugar. Toss in the warm noodles.
- Add the greens: Mix together with juliened, sushi ginger (a generous fistful), a few handfuls of salad greens (arugula, baby spinach and endive would be delicious), and any thinly sliced fresh veggies you have on hand. You could use scallions, cherry tomatoes, radish or bean sprouts.
Here are some sights around S. Korea that I managed to catch in between sessions of the International Plant Biology Meeting on Jeju Do.