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Shiitake, tempeh and a meaty vegetable meal

There are vegetarians and then there are discerning vegetarians. Cooking for the latter keeps you on your toes and challenges your creativity

Tossed shitake mushroom, tempeh and cherry tomatoes. Photos: Samar Halarnkar
Tossed shitake mushroom, tempeh and cherry tomatoes. Photos: Samar Halarnkar

Vegetarian food is my bugbear. I admit it.

This is not helped by the fact that the wife, the chief consumer of vegetarian food, is—in my view, not hers—a picky vegetarian. She sniffs suspiciously at unknown south Indian vegetables, is picky about “Asian” vegetables and does not care for “meaty” vegetables, such as soya and mushroom. And definitely—I support her on this—no imitation meats. Why, after all, should vegetarians be forced to eat things that look like meat but are really plants? This is a special kind of perversity. Are meat-eaters ever persuaded to eat imitation vegetables?

I digress. As regular readers of this column are aware, my unfamiliarity with vegetables is connected to my upbringing. Yes, my parents are responsible. Even today, my mother—whose stomach appears to have become rather delicate at 85—will put aside aches or rumblings, insist she is having only khichdi or whatever variant of sick-people’s vegetarian for dinner and then swiftly add on fried fish or roast pork “for taste”.

Growing up, my familiarity with vegetables was minimal, except the spinach that I and my brother were forced to eat and which we swallowed with water before clearing the decks for dinner. That attitude continued into my later 30s. After marriage, living with a spouse who claimed she preferred a “liquid diet” but nevertheless took a dim view of disparaging comments about vegetarianism, I gradually turned my attention to the greener side of life.

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Dressed baby carrots and potatoes
Dressed baby carrots and potatoes

By my late 40s, I had to address health issues. I learnt to cook for her and began to enjoy my vegetarian cooking. I also started to subscribe to the simple mantra an American food writer (I cannot remember whom) issued: As you get older, stay fit, eat less, eat more plants, less meat.

I cannot imagine giving up the good things in life, so I have not given up meat and fish, as is evident from their preponderance in my recipes, but I eat them more sparingly than I used to. I can also claim—gasp—to go a whole day eating only vegetarian.

So, last weekend, while considering how things had changed, I set off for the grocery store. It was liberating, given that ill-health had recently confined me to the house and made us dependent on home deliveries, which are convenient but not ideal for someone like me who likes to feel and see what he’s buying.

I went to get potatoes but returned with baby carrots, shiitake mushrooms, tempeh, galangal, bird’s-eye chilli and other sundry things I possibly did not need, such as Thai-chilli cashews. I realised my shopping had a preponderance of Thai ingredients. A Thai-themed Sunday? Why not?

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The baby carrots and potatoes recipe you see here was conceived before the Thai idea, so I went ahead with it, adding a suitably Thai flavour. It took some inspiration from a book I have on the vegetables of Chez Panisse, a legendary restaurant in the California university town of Berkeley (when I was teaching there a decade ago, I confess, I ate no vegetables, and my then two-year-old daughter ate her first rabbit).

The wife, 12-year-old and mother expressed satisfaction over the first entrée, and while I thought it was most palatable, I really liked the second, which was spicier and had more robust flavours. I waited eagerly for—positive—feedback from the main vegetarian consumer of the family.

She tasted it. “It’s nice,” she said, trying to smile. This was not hopeful.

“No, say,” I said.

“Too meaty,” she said. “I don’t like my veggies so meaty.” And that was that. Well, I liked it, and so did mummy. The casting vote, dear reader, is with you.

Dressed baby carrots and potatoes

Serves 3


8 baby carrots, halved and cut lengthwise

2 medium-sized potatoes, skinned and cut into cubes

3 slices galangal

4 cloves of garlic, smashed

Half tsp cumin powder

Half tsp cinnamon powder

Half tsp paprika or red-chilli powder

1 tbsp parsley, chopped

Salt to taste

For the dressing: Juice of 1 lime, 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, a dash of pepper. Mix well.


In salted water, boil the carrots, potatoes, garlic and galangal, until carrots and potatoes are ready (in retrospect, I would say roast all four until nicely golden brown in an oven—that should be even better). Drain and bring to room temperature.

Mix carrots and potatoes with cumin, cinnamon and red-chilli powder. Then toss with the lime, olive oil and pepper dressing and the parsley. Set aside to marinate for an hour before serving.

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Thai-inspired shiItake mushroom, tempeh and cherry tomatoes

Serves 4


1 packet shiitake mushroom, sliced

1 packet tempeh (mine was sriracha flavour)

A handful of cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tbsp fresh oregano

1 tbsp fresh Thai basil

2 tsp galangal, fine slivers

2 tsp garlic, chopped

2 tbsp red wine (I used an Indian reserve)

2-3 tbsp soy sauce

1-2 bird’s-eye chillies, deseeded and cut lengthwise

Salt to taste

1 tbsp avocado oil (this is good for high temperatures but difficult to get so feel free to use sesame oil)


Warm the oil and sauté bird’s-eye chillies with galangal and garlic for a minute. Add the tempeh and stir-fry for a minute. It will take about six minutes to cook, so add the mushrooms and stir-fry both for about four minutes. While doing so, add soy sauce, wine and check for seasoning before adding salt (because the soy is already salty, as were my tempeh cubes). Add cherry tomatoes for the final two minutes and stir-fry. Remove from heat and mix in fresh oregano and basil.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.


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