One of my favourite shows on Netflix this year has been Chef's Table and its impeccable portrayal of some of the masters of the culinary world. Each episode focuses on a different chef, each a maestro in their chosen cuisine, taking their craft and the food they create beyond the confines of the dinner table and transforming it into a form of art. One common trait among these brilliant chefs is their ability and inclination towards using their classical culinary training to work with ingredients that are indigenous to their homelands. While people from around the world are finally becoming more aware of the importance of ethically sourced foods, particularly meat and animal products, the trend for foraging is also slowly on the rise. Thanks to some of these pioneering chefs, there is now, not only a trend for planting and growing ones own herbs, fruits or vegetables in either rooftop gardens or whatever setting available, there is also a demand for plant-based ingredients that would otherwise have never made it to dinner plates around the world.
With World Vegan Day having just passed on November 1, the latest episode of Chef's table in mind, and my recent obsession with soy nuggets, I figured what better time than now, to give foraging and vegan cooking a go. I decided to make a vegan version of Thai green curry, and make the curry paste from scratch.
As a city girl, my foraging options were limited to my mother's garden on our roof, which, to my pleasant surprise yielded some very interesting foliage. One of the main ingredients in most Thai curries is lemon grass, but since I was unable to get my hands on any on my recent shopping excursion, I decided I'd try substituting them with our local lime leaves. The other important ingredient that goes into most Thai dishes is of course Thai basil or holy basil leaves, which fortunately for me, is available in Ma's rooftop garden, as well as the thriving lime plant, from where I plucked off a few large leaves.
The curry itself is pretty easy to whip up, as long as you have the few ingredients needed:
• 6-7 lime leaves
• ½ a cup of Thai or holy basil leaves
• 2 small to medium sized onions (or 1 large), halved
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled
• About an inch-sized piece of ginger, peeled
• 8-10 green chillies (depending on how hot you like it)
• ½ a cup of coriander leaves
• About 1½ cups of soy nuggets
• 1 small or medium sized eggplant, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• 1 can of coconut milk
• ½ tsp of fish sauce (optional)
• 1-2 tbsp of oil
• 2-3 tbsp of lime juice
• Salt, to taste
• A pinch of sugar
The first step to start with, is preparing the soy nuggets by soaking them in hot water in a covered bowl. Leave this aside for at least 20 minutes for the nuggets to rehydrate and soften through.
While the nuggets are soaking, put the onion, garlic, ginger, chillies, lime and coriander leaves in a food processor and blend to a paste. Alternatively, you can also do this step in a mortar and pestle or the good old sheel-pata (grinding stone), with the added benefits of giving your arms a good workout.
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Once the paste is ground to a relatively smooth consistency, transfer to a pot with the oil, and cook on medium heat.
Continue cooking the paste for about two minutes, until the colour turns slightly paler and the extra liquid has reduced somewhat. Then add in the soy nuggets. Make sure to drain the nuggets well and carefully squeeze out the water it had been soaking in. Soy nuggets are basically like mini sponges, so squeezing out the extra water will allow them to take in liquid (hence flavours) of whatever they are cooked in.
Keep stirring the nuggets until well-coated in the curry paste.
At this point, add the eggplant and stir again. After another two minutes, add in the entire tine of coconut milk. Make sure to fill about a third of the tin with a little water and swirl around, then add this to the pot. You'' need the extra bit of water in your coconut gravy and this also helps to minimise waste.
This is the time to adjust the seasoning and balance flavours. One of the reasons why Thai food is so popular around the world is because of the delicate balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty flavours, and this will come from the lemon juice, fish sauce and pinch of sugar. Some people don't quite like the pungent flavour of fish sauce, so you can leave it out. I, being a shutki-loving Bangali, however, do not mind the pungency and like to add a dash of this, because it brings in the authentic, salty note that you get in Thai dishes.
Taste the gravy to make sure the balance is right, then add in the basil leaves, cover and allow to simmer for about 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has thickened somewhat.
Serve hot, over a bed of rice and enjoy great food without the guilt, not only because you know there wasn't a single animal harmed in the process, but also because it is healthy, and for once, you won't have to worry about your waistline.