Soba; So Good

Every first and fifteenth day of the lunar calendar months, I go vegetarian. My mother is a really pious Buddhist and every first and fifteenth of the lunar calendar month, there’s a big prayer and ever since I could remember, she would go vegetarian for half a day on those days. When I was in high school, I would join her on this half-day-vegetarianism but a couple of years back, I actually tried out an entire month of vegetarianism and liked it a lot. Not enough to actually give meat up for eternity (I love my dim sum too much) but enough to convince me that I would do a solid 24-hours of vegetarianism on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar calendar months.

One of the things I was adamant about when I did my month of vegetarianism and now, when I do it twice a month, is that my vegetarianism shouldn’t be a “special” thing or something that makes other people feel like they have to go out of their way to accommodate my meals. My mother worries about my dinner because hers is always a half-day vegetarian and I do a full day, but I always insist on making my own dinner so the rest of my family don’t feel guilty about not having food for me. I honestly am not bothered, and I don’t like thinking of it as a hassle as it is my choice. I love trying out new recipes so I jump at this opportunities! And if I get lazy, I make a kickass basil pesto and have it with pasta and sauteed fresh mushrooms. Those are amazing, too.

As a child, one of my biggest issues with vegetarian food is that all that was available to me was Chinese vegetarian food and they’d mostly be soy-based produce that was made to look like meat. It would be drenched in oil and tasted pretty funky most of the time. The textures and tastes were completely unnatural and even then my palate knew not to like it.

Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil, and Sesame

Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil, and Sesame

So I made a decision to not look for Chinese vegetarian dishes whenever I go vegetarian. The way I see it: I’m an adult and I can handle eating vegetables. I don’t need to be tricked into thinking it’s meat and finding out it’s actually soya. I want to eat my vegetables, I’m fully aware that I’m vegetarian, don’t try to fool me or think me an idiot and feed me fake char siew. I don’t appreciate it.

Now this is where I talk about one of the coolest applications on the iPhone/iPod Touch. Anyone who knows me knows how utterly dedicated I am to my BlackBerry. I’m fairly certain that they’d have to surgically remove the phone from my hands when I die because it will probably have become a part of me by then. And everyone of my friends will know how much I detest the iPhone (as a 3G phone) but I have the iPod Touch, which I feel the need to say, I bought way before the iPhone came out. I kind of have the best of both worlds because I have a fantastic phone with the BlackBerry and I have something I mess around on all the time which is more like a game console to me.

I’m a huge game junkie with the applications. But lately I’ve been rooting around for food-related applications because even though I am anti-iPhone, it seems the rest of the world isn’t and the rest of the world are coming up with some great applications that thankfully, I get to use too. One of my favourites is the Epicurious application. The first thing I did after I downloaded it was to search for vegetarian recipes. And I unearthed this gem right here, although this particular recipe provided no picture except that of the cookbook it was taken from, Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges.

Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil, and Sesame

Lime Noodles with Vegetables, Basil, and Sesame
adapted from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongerichten

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons grape seed, corn, or other neutral oil
10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups fresh basil leaves, preferably Thai (I used normal sweet basil)
1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves
3/4 cup white sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon salt, plus more as needed
About 1/2 pound assorted vegetables: carrots, parsnips, broccoli (stems are fine), bell peppers, etc., peeled and julienned
(I used carrots and red and green bell peppers)
1 pound 1/4-inch-wide dried rice noodles, soaked in hot water until softened and drained (I used buckwheat soba because that’s all I had)
1/2 cup unsalted butter

**This recipe yields 4, I halved it when I made it and still ended up with enough to feed 4 so I reckon it’s a pretty hearty portion.

1. Put 3 tablespoons of the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic turns golden, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

2. Combine the lime juice and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Set aside.

3. Fill a large bowl with water and ice and set aside.

4. Bring a small pot of water to a boil, and add the basil and mint leaves. As soon as the water returns to a boil, drain the leaves and transfer to the ice water. When cold, drain again and squeeze dry. Puree in a blender with the sesame seeds, garlic, salt, and 1 cup of the oil. (This herb paste will keep, refrigerated, for 2 days)

5. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and some salt and cook, tossing, just until brightly coloured. Keep warm.

6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the noodles until tender. Drain and transfer to a large skillet set over high heat with the butter and lime syrup; add salt to taste and cook, tossing, until well mixed and creamy. Put the noodles in a warmed serving bowl; drizzle liberally with the basil-mint paste, top with the vegetables, garnish with the sesame seeds, and serve.

I’ll admit this recipe is a rather complicated one (but it’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten so I knew what I was getting myself into!) with quite a number of components but the end result is so delicious that I think it’s more than worth the effort. The lime syrup and the butter with the noodles is a pretty amazing blend of flavours. The salted vegetables were great with the herb paste. Everything just went together so, so well. I apologize for the rather pathetic looking mound of vegetables on my plate as I had way more carrots than capsicum, and this was actually the leftover plate (I was starving the first time around so I scoffed that down without any pictures).

It’s recipes like this that make me really happy to eat vegetarian food. I know most people shy away from vegetarian food if they aren’t vegetarian but I don’t see why. Trust me, even the heartiest carnivore would find this insanely satisfying.

Double Durian Whammy

One of the great things about living in Malaysia is the great tropical fruits we get. My favourite has to be mangosteens. Juicy and sweet and if the juice of the fruit gets on your white shirt, it leaves a purple stain that’s almost impossible to get out. I always end up a mess whenever I eat them; sticky fingers and juice dribbling down my chin. But it’s always worth it.

My other favourite: fresh tamarind. They’re a bit of an acquired taste but I discovered a palate for them in my childhood.

My family is pretty crazy about durian. I have a cousin who even owns a durian orchard and had sent a driver back to KL with the fruits, from an 8-hour drive away. My aunt used to eat durian for every single meal for days. I’ve seen my dad with bloodied fingers, sucking on the fruit without even realizing he’d hurt himself while trying to open the treacherous casing. Like I said, my family’s pretty crazy about durian.

People tend to either hate them or love them, but I’ve somehow managed to land on neutral ground. I don’t mind the taste but I don’t crave it. I don’t mind the smell but I hate it when my hands smell like those stinkbombs. My mother has recently discovered a fruit seller who would skillfully pry apart those thorny fruits and place their fibrous, sticky yet silky innards into styrofoam boxes for her. She has pretty much overdone the durian purchasing lately because with the toughest part of eating durians out of the way, the family can easily devour durian whenever they feel like it.

I do admit I have a pretty strange addiction to durian flavoured desserts. I love durian gelato and durian ice cream, they’re a great kick when I’m in Melbourne. There are a few types of great durian desserts in KL that are pretty amazing. Durian pancakes, which look like boring little golden squares are actually really think pancake with a whipped cream and durian mash filling. It’s fantastic. I wish I had visuals of this but unfortunately, you’ll just have to use your imagination or Google. Then there’s the chocolate durian cake from Just Heavenly bakery which my good friend Sheena introduced to me one balmy Chinese New Year day. It was so good that I bought a few pieces for my family to try and we’ve been buying them for any visiting relatives or friends, especially if they’re durian addicts. It’s basically two very thin pieces of chocolate sponge cake with a THICK durian mash filling between the layers and thick chocolate ganache coating. It is absolutely sinful but so good.

So with all the durian craziness in my family, I discovered a gorgeous little durian cake recipe in one of my mum’s really old recipe books by Ellice Handy. We have the Second Edition, which was published in 1960 so yes, it’s really old. The first time I made the cake, I was surprised by how fluffy and light it was.

Durian cake, the first time I made it.

Then I got thinking about how it’d be amazing to create a durian buttercream but I wondered how it’d work because the durian is a very fibrous fruit and even though I’d mash those suckers to death, there’d always be some stubborn stringy fibers left behind.

Durian cupcake with durian buttercream.

I made some durian cupcakes but with a extra durian mash than asked for (I wanted it to be potent!) and then I mashed some more durian for the buttercream. As expected, it was slightly fibrous. I add a tablespoon of hot water and continued mashing and the fibers seemed to dissolve a little. I continued adding hot water until I got the consistency I wanted and it was actually really smooth! Unfortunately, after whipping up a batch of French buttercream and adding the durian to it, I got a watery mess. The cream was so thin it would just leak out of a piping bag before I got the chance to pipe them! Panicked, I frantically searched eGullet for an answer to thicken French buttercream up to salvage about 230g of fresh durian. Thankfully, the suggestion to add unsalted butter until the buttercream firmed up was not a dud.

The buttercream was still a pretty horrific nightmare to pipe, though. There was still a tiny bit of fibers from the durian mash in the buttercream and it’d get caught on the smaller piping tips so I was only able to use the open star tip. Even in this instance, the fibers would get caught on the teeth of the tip and would disrupt the even flow of the buttercream and thus create a lopsided star. Sigh!

The super soft and fluffy cake with the overloaded-on-butter buttercream.

It was a massive hit with my family. My dad said it was even better than the Just Heavenly chocolate durian cakes because he always found them too rich and sweet for his liking whereas this was an intense, pure durian flavour. That’s pretty amazing coming from my dad because he’s easily one of the fussiest and harshest critics I know. Everyone I handed them out to commented on how intense the flavour was, which I took as a compliment because, well, intense durian flavour in cakes are hard to come by.

I’d say this was a moderately successful attempt at experimenting with durian and creating my own buttercream recipe from an idea. It’s always fun to see my crazy ideas come to fruition and ironing out the bumps that pop up. I find this method to be a better learning process than just following and executing the same old recipes, although my mother would tsk at such a statement especially in regards to baking recipes where slight deviations can wreck an entire recipe.

But hey, where’s the sense of adventure in that kind of thinking?

(Special thanks to Tina for once again helping me with the awful lighting in my photos and making them pretty for me!)