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Potluck Staples 4: Smoky Vegan Gumbo

Do you like dishes that are spicy and packed with flavour? If you said “yes”, you might really like this gumbo. If you said “no” to the spice bit – don’t worry, you can always adjust the chilli levels in this recipe!

Some of you who don’t hail from North America may also be wondering what the hell “gumbo” actually is. Gumbo is a stew that originated in Louisiana in the 18th century. It’s thick and hearty and flavoursome after simmering for ages in a big pot of awesomeness – and it’s actually the perfect kind of dish for a large gathering. You can throw almost any ingredients in a gumbo, and there are different traditional types (Cajun vs Creole) — or, you can be a bit non-traditional, like this one. I’ll leave you to research more of the cultural and culinary history of gumbo if you want, but I really just want to help you make and eat it.

Like my last “potluck staples” series recipe for mushroom pho, this one is vegan. You may wonder why I have so many vegan sharing-friendly dishes up my sleeve. In 2014, right after my April Veg Challenge month, I decided to organise a multi-course vegan dinner for friends and acquaintances, for several reasons – to showcase how delicious food with no animal products in it can be, to raise some money for a deserving animal welfare organisation, and, you know, to just have a fun night filled with food, drink and laughter.

Everyone had such a good time, we decided we had to do it all again (and again, and again); but since just three of us made all four courses for over 20 people, and it was exhausting, we thought it might be a lot better to turn it into an everyone bring-a-plate affair for future events. It would mean moooore food, more variety, and everyone would get to share their favourite dishes! (And we still gave some people the option to not bring anything and just donating more to our chosen charity instead, as cooking’s not everyone’s cup of tea).

A couple more dinners later, with friends-of-friends joining in, we’re pretty much an established club now – in fact, we actually have a Facebook group! And we’d love to grow even more – so join us, if you’re interested? You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian – everyone is more than welcome, you just have to like food and not be a horrible person. The next event is on Saturday, August 29th, 2015. If you want to come feast with us, book here and join the Facebook event!

/shamelesspromotion *ahem*

Right. Gumbo.

Smoky Vegan Gumbo

Serves: A lot of people
Prep and cooking time: 1 – 1.5 hours
Note: Gumbo is usually served with rice. The recipe below is only for the stew itself, so just cook rice as you normally would! In the photo above, I’ve served the gumbo with wild purple rice, and it worked a treat!

The Shopping List

½ cup plain white flour
½ cup canola oil
1 large or 1 ½ medium onion
7 cloves of garlic
2 stalks of celery
mixed chillies (habanero, poblano, jalapenos etc – quantity depending on your preferred spice level)
1 large or 2 small carrots
2 zucchinis (ie. courgettes)
8 cherry tomatoes
10 okra
1 litre vegetable stock
200mL craft beer (preferably dark ale)
2 cups tomato passata
1 tub tomato paste
chipotle sauce
Mexican-style chilli sauces – eg. habanero, jalapeno
liquid smoke (optional – available from gourmet food stores, eg. The Essential Ingredient in Prahran Market, Melbourne)
1 medium pack of medium-firm tofu
200g vegan sausage (optional)
1 bunch fresh thyme

dried spices
smoked paprika (good quality)
ground cumin
dried oregano flakes

Make the thing

  1. Make a roux with a 1:1 ratio of the flour and canola oil.
  2. When roux turns beige or very light brown,
  3. Add:
    onions (diced)
    garlic (minced)
    celery (chopped to 1cm sections)
    finely chopped chillies
    1 litre vege stock
    ^ Stir constantly, cooking for 5 minutes

  4. Then add:
  5. carrot (chopped chunky)
    zucchini (sliced to 1cm sections approx)
    roasted cherry tomatoes (pre-roast these in the oven until caramelised before adding)
    okra (chopped 1cm sections)
    1-2 cups tomato passata, to your preference
    ^ Stir and cook for 10 minutes

  6. Then add spices:
  7. smoked paprika
    ground cumin
    dried oregano flakes
    thyme (preferably fresh, chopped)

  8. Add sauces:
  9. tomato paste to taste
    chipotle sauce, if you have some, otherwise one of those mexican chilli sauces like habanero, jalapeno etc. Chipotle is the best as it gives off a really smoky flavour
    ^ Stir and cook for 10 minutes

  10. Theeeen add:
  11. More vege stock IF required
    A nice craft beer (optional – but a deep, dark ale will give this an amazing flavour)
    Medium-firm tofu in 2-3cm cubes
    Sliced vegan sausage (optional)
    ^ Stir and cook for 10 mins

  12. Then (last bit) add:
  13. A dozen or so drops of liquid smoke

  14. Keep cooking for another 5 mins or so or until the gumbo has been going for at least 40 minutes in total, excluding the roux-making time at the start.

Week 2 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day 7 (Monday, April 7):
Lunch: Rainbow slaw with fried tofu and lemongrass lime dressing
Dinner: Dukkah roasted potatoes
Dessert: 1 square of Pana chocolate (mint flavour), Mister Nice Guy Lamington mini cupcake

I made a huge amount of delicious “butter chicken” (except not-butter and not-chicken) tonight – it’ll last two dinners, two lunches this week for both of us plus an additional four frozen portions. Who knew that curry with no cream or ghee or butter could taste this rich and creamy?

Day 8 (Tuesday, April 8):
Lunch: Not-butter not-chicken with a side of dukkah roasted potatoes
Dinner: More un-butter-un-chicken, with an evening snack of Alive & Radiant Kale Krunch in “cheezy” chipotle flavour

I found myself seriously looking forward to eating my curry for lunch. Look at it – can you blame me?

Hungry after work, I wanted to grab a snack on my way to a book club meeting, and it just so happened that the health store was marginally closer to the supermarket on my way to the train, so I bought this dehydrated kale chips packet. It was quite yummy, by the way, and tasted totally cheesy despite being completely vegan – raw vegan, at that! However, the irony of spending $9 on a healthy snack instead of $2 on an unhealthy one because I was too lazy to walk another 20 metres is pretty… great. Let’s just go with ‘great’.

Day 9 (Wednesday, April 9):
Lunch: Last portion of left over dukkah potatoes
Dinner: Udon with mushroom light soy broth, tofu, shiitake and oyster mushrooms
Snack: Sweet William mini dairy free chocolate bar

Day 10 (Thursday, April 10):
Lunch: Tofu mince “bolognese” with shell pasta
Dinner: Lord of the Fries burger and fries
Dessert: Smooze Mango coconut ice

Really? I’m one third of the way through the challenge? I’m really settling into things and getting used to it. I feel that by next week, there isn’t going to be anything to write about, only foodporn.

Day 11 (Friday, April 11):
Lunch: Mixed mushroom vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dessert: Orange Polenta cupcake with Popcorn topping, from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Gong De Lin – beancurd wrapper dumplings, seaweed fried rice with pinenuts, mixed mushroom hotpot

Day 12 (Saturday, April 12):
Phat Brats “Superfood Dog”, “Half-Pint Vegan Dairy” Coconut Milk Ice Cream with Coffee

I went to the newly-opened Melbourne branch of the Cruelty Free Shop today and bought all sorts of meat substitutes – up to this point, I haven’t been cooking with them, but I have a few dishes in mind next week that’ll be able to make use of some nice “chorizo” and “pork sausage”. I also bought this amazing “New Kinda Bacon” thing, which is so convincingly smokey and delicious I had to use all my willpower not to eat the whole $13 packet all at once! The shop certainly had a really good range of vegan foodstuffs, though I noticed many of the prices are high compared to the same product at other fancy grocers in Melbourne. They do have a wider variety of stuff, so I guess for a one-stop-shop, it’s pretty damn awesome.

Day 13 (Sunday, April 13):
Vege Pad Thai and “duck” pancake from Madame K Vegetarian; roast vegetable and “facon” (new-kinda bacon) cassoulet

Week two was easier than week one, even though I didn’t eat out as much – I’m definitely getting into the groove and not randomly craving buttery things all the time. I still had a few things that weren’t vegan – I had some more European milk chocolate that was still in the house, and my Phat Brats superfood dog had chilli mayo in it of the dairy variety as did my Lord of the Fries meal. I want to see if I can go the next week with even less dairy allowances.

Turns out, being a new vegetarian, even almost-vegan, is fairly easy if you just focus on all the yummy things you can eat and just don’t even think about what you can’t. At least, it seems to be working well for me so far.

I honestly don’t think I’m going to do another diary post next week – but I’ll do a round up of food highlights at the end of the month at least! In the meantime, follow the deliciousness I am eating on Instagram, hashtag #aprilvegchallenge!

Week 1 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day minus-3 (Saturday, March 29):
A trip to my favourite organic grocer – Passionfoods – to stock up on vegan cheese, nutritional yeast (“nooch”), coconut yogurt, cashew butter, raw chocolate and other cruelty-free goodies!

Day minus-2 (Sunday, March 30):
Attended Animal Liberation Victoria‘s vegan market day in St Kilda, devoured an indulgent salted caramel coconut ice cream (by Zebra Dream), ate some delicious vegan homebaked cookies, and came home with yummy toasted coconut vegan marshmallows.

For dinner, I fed friends Palak Tofu (an Indian-style spinach based curry with medium-firm tofu I fried in aromatic spices). Confession: I ate a bit of Sichuan fish left over from dinner the night before, but hey, a 75% vegan day before my challenge even officially began was pretty good, right?

Day minus-1 (Monday, March 31):
Bought some assorted Jelly Bellies and ate all the red ones before bed, because though their “bellies” (tehehe) are vegan, I don’t know if their food colouring contains bugs. KP went to the supermarket because he had run out of milk for his coffee, and I told him without batting an eyelid to stop murdering baby cows. He looked sad and told me not to say that, because it’s horrible, and I retorted that it’s even more horrible to not acknowledge it. Heh, apparently, I’m already preachy even though I haven’t even started this challenge! The last non-vegan thing I ate before my first week was a white chocolate Magnum right before bed.

Day 1 (Tuesday, April 1):
Lunch: Palak Tofu (leftovers from Sunday)
Dinner: Soba noodles with broccoli and shiitake mushrooms, curry miso broth, toasted sesame, garlic and nori.

I went down to the cafe on the ground floor of my office building to grab my usual soy cappuccino, and for the first time, wondered if the chocolate powder they always sprinkled on top was actually vegan. I guess I should ask for it without chocolate next time. It felt very strange to be looking at all this food I knew I couldn’t eat – a new experience for someone with no food intolerances and previously no dietary restrictions of any sort. My eyes lingered on the muffins and baked goods that I rarely glance at usually. It’s not difficult yet, only strange, but it’s only day 1!

Tonight, Angela asked if I wanted to have some funny Chinese mock-meat jerky stuff while waiting for dinner to cook and we had a look through the ingredients. The following conversation happened:

Angela: Would you like some soy jerky?
Me: Are you sure I can eat that?
Angela: Hmmm, it has food colouring, but I’m not sure if it’s the one made from bugs or whatever
Me: I probably shouldn’t eat it…
Angela: You could look up the additive number? I’ll look it up for you.
*5 minutes later*
Angela: *reading from Wikipedia* Errrr, it says it used to be made from coal tar but now it is mostly made from petroleum”. There you go, you can eat it. No animals, just petrol.
Me: Great :/

Day 2 (Wednssday, April 2):
Today, I found out through some internet research that Jelly Bellies are not, in fact, vegan! I’m not only talking about those pesky reddish ones that may be made from cochineal or whatever, but in fact, each and every Jelly Belly has been “polished” with beeswax to give them their shiny coat! Ugh! Needless to say, my vegan friends were not happy about this revelation!

I’m realising that randomly craving baked goods and pastries in the afternoons or early mornings is going to become annoying. It’s not like it’s something that happens everyday, but maybe once or twice a week, I feel like I just need that donut as an afternoon post work pick-me-up. Other times, like this morning, I just feel a whim to grab some fresh macarons on the way in to work! Resisting these things isn’t difficult just yet, but it might start to be a week or two in!

Lunch: Mixed mushrooms vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dinner: Caught up with a friend over zucchini dumplings and vegan Mapo Tofu from Shandong Mama
Dessert: Dairy-free pandan-coconut gelati from Gelateria Primavera Gelateria Primavera on Urbanspoon (by Spring Street Grocer – the most delicious and authentic gelati I’ve found in this city so far. O SO STRETCHEEE!)

Day 3 (Thursday, April 3):
As I was a bit under the weather, my yearning for baked goods reached its peak – I needed to go to the post office, and went to one further away because I knew there would be a place that sold vegan cupcakes across from it.

Lunch: Chives gyoza from Gyoza Douraku Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon (my top 3 favourite dumplings in Melbourne!) and Chocolate-on-Chocolate vegan cupcake from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Vegan cannelloni with mushrooms, crumbled tofu mince, quinoa, tomato, thyme and oregano, topped with mozzarella-style Cheezly
Dessert: Citizen Cacao raw vegan chocolate truffles (bought from Spring Street Grocer last night) in flavours “strawberry and coconut” and “Proud Mary cold drip coffee”

Day 4 (Friday, April 4):
After four days of not being able to choose to eat 85% of what I came across in the city (though it’s not as if I would have normally eaten those things just because I came across them!) I was excited to go to a vego restaurant where I’d be able to choose from most things on the menu. Shakahari is one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne, but the service on this occasion left much to be desired :( Shakahari Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

Lunch: Left over vegan cannelloni
Dinner: A variety of vegan deliciousness from Shakahari Vegetarian restaurant in Carlton. A highlight was the tofu caramel dessert.
Drink: Passionfruit juice with jelly from ChaTime

Day 5 (Saturday, April 5):
The long-awaited day arrived! I ate with several friends at Smith & Daughters, a Latin-cuisine vegan restaurant we’ve been waiting on to open its doors for a year, and then another couple of weeks for us all to be free and able to get a group booking. It did not disappoint. The blogosphere has been strewn with rave reviews for this eatery since its opening “First Taste Feast”, to which many “real” bloggers were invited. I suppose I could add my own two cents at some point! Smith and Daughters on Urbanspoon

We also stumbled upon Merry Cupcakes nearby on Brunswick street which is a healthier kind of (vegan) cupcakery using less saturated fat and less sugar in their goodies – I grabbed some of the said goodies for tomorrow.

Dinner and Dessert: A veritable Latin feast at Smith & Daughters
Non-vegan things I ate: Some milk chocolate sent to me from a friend in Germany and half a Spanish hot chocolate from San Churro.

Day 6 (Sunday, April 6):
Late morning snack: A Merry Cupcakes “Blondie” cupcake
Lunch: Mushroom, egg and goat cheese galette from Breizoz (not vegan, obviously)
Dinner: Tom Yum rice noodle soup and fried vege dumplings from Loving Hut. It was not amazing, to be honest (and was not my first choice, as I wanted the vegan Bun Bo Hue but they had run out) Loving Hut on Urbanspoon
Dessert: Mister Nice Guy “Golden Gaytime” mini cupcake

Cooked some shell pasta and combined it with diced tomatoes and the left over “mince” filling from the cannelloni I made earlier in the week to create a healthy “bolognese”, and froze it in serving portions.

My cupcake from Merry was delicious, though it definitely “tasted healthier”, if that makes sense, even compared to regular vegan cupcakes – KP had a taste and didn’t like the icing in particular but perhaps he could taste the soy in it whereas I could not? Merry Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

I have realised how much more I’m spending on groceries as a “vegan”, despite not buying any meat. Firstly, vegan substitutes to things such as yogurt, cheese and mayo tend to be quite expensive. Quinoa isn’t exactly cheap, and tofu and tempeh don’t cost a lot less than meat if you’re buying a good amount of it. Plus, now that it’s not possible to run out during lunch and get a delicious rice paper roll for $3, I have to take packed meal every single day for work and, at least until I learn to eat “boring” cheap lunches and sandwiches, it’s ending up more costly. However, I’m having heaps of fun creating delicious vegan meals.

Being the weekend, I was going to allow myself a non-vegan snack or two from the market – but disaster struck! I asked for a spinach and cheese borek, but was given a spinach and lamb borek, and only realised the meat was there after taking a bite! Despite being an omnivore only a week ago (and almost certainly intending to return to being one in three weeks) I was so disappointed and angry! I felt weirdly tainted and… and impure… which I’m sure is a rather melodramatic thing to say, though it’s not because I’ve turned into a crazy hippie, but probably more because I felt a powerless loss of control that is hard for a control freak like myself to cope with!

What I’ve discovered is that, on top of the happy knowledge that I’m eating an almost entirely cruelty free diet right now, the self discipline has had amazing validating qualities for my obsessive compulsive tendencies! It’s one thing to do what I was doing before – to not eat meat as much as most meat-eaters, to not drink dairy milk and consume less than the average amount of dairy – and of course an entirely different thing to know that you can’t, and to actively stop yourself from doing so. I used to not infrequently go a whole day without consuming any animal products, but more often than not that was something that just happened rather than a conscious decision. Even just one day consciously deciding you cannot do something makes a world of difference.

Week one summary?
I have only eaten three things containing any animal product (milk chocolate, a hot chocolate and a galette) in my first, shortest week of the challenge, not including being unwittingly served lamb and having previously thought that Jelly Bellies were vegan.

All things considered, this challenge is proving simultaneously easier and harder than I thought it would be.

Because I hate plants…

I don’t know what it is about 2014, but with only a quarter of the year gone, I seem to be committing myself to quite a lot of lengthy challenges. With my #100happydays finally drawing to a close (only 15 days left!) I am about to embark on the most difficult journey yet! And it is not abseiling down a Melbourne CBD skyscraper for foster kids (although I’m doing that too!) No, I am going vegetarian, and mostly vegan, for the month of April. And I have roped a couple of friends into joining me!

[TL;DR: click here | give your support]

I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals, I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants” – I keep recalling this quote of mysterious origins that I heard as a teenager, even though it’s completely absurd, and obviously not true for any vegetarian (… I think?). Only now, after Googling it 15 years later, have I found out that the sentence was first uttered by a stand-up comedian by the name of Alan Whitney Brown. Heh, this is not really important, is it?

Anyway, for me, both parts of Brown’s quote are technically true, sort of. I do adore animals, but I also don’t really like plants – flowers, to be precise, set off my allergies, so I have a deep-seated resentment of them. Botanical gardens are my worst nightmare! God, I’m barely joking. However, I’m not actually planning on eating many flowers in the next month, so unfortunately I am not really able to take out my revenge on the right set of plants. Hrrmph.

So, why am I actually doing it? As a lifelong omnivore, I live with that mental compartmentalisation that most omnivorous animal lovers employ – I’m accustomed to separating meat, which is food, from animals, who are friends (kind of like separating plants which I, err, hate, from vegetables which I love?) I’m not saying this is morally a good thing to do, but it’s actually not a thing that is unique to this situation for me. Generally, I’m a pretty detached person who can be intellectually and by principle outraged at the world’s injustices, yet not exactly passionately or emotionally engaged in the debate against them. This is just the way I am.

Like the majority of kids brought up in meat-eating families, I never gave much thought to human consumption of animals as food, but as a teenager and even into my early 20s I still failed to see what was wrong with the meat and dairy industries. I was an intelligent, well-read young woman and if I had stopped to think about it, would have seen very clearly that the quantity of meat now consumed by the average person in the developed world (or even developing world) has increased many, manyfold in the last century. Perhaps, if I had done that, I would have also wondered how that was possible? Where were all the extra animals coming from? Eventually, I would have arrived at the harsh truths of factory farming, and been as disgusted by them as I now am. Besides, the negative environmental impact caused by factory farming was not only an animal welfare issue but a problem for future generations of humans.

Farming of animals specifically for food has evolved into something completely unrecognisable, and the sheer scale of it is inconceivable to digest, pun unintentional. Gone are the days of only eating the animals you could hunt down and kill for yourself and your family, and gone even are the days when you ate meat, dairy and eggs from your own or your neighbour’s farm. What is worse is that the product of this mass breeding, mistreatment and premature slaughtering of animals feeds into the most horrible industries with no real value to civilised humans – fast food, for example, is artless, bland, unhealthy and contributes to national obesity problems all over the world, including in developing countries.

It started with the eggs. As long as I’ve lived out of home and bought my own groceries, I have bought free range eggs – is there even anyone who doesn’t these days? There is no excuse. I didn’t realise at the time that supermarket “free range” eggs did not have to meet particularly strict criteria to be labelled as such, and besides, without a car or access to markets (of which there are almost none where I lived in Auckland), I couldn’t really purchase eggs from anywhere else on a regular basis. So I didn’t really buy eggs on a regular basis, and still don’t. Then there was meat. Once no longer a poor student, I could no longer condone factory farmed chicken when I could buy free range chicken, or free range pork, and so on. I do not eat veal, ever. But I tried not to think about the fact that the Asian takeaway joints I sometimes ate at must very likely be using the cheapest meat of any origin they could find.

So my habits as a consumer was where I started, but in the last two or three years, I’ve been thinking about things a little more and getting a little more pissed off at how unnecessary all of it is. I grew up in a meat-eating family, yes, but I also grew up in an Asian family. It was not “meat and three veg” – my mum cooked Chinese dishes which were mostly staple carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and a relatively small percentage of meat (perhaps 10-15% of the bulk of the meal). Sometimes, we had fish that my dad caught. We hardly ever ate steak except when dining out occasionally. As an adult, I still prefer to cook Asian dishes (although I have a more diverse repertoire than my mother had, including many South East Asian dishes) because I find them both tastier and more nutritionally balanced, and having travelled extensively over Asia, I have definitely observed that the average diet in most Asian countries consists of less meat than the average Western diet. What is more, they made much more use of offal – the idea of throwing out the majority of an animal after selecting its most “premium” cuts of meat always seemed very sad, silly and wasteful to me – and on top of that, they used dairy far less in their savoury dishes. Dairy. Don’t even get me started on the horrible things I have learned about the dairy industry in the last couple of years.

I began to settle into a lifestyle where I not only ate predominantly Asian dishes with their fairly small ratio of meat, but did not eat meat for many meals, and often for a few full days per week. I rarely bought cheese and began to drink only soy with my coffee. I started to wonder if everyone ate the same quantity of meat and dairy as I did or even less (for I was willing to go further), the corresponding industries would be far less intense, factory farming would be less necessary and the world would be a better place. The truth is, and I probably knew this, even if it would be enough (which is doubtful), there was next to no chance of it happening unless these industries imploded on themselves one day. We have gone down a road that is hard to tread backwards on, and even poorer countries are popularising fast food chains and increased meat consumption. Too many futuristic dystopian books I have read depicted a world where meat was no longer readily available because we had destroyed the ecosystem in some way.

At the risk of hate mail, I may as well state that I do not personally have an intellectual issue with the humane taking of the life of an animal for food; but – I have huge a issue with the torture and prolonged suffering of animals (who feel pain and sorrow) for the purpose of feeding a ridiculously excessive industry that churns out more product than humans should even healthily consume. Many vegos would argue that it is not a human right to take the lives of animals for our own use on any scale. I wouldn’t say that it is, either – but there are no “rights” involved in nature at all.

I will not insult anyone’s intelligence by dragging out the comparison of a lion hunting down its prey because it’s obvious that, unlike big cats in the wild, as humans we have many other ways of getting the nutrition we need without killing other species if we so choose. Evolution has transformed us so that we have become more intelligent than other known animals on Earth, including some very intelligent mammals that I am not at all underestimating. Largely because of this, we have been omnivores for very many, many, many thousands of years. We may have invented hunting weapons followed by agriculture followed by industralised machinery, but we did not “invent” human intelligence – we have simply used what cognitive abilities nature gave us to devise ways to get “what we want”, through the accumulation of knowledge over time.

I’m not saying this is commendable of our species, I am saying that’s what has happened. But that is not to say that we can’t draw the line wherever we want to draw it!

So my line is here:

  • I do not want to condone factory farming.
  • I do wish to greatly reduce my (already modest) overall animal product consumption.
  • I want to limit my routine dairy consumption to a three days per week, and aim to reduce this to one or two days over time.
  • I want to limit my routine meat consumption to a maximum of three days per week, indefinitely.
  • I want to always give more thought to where and when I eat meat and eliminate, wherever I can, eating dishes that may have used meat that is likely to be factory farmed.
  • I will investigate the true story behind a “free range” label and, when I can, buy meat supplied by farms where I know truly humane farming is practised.
  • I WILL live as a mostly vegan vegetarian for at least 30 days in order to calibrate myself with this adjusted lifestyle and to put my money where my mouth is.
  • I want to repeat this challenge at least once every year going forward.

I also would like to use this month to raise some awareness among my friends and acquaintances of the issues I have brought up today, and animal welfare in general – more on this below!

What I don’t want:

  • Abuse or judgement from anyone reading this post, though I am open to hearing differing opinions and am all for healthy discussion.


Why have I posted about this?
I wanted to publicly express my views on these issues, and I wanted to prepare you for some delicious, simple vegan recipes coming up on this blog; but most of all, I want your help. My friends and I have set up a fundraising campaign to support our challenge in which everything raised will go to a local animal rescue organisation or animal welfare organisation. Who it ends up going to will depend on you. When you make a donation, you may nominate a relevant cause that is close to your heart, and the winning two non-profits will split the final campaign total! Here is where you can donate:

The reason I am not going 100% vegan for April is, in part, because I may still be using non-dietary animal products such as leather boots only if I already own them, but it’s also a psychological thing. It’s to ensure the success of my challenge and make it much more likely that I’ll stick to it, with the knowledge of just a small window of lenience that I may not always even use. At home and during working hours, I will be 100% vegan. During my social commitments, I’ll still try to be as vegan as I can, however, it would be a huge adjustment for an omnivore today to go to a restaurant tomorrow where the only vegan option is a leafy side salad without dressing (for example) – in these cases, I would choose a vegetarian dish if I couldn’t adapt anything to be truly vegan. I understand this is something “real” vegans actually face in meal outings without cheating, however, as a newbie I need to start less hardcore, and perhaps graduate to this in future challenge months.

It’s actually been over six weeks since I decided to set out on this journey for myself. Just this Sunday, I went to a Vegan Market Day held by Animal Liberation Victoria where a stall was displaying fliers about the “Vegan Easy Challenge“, which is, you guessed it, a program that challenges you to go vegan for 30 days! I took the pamphlets and information booklets, as I thought they’d come in handy, but I didn’t sign up for the program as I had already made up my mind to do my own thing. However, I do encourage my readers to join!

Potluck Staples 3: Vegan Pho (Faux Pho)

Pho is a big part of my life. Really. I cannot live without it. If you set me the difficult task of naming my top 5 favourite foods, it probably wouldn’t quite make the cut – I love it, but mostly pho just one of those comfort things. A failsafe fix for a crappy work day.

Once a week, I sacrifice half my lunch break just to get the tram into the city to have pho for lunch. My pho-buddies and I constantly talk about our noodley love in front of other friends (I use “talk about” loosely here – mainly it’s just exclaiming “PHO PHO PHO!” at inappropriate moments) some of whom are vegetarian or vegan; and ok, let’s face it, I’m not sorry. But one of my main instincts is always to spread my love of food and it makes me sad that they have no way of finding out what we’re on about.

In fact, in spite of the large Vietnamese population in Melbourne, a fair few people even among ominvores, are still unaware of what pho is or have just never tried it. I figured that the best way to share my love of the magical bowl of awesome was to bring it to a potluck, and to spread the love even further by attempting a vegan version.

When I’m not eating out, I rarely eat any meat or dairy on weekdays and as such, I’m not unfamiliar with making delicious vegan meals. But what I had never done at home before is make a vegan version of a dish which is traditionally supposed to be totally based around meat!

Pho was worth making an exception for, though. I went on a search for vegetarian/vegan pho recipes online and the results were all miserable. There were definitely some out there, but most were disappointingly inadequate or unauthentic.

But how, you ask, can you possibly make a vegan version of a meat-based dish “authentic”? Well, I too, was skeptical at first, but then I realised that there’s so much more to pho than just its beefiness! Most important of all are the fragrant spices in the stock – their quantity in ratio to each other and to the amount of stock and the stewing time are all factors that can make and break pho. The depth of flavour of the broth is obviously important, but the stock base doesn’t absolutely have to be beef! Then, after serving, all those extras such as that squeeze of lemon, slices of fresh chili, that squirt of sriracha sauce, dollop of chili oil, drip of fish sauce, handful of mung bean shoots and sprigs of Vietnamese mint become the indispensable, customisable “personal touch” component of the dish.

The problem with the recipes I found on the internet was that they were for the most part created by vegetarians who had never tried traditional beef pho, or people generally unexposed to Vietnamese food who just heard about this “trendy” dish and tried to create a “healthy” version. I was determined to piece together my own recipe which kept as many elements exactly the same as the authentic version as possible, substituting only the “beef factor”.

I decided to use mushrooms as the base for the broth, as they’re powerful enough to form the depth of flavour needed, as well as being physically “meaty” enough to substitute actual beef slices in the dish. Making a mushroom consomme would provide the necessary clarity of stock! In addition, mushrooms also contain high levels of glutamate, the magic behind the “umami” taste and can be described as “naturally occurring MSG”. This is pretty important as in a vegan version I wouldn’t be able to include the traditional ingredient of fish sauce, which is extremely rich in glutamate/umami. In addition, I decided, based on the concept of umami, to make “vegan fish sauce” which could be used in the dish and also added as a condiment by the diner in whatever quantities they liked. This all eliminated the need to add any actual MSG (which I would never do anyway, but many Vietnamese restaurants do do).

Experimentation time. I had one test day, which was only a reasonable success after a couple of “saves”, and a second, almost perfect run on potluck day. The main issues in the test run had to do with the consomme – one recipe recommended that I pre-soak the vegetables and mushrooms in olive oil to soften them, which rendered the resulting stock too oily even after several filtrations and skimmings. Then, the cooking time of the final broth with dry spices had to be adjusted – on first try, the spices overpowered the consomme and I realised vegetable stock was more delicate than meat stock and needed less time to infuse with spices, so I set about diluting the over-spiced parts of the stock by pouring half it out, making more consomme and adding that to the original. Of course, the next time I simply reduced the cooking time – we can’t treat it like regular pho as the spices overpower the mushroom broth, which is a little more delicate than beef stock!

DON'T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

DON’T soak your stock vegetables in olive oil, just soak in water!

Who thinks I should just shut up and get on with sharing the recipe before I tell my life story?
Ok. Don’t be put off by the length – there are a lot of ingredients, but the techniques are simple.

Vegan Pho with Mushrooms (Indie’s Faux Pho)

Things to note

Serves: 10-12 snack or potluck serves
Prep time: Approx 40 minutes Cooking time: Approx 2.5 hours, on and off (you can wander off and do stuff?)

The Shopping List

Vegetables etcdon’t be shocked at how much mushroom you’ll need!
4 cups (about 400g) button mushrooms
5 cups shitaake mushrooms
2 cups mixed other mushrooms (recommended types include oyster mushrooms, shimeiji and enoki)
2 white or brown onions
2 shallots
1 large (or 2 quite small) carrots)
1-2 stalks celery
1 bulb garlic
2 cm thumb of ginger
6-10 fresh red chilies
3 lemons
Several handfuls of mung bean sprouts

Half bunch fresh coriander
1 bunch Vietnamese mint
1 bunch Thai basil
A few bay leaves

From the Asian Grocers
Premium soy sauce
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional)
1.5 cups wakame (a type of fresh seaweed – other types may also work)
Nori flakes (a type of dried seaweed) or Japanese seasoning packets containing nori
Miso paste
Sesame oil
2 trays silken tofu (very soft)
2 large packets (or 600-800g) thin to medium Vietnamese rice noodles, sometimes called “rice stick” – try to buy the best brand, as they’ll have a much better texture

Dry spices
Star anise
Cassia bark
Cinnamon stick
Cardomom pods
Fennel seeds
Coriander seeds
Palm Sugar
Saffron (optional if you’re on a budget)

From the health food store
Dark agave syrup
Try here

The mushroom consomme base

Please note these ingredients are already mentioned in the shopping list above, this just separates them out so you know what to do with them, when and where.

Part 1
3 cups button mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
2 cups approx additional mixed mushrooms (I used oyster and enoki)
1 onion, sliced in half rings
2 shallots, diced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
2 long stalk of celery, thinly sliced
3 litres cold water

Part 2
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, roughly quartered
1 cup button mushrooms, roughly quartered
3/4 cup premium soy sauce
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp salt

Part 3
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 tbsp saffron

  1. Soak Part 1 ingredients with a pinch of salt in water for approx 2 hours at room temperature.
  2. Transfer to a soup pot. Add the cold water and bring to a light boil on medium heat, uncovered.
  3. Turn the heat down to very low, cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes
  4. Add half of the coriander from Part 3 and continue to simmer for 15 minutes.
  5. Turn heat off and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  6. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth.
  7. Transfer broth back to the pot.
  8. Add in the remaining Part 2 ingredients.
  9. Continue to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
  10. Add the rest of the ingredients (coriander and saffron) from Part 3 and simmer for a further 10 minutes.
  11. Remove bay leaves. Strain the broth through a sieve/colander lined with 2 layers of muslin cloth. Put aside.

Note that if you’re vegetarian but not vegan, and you want an even clearer stock, you can use the “egg white method” of clarification (Google will help!)

Vegan fish sauce (phish sauce)

While the mushroom consomme is simmering away, you can quickly whip up the vegan fish sauce on a separate element on the stove.

Why does a drop or two of fish sauce make such a difference to already great Asian dishes? The key is that word again – umami. I order to reproduce the impact of fish sauce, I needed to find ingredients that were high in glutamate in order to make my vegan “phish” sauce.

What’s needed for this (again, these ingredients are already in the shopping list above)
1 1/2 cups wakame seaweed
3 cups cold water
5 cloves garlic, crushed/minced
1 tbsp peppercorns
1 cup premium soy sauce
Nori flakes or nori-based seasoning
1.5 tbsp miso
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp salt

  1. Pull apart the wakame so the strands are separated
  2. Combine seaweed, garlic, peppercorns and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Strain out the solid parts through double muslin, and return the liquid back to the pot.
  4. Add the soy sauce and nori flakes, bring back to a boil and cook until mixture is reduced by almost 1/3, or for 15 minutes.
  5. Stir in miso and mix very well until fully dissolved. Simmer for a further 5 minutes.
  6. Strain again through a double layer of muslin.
  7. Allow to cool for 10 minutes then pour into a bottle and shake well.
  8. Place aside as we’ll use it in the next part of the recipe!
Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt - refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)

Spices for pho (quantities here are from my first semi-failed attempt – refer to recipe for the quantities you should use)


What you’ll need here (all ingredients are already listed in the shopping list)
2/3 (approx) onion – sliced in rings
Ginger – finely sliced
Garlic, 5 cloves, minced

4 whole star anise
3 whole cloves
1 cassia bark (approx 5cm)
1 cinnamon stick, bruised
1 cardomom pod
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon palm sugar
1.5 tablespoons dark agave syrup (or to taste – if you can’t find agave, can replace with coconut sugar or more palm sugar)
3 tablespoons vegan fish sauce (from recipe above)
2+ tablespoons salt (or to taste)

2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced attractively
2 tubs of silken tofu, sliced into approx 2cm squared cubes

  1. Prepare a slow cooker, or large stockpot or soup pot.
  2. Heat up a frying pan on medium for 2 minutes.
  3. Throw in the dry spices (star anise, cloves, cassia bark, cinnamon, cardomom pod, fennel seeds, coriander seeds) and toast for 3-4 minutes or until fragant. Then throw the spices into the slow cooker/stockpot
  4. Turn up the heat on the frying pan a little to medium-high, then throw in the onions, ginger and garlic to sear until sweetly fragrant. Also place these with the spices in the slow cooker or stockpot.
  5. Get the mushroom consomme we set aside and bring it back to a gentle simmer in a separate pot, adding 1 cup of water to it at the same time.
  6. Pour the mushroom broth onto the spices, onions, garlic and ginger.
  7. Add the salt and palm sugar.
  8. Turn the slow cooker to “low” or “auto” setting, or if using a pot, low heat. Cook for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove just the cinnamon stick and cardomom pod from the broth, leaving the rest of the spices.
  10. Add the agave syrup and vegan fish sauce.
  11. Add the sliced shiitake mushrooms and tofu.
  12. Continue to cook on low for a further 15-20 minutes until mushrooms are quite soft.

Almost there! Putting it all together

What have we got left?
Good quality thin Vietnamese rice noodles for 6 half-serves
Thai basil, many sprigs
Vietnamese mint, many sprigs
Chillies – as many as you want chopped, deseed optional
Several handfuls of Mung bean sprouts
Sriracha sauce
Hoisin sauce (optional – I don’t usually use it personally)
Vegan fish sauce, the bottle we made earlier
3 lemons, quartered (total 12 wedges)

  • While the pho broth is simmering, you can start to cook the rice noodles. Cook in two batches unless you have a very, very large pot, as, like with pasta, you need enough room to bring it to a rolling boil. Make sure it still has a little bite to it and don’t let it get too soft and soggy.
  • When the broth is done, serve by placing noodles into a bowl then ladling pho on top of it.
  • Serve with the mint, Thai basil, chopped chillies, bean sprouts, lemon wedges, on a plate in the middle of the table for free use, along with fish sauce and sriracha sauce.
  • Inhale this amazing dish like there’s no tomorrow!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone's wearing Black Milk Campbell's soup leggings!

Deliciously served in little plastic bowls at potluck! And look, someone’s wearing Black Milk soup leggings!

So, that’s it! I hope I haven’t completely scared you off. This really is a fairly easy recipe once you get the hang of it. A big pot of my faux pho lasted like ten minutes at a potluck where there ended up being tons of left over food, even though three quarters of the attendees were omnivores.

Try and rope your significant other into chopping vegetables for you, and you’ll have a much easier time of it, I promise!

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