My mother took me for a fool, and lied to my face.
When I was in college, I became a vegetarian for a few years, like many others before me. I wasn't particularly dogmatic about my reasons for my conversion, no PETA protests or Meat is Murder proclamations, though those thoughts crossed my mind. I was also not very strict-- I could eat non-meat items that had been cooked together with meat. I had never been much of a meat eater growing up, anyway, and my best friend, Victoria, was a lifelong vegetarian, as was one of my housemates, Patty. They were both excellent cooks, and through them I began to see and enjoy the infinite variety and complexity of vegetarian food. Once I learned to cook the vegetarian legume-based meals of different ethnic cuisines, rather than focusing on cheese for protein, I found it to be the cleanest, healthiest diet I've had before or since. I also enjoyed the discipline it took to cook and order only vegetarian food.
My mother, an otherwise accepting and honest woman, would have none of it. She feared that I would somehow waste away if I didn't eat meat, despite the freshman fifteen I had brought home with me. Aside from announcing her concerns once or twice, she didn't protest too much about my new diet when I came home from college to visit. She is a cook of extremely healthy food, mainly vegetables, so it wasn't too hard to feed me. But apparently she noticed that I was eating only the vegetables and tofu, and leaving behind any meat on my plate.
Over one of our family dinners, I was caught up in some discussion and did not look at my food as I was eating. It was a stir fry of a Chinese squash I really enjoy, opo, which tastes like a cross between a cucumber and zucchini. I was savoring the slightly sweet taste of the squash, when I felt between my jaws a familiar texture I hadn't encountered in a while. I chewed again, to figure out what it was.
"Mom! Is this meat?" I asked, slightly alarmed.
She looked straight at me with a placid expression. "Oh, of course not, you are a vegetarian now, aren't you?"
Then I inspected the food in my bowl. Now that I actually looked at it, I saw miniscule brown bits among the pale green slices of squash. "Are you honestly telling me there is no meat in this?" I picked up a morsel of the ground pork in my chopsticks and waved it towards her. "What is this?"
"Oh, it's just a little bit, it doesn't really count." She still hadn't changed her expression. Who knew she had such a poker face?
Yes, my own mother lied to me.
I forgave her, of course, and a few years later, caved back in to the delights of roast duck, bacon, and other meats I had been depriving myself of, and fell permanently off the wagon. My mother was smugly satisfied. I should not have been entirely surprised at her little trick, since she has told me other white lies over the years in the interest of my own good. I probably have yet to discover some of them.
Aside from the well-intentioned like my mother blatantly hiding meat in otherwise vegetarian dishes, I was always curious about the foods that are marketed to vegetarians as "meat substitutes." I don't think there is any truly convincing substitute for meat, although there is certainly a big market, with such products as TofuPups, Tofurky, and on. Even vegetables are promoted for their meatiness, with portobello mushrooms as the most famous, often grilled and served with steak sauce on the side. I am still not a big meat eater, but when I crave a steak, I want the steak, not a big mushroom.
The most developed cuisine of pretend meats that I know of is in Chinese vegetarian cooking, where there is a whole array of dishes that try to replicate the texture of meat with a wheat gluten product, known commonly in this country as the Japanese seitan. You can order dishes called either mock or vegetarian chicken, duck, or name your animal, all featuring the gluten product, which is a good source of protein. This cuisine was originally developed for religious purposes, for adherents of Chinese Buddhism. In the religious context of non-violence, I find it particularly curious that one would want to have not just a non-animal based protein source, but that it would be one which mimics both the appearance and texture of meat. Gluten or seitan prepared in this way is usually prepared simply, featuring the gluten in the way meat would be used, flavored with soy sauce and used in stir fries with an assortment of vegetables, or on its own, with rice porridge. It does look vaguely meat-like: chunky, brown and wrinkly, with the soy sauce giving it umami. I like the flavor, but more as a unique food of its own, and not as a meat simulacrum. Eaten in the traditional Chinese Buddhist way, I find that it all tastes the same, whether it is pretending to be chicken, duck, or otherwise.
But it is not meat, and hey, I am no April Fool. Following up on my mother's successful attempt years back to hide some real meat in my vegetables, I came up with a way to give make-believe meat a disguise, too. For this week's Salon Kitchen Challenge of food doppelgangers, I've prepared a Mock Duck Thai Red Curry.
* * *
Mock Duck Thai Red Curry
2 cans mock duck, available in Asian markets*
2 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 cup of pineapple chunks
1 cup Kabocha squash or pumpkin, in chunks
1 cup bamboo shoots, sliced
1-2 Japanese eggplants, sliced on the diagonal, or 6 (round) Thai eggplants, cut in half
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, torn into small pieces
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp fish sauce
1/2 cup water or chicken stock
1 1/2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
3 tbsp red curry paste (can use prepared, or recipe below)
Accompaniment: steamed Thai jasmine rice
1. Heat oil in a wok or saute pan over medium heat, and add red curry paste. Stir well.
2. Add 3/4 cup coconut milk and stir to mix thoroughly.
3. Add the mock duck and stir well.
4. Add the remaining coconut milk, then add all remaining ingredients.
5. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat, simmering for about 20 minutes.
6. Serve over steamed rice and enjoy.
*You could substitute roast duck from a Chinese market if you prefer the real thing, or for another (and more honest) vegetarian option, deep fried tofu cubes.
Thai red curry paste
13 small dried chilies, seeds removed, soaked in water until softened
3 tbsp chopped shallot
4 tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped galangal
2 tbsp chopped lemon grass
2 tsp grated rind from kaffir or other limes
1 tbsp chopped coriander root (or substitute fresh coriander stems)
20 white peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp ground roasted coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ground roasted cumin seeds
1 tsp shrimp paste
1 tsp salt
1. Grind up all ingredients in either a mortar and pestle or with an electric blender or food processor. Add a tablespoon of water, if needed, to assist with blending.
2. Cook as above.
Thai red curry recipe adapted from templeofthai.com
© 2010 Linda Shiue