21 October 2009

Family Favorites, the Vegan Way

As a second-generation Filipino-American whose parents are heavily influenced by local-type Hawaiian culture and cuisine, I may or may not be considered a typical product of an American upbringing, depending on how one views it. For example, my paternal grandmother never baked us cookies or layer cakes, but rather, would serve up lumpia (more authentic varieties of what my friends used to call "Filipino eggrolls") or sinigang (a sour soup), staying true to the traditional foods of her upbringing in the Philippines. But then again, that's America the Salad Bowl for you. Mind you, these dishes weren't unheard of in Hawaii, especially with the huge Filipino population living there, and in fact, my mother cooked many of the staple dishes from that culinary tradition, although undoubtedly via the local translation of it. As with interpretation of any sort, certain elements of the original form change or become lost while maintaining its essence. Because so much of Filipino cuisine is saturated with meat and other animal products, attempting to "veganize" any of it can sometimes make a proper interpretation--one that maintains that traditon or essence while serving a new lifestyle--difficult. Fortunately, I was never a huge fan of many of the Filipino main dishes my father enjoyed growing up, so I don't attempt a reimagining of such fare all that often.

One thing I did and still like, however, is my parents' version of what I think is avocado con hielo, a dessert much like a sweet avocado milkshake traditionally consisting of fresh avocado, ice, and sweetened condensed milk mixed in a blender and served in a glass. My vegan version is actually a interpretation of an interpretation, because my parents made a much simpler form of it using neither ice nor sweetened condensed milk. They didn't even use a blender. What they did and still do is treat it as more of a snack, cutting or mushing up an avocado with a little bit of brown sugar and milk and eating the resulting mixture with a spoon. It looks unappetizing, and I've gotten bewildered reactions from friends who find the idea of eating avocado sweet strange, but once people try it, they don't usually find it quite so odd, although they often admit that it is something to which one must grow accustomed.
It's very easy to make a vegan version of the avocado treat; just replace the milk with a nondairy version of your choice. I used almond milk in mine, but now that I think of it, coconut milk would be pair up nicely with the avocado, too. The amount of liquid is up to you; I like my avocado thick, so I just wet it with a small amount of nondairy milk, while my dad, on the other hand, likes his more soupy.

Other sweet treats I used to enjoy as a child were malasadas, deep-fried Portuguese doughnuts that are very popular in Hawaii. They are a bit like sugar-coated doughnut holes, but darker with a crunchier exterior and chewy interior and a distinct taste that is perhaps akin to the slight sourness of over-risen yeast dough. I don't like deep-frying anything, no matter how good it tastes, but I had such an urge to recreate the doughnuts, and frying is really the only way to make them properly. You can find malasadas plain or filled with various custards and jams, but the way we always ate them in my family (and what is most traditional) was unfilled. My mother's recipe makes the basic yeast dough that includes milk and eggs, but remembering that slightly sour or baking soda-like hint the malasadas always had, I thought it might be worth a shot to not only use vegan substitutes for the milk and eggs, but also to employ my good old starter. You can usually leave any unused dough made the traditional yeast-risen way in the fridge for a few days anyway, which allows it to keep while further developing its distinctive flavor. Using the sour starter basically mimicked the developed flavor while eliminating my need to use yeast--one more successful and delicious way to use leftover starter!
In terms of savory food associated with my upbringing, chicken katsu was one of my favorite dishes as a child. It's neither Filipino nor Hawaiian by way of colonialism, but is actually a common item found in Japanese restaurants. A large Japanese population does live in Hawaii, so it did figure into my family's dinners at least as a product of its availability in the islands (as so many things did). Katsu is a thin, breaded, fried meat cutlet. Chicken was the go-to protein in my house growing up, and it seemed like we ate chicken katsu quite a bit back then. I sometimes requested it for my birthday dinner, because I enjoyed it so much. I haven't eaten it in years, and these days I try to avoid anything greasy, and of course, derived from animals.

But it dawned on me recently that there must be a way to create a vegan facsimile, and considering it is a fried cutlet after all, it occurred to me that seitan might just work. So I decided to try it out. I thawed a seitan cutlet (made from Veganomicon before freezing) then carefully sliced it into a thin round, because what made my mother's version so good was that she pounded the meat very, very thin so that it would cook quickly and become very crispy. I couldn't flatten the seitan cutlets, so that's why I thinly sliced it instead. I whisked a thin batter of almond milk, salt, and flour to dunk the cutlets in, then dredged them in a mixture of panko (flaky Japanese breadcrumbs), flour, and salt. Then I pan-fried the seitan in vegetable oil until was golden brown on both sides.
The result: tasty, crispy success! The thicker slices of seitan were still a little chewy, as seitan tends to be, but otherwise, the texture and taste of my vegan version of katsu was fairly similar to how I remember my mom's chicken katsu. If it sounds like it should have some kind of sauce, it usually does; Mom always made a dipping sauce with shoyu, ketchup, and brown sugar, but I just never cared for it, always preferring my katsu plain with rice. And that's how I ate the seitan katsu: with steamed rice (brown this time, but it was nothing but white rice as a kid) and the addition of a veggie side (sauteed chard being the upgrade from canned green beans) rounded out the nostalgia. All of the day's tributes to family favorites are on the fattening side, so I won't be making them very often in the future, but at least I know that it is possible to relive childhood through vegan interpretation.


  1. I love katsu! That looks great.

    It's fun to remake family stuff but vegan.

  2. I love katsu! That looks great.

    It's fun to remake family stuff but vegan.


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