Thai cuisine—the great oxymoron of my personal vegan diet. Bountiful in vegetable curries, tofu as a common stand-in for meat, and gluten-free noodles, Thai food masquerades as an incredibly vegan-friendly option for restaurant dining. However, after tearing off its guise, Thai food reveals itself as dangerous territory for the more health-conscious vegan diner with its refined white rice and white flour noodles, its beloved fish sauce (commonly considered a vegetarian ingredient by Thai chefs because of the condiment’s centuries-deep roots in their cuisine), its frequent use of sugar such as in peanut sauce or sweeter curries, and its notoriously high sodium content. Thus, I’ve adopted somewhat of a fear of Thai cuisine—a hugely disappointing development seeing as I’ve experienced a few delicious meals at Madison’s best Thai/Laotian/Vietnamese restaurant, Ha Long Bay…unfortunately, all of which imbued in me a sense of guilt and a sour tummy after failing to meet my healthy-eating standards, even when I skipped out on the white rice.
Though I prefer to avoid the variety of Thai cuisine offered by most restaurants (at least those in my neck of the woods), I adore the basic flavor combinations (such as sweet coconut with tart lime and spicy chili) and abundance of fresh veggies that live at the heart of Thailand’s traditional food culture. To satisfy my Thai cravings without sacrificing my gastronomical ethics, I’ve recently began experimenting with Thai-inspired creations in my own kitchen, such as my recipe for Thai Coconut-Baked Tofu. My latest Asian endeavor assumed the form of a coconut curry, teeming with mixed vegetables, tofu, and the classic creamy-citrusy-spicy combination I so adore from Thai cuisine.
Feel free to add just about any fresh veggies you have on hand: toss in a generous handful of sliced shiitake mushrooms and/or 1 cup of cubed eggplant with the tofu, or dice a red bell pepper and throw it into the mix along with the green beans (for which snow peas could substitute) and tomatoes (lightly cooked, the cherry tomatoes burst playfully in your mouth for a succulent-sweet pop of flavor). Curries notoriously beg for personal interpretation.
Thai-Style Coconut Curry (Gluten Free)
- 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced (you can also use galangal for a more authentic flavor, but I never have any on hand.)
- 1 3/4 cups vegetable broth (homemade or boxed, my favorite is Pacific Foods’ organic low-sodium broth.)
- 1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 8 oz sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
- 8 oz cauliflower, broken into florets and cut in half
- 16 oz firm tofu, drained and cubed (make sure to use non-GMO!)
- 1 cup green beans, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1 cup coconut milk (light or full-fat, boxed or canned. Whatever you like!)
- 2 tbsp tamari
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp agave nectar (optional, add more if you like a sweeter edge to your curries.)
Place the shredded coconut in a wok or large pot over medium head. Stir frequently until the coconut turns golden brown, about 3 minutes, taking care not to let it burn. Turn off the heat, remove coconut from the pot, and set aside.
Replace the pot back on the stove and add to it the oil, onion, garlic, and ginger. Saute over medium-high heat for 2 minutes until the onion begins to soften and the garlic becomes fragrant.
Add the broth, cayenne, and reserved toasted coconut and stir to combine. Turn the heat up to high and add the sweet potato and cauliflower. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to medium-high, and simmer for 3 minutes.
Add the tofu, cover, and simmer for 2 more minutes.
Add the green beans and cherry tomatoes, cover, and simmer for 3 more minutes. At this point, the mixture will seem too thick with vegetables—don’t fret! The curry will thin once you add the coconut milk.
Speaking of which…turn the heat down to medium-low and add the coconut milk, tamari, lime juice, cilantro, and agave nectar if using.
Serve over a grain to soak up all the succulent coconutty juices. Quinoa serves as an especially complementary vehicle, as its own nutty flavor profile accentuates that of the coconut.
Meal Checklist: Protein—tofu. Whole Grain—quinoa. Vegetables—onion, garlic, ginger, sweet potato, green beans, tomatoes. Leafy Green—yes, cauliflower lacks a green hue, but the cruciferous vegetable family to which it belongs also includes kale and broccoli, both of which I consider as leafy greens. Good enough.
Comment Provoking Questions: How do you feel about Thai cuisine? Do you ever make it at home? What are your favorite Thai-inspired recipes? What are your favorite veggies to add to curries?
Until next time, Ali.