Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Kitchen adventures. vegetarian cooking.

A few years ago, my mother was a vegetarian for about six months. I believe a trip to Montreal caused this complete lack of interest in animal flesh, as she ate so much over the course of a week (I seem to recall a story involving half of a roast duck) that it was quite some time before she could eat anything at all. This period of time coincided with the time when I had not yet found a job and was living at home. In lieu of rent I did all the grocery shopping, the meal planning, the cooking, and most of the cleaning up. I like to refer to that time as the Dark Days, because adding to the confusion was the fact that my father is the kind of guy who feels that a meal without meat is not a meal. It was like being caught between a rock and a hard place. On the other hand, my mom didn't mind eating things that had been cooked with meat, and was still eating soups made with chicken or pork broth, which was a lot easier than having to cook two completely different meals every night. She was not so much a vegetarian as someone who just didn't eat meat.

At that time, dinner generally consisted of a) rice, b) a meat dish, c) a vegetable, and d) something involving tofu. Usually there would be soup, chicken with tofu, or pork with daikon. There were too many nights that featured eggs scrambled with tomatoes, my fallback vegetarian option. Another frequent dish was corn stir-fried with toasted pine nuts. The worst part was that I worried constantly about getting enough protein and other nutrients into my mom, although she was supplementing her meals with Dove triple-chocolate ice cream bars. It was interesting to note that when she didn't eat meat, she was constantly snacking between meals, which leads me to believe that vegetarians are often hungry.

Tofu became my ally, my best friend. I would stand in the tofu aisle at Uwajimaya looking lost and confused (to be fair, I always look lost and confused, even when I know where I'm going and what I want). There were so many different kinds, and I bought them all. The soft white tofu was cut into cubes and tossed into soup, or gently simmered with shiitake mushrooms and homemade chicken broth, and served on a bed of baby bok choy. Pillows of dried tofu were simply sliced and fanned across a plate, sprinkled with scallions and drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil. Flat squares of seasoned, dried tofu, chewy and savory, were chopped and stir-fried with Chinese long beans and a splash of soy sauce; I would make two versions, one with ground pork, the other without. Or I would slice them and stir-fry them with equal-sized sticks of celery. Fried tofu puffs were braised with pork ribs in wine, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. The puffs would soak up the intensely flavored juices and go limp, and my mother would eat them all.

It was an interesting time, which ended after my mother took another trip (Spain, I think, where she ate a lot of ham) and discovered meat again. Later, I had a job and less time for cooking. Then my parents moved to Taiwan, and I was alone in the kitchen, left to my own devices. I have not eaten tofu for months now, since the last time my mother visited. I found, during those days when I was trying to cook for two people with wildly different eating habits, that desperation is the mother of invention. It was a challenge, an exercise in creativity, and it taught me how to cook for other people. It was also excellent training for when, perhaps fifteen or twenty years from now, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter going through a vegetarian phase. Something tells me that if that's the only thing I have to deal with I will consider myself very lucky indeed.

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