Monday, September 3, 2012

Cooking for non vegans lesson #132: Give the vegetables a voice

Tonight’s cooking for non vegans lesson involves my own mistakes while preparing dinner for my meat-loving Telegu-speaking family.

Let me get this straight—I’m not the world’s greatest cook, especially of Asian food. I can manage Italian and Greek alright (I truly think culinary cooking skills are embedded from one’s heritage, passed on at birth). But Asian? Not so much. Suffice it to say I’m extremely grateful that my father in law actually prefers vegetarian Western food come dinner time!

Tonight I decided to make a stir fry. A little soy sauce, a little garlic, some lime… easy, I figured. I looked online to ensure I wasn’t overcomplicating things and decided to jump right in sans recipe. How hard could it be?

The process started out innocuous enough, since I decided to tackle to tofu first. I heated the coconut oil and sautéed some garlic and onions. Then I added the tofu.

Here’s the first of many tofu cooking tips: If you’re using the tofu paneer, stir it thoroughly for a few moments in the soy sauce and then let it sit in the wok. Don’t stir it constantly, as you want it to get nice and golden brown.

Me? I wouldn’t leave the tofu alone. I was flipping it rapidly, hoping that doing so would somehow make it more flavorful. While you don’t want it blackened, you don’t have to stand over the wok.

Then I went crazy on the poor tofu. It wasn’t savory enough, or sweet enough. It needed salt. To rectify my errors I added mashed pineapple (not a bad idea, actually), orange juice, and took some hoison sauce and teriyaki marinade. By the end of it, my poor tofu looked… brown. Sure, the taste was improved, but it looked brown and sad.

Next came the veggies. I started with the carrots and green beans thinking that they take a notoriously long time to cook and soak up flavors. When the garlic, ginger, coconut oil and soy sauce proved unsatisfactory, I began the battery of ingredients all over again. More pineapple, more hoison, more ginger, more garlic… nothing seemed enough. Then I added too much ginger and mixed in the mushrooms to counterbalance the flavor.

The doubts about my cooking came surfacing to my head. I could just hear my father in law’s critiques with every addition into the wok: not flavorful enough. Not salty enough. Too much salt. Inedible because of the overpowering ginger. As I tossed in more spices and looked down at my poor rapidly overcooking veggies, I realized my major problem:

I didn’t let the vegetables be simple vegetables. I didn’t give them a voice.

What do I mean by this? Vegans are highly apologetic and defensive about vegetables. We desperately try to defend their flavor to those who prefer a piece of chicken thigh to a well-seasoned zucchini. The defense mechanisms we use are assaulting the lowly vegetable with oils, breading, deep frying, salts and condiments. Doing these cooking techniques can yield amazing results, no doubt. But a problem also arises—we fail to honor the essence of the vegetable. In my case, I didn’t want my family to taste too much of the red pepper’s zest, or the earthiness of the mushrooms. Though I personally love vegetables raw or with only a hint of salt and pepper, I knew others don’t share my simple taste. As such, I committed a mistake many vegans do when cooking for non-vegans: over flavoring and taste homogeneity. I wanted their palate to be saturated with flavor, so that it didn’t matter if they were eating a green bean or a carrot because the flavor would be consistent. But most vegetables simply aren’t like that. Vegetables are subtle. Nuanced. And that’s precisely their beauty.

What my stir fry looked like tonight
What a stir fry should look like

The above pictures illustrate my problem beautifully. In the second picture, the broccoli is beautifully green and unapologetically itself. In my picture, I'm begging people not to notice the vegetables by pouring heaps of sauce and flavoring over them. 

Perhaps if I didn’t keep adding spices I would have received quiet grumbles of the food being too bland. Too boring, as is the complaint of many meat-eating epicureans. But at least I would have honored the vegetable. 

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