Lily Khin is a writer and photographer.
Hey Lily! You mentioned to me that it was because of your partner, Shara, that you started exploring vegan cooking, would you care to share with us a little more about that and how that has impacted you?
Shara's decision to go vegan came at a time when I was also moving to vegetarianism as a lifestyle. In that sense, it wasn't too much of a drastic change. Home cooking didn't change too much save for a few omissions (ghee, mostly) and the (ongoing) quest for the perfect non-dairy vehicle to make a stellar chai. The food we cook at home – Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese – don't rely heavily on dairy, and can very easily be customised to suit a vegetarian diet with no compromise on flavour. There's this huge misunderstanding that eating vegan requires a lot of complicated, unfamiliar ingredients that you have to whip into submission to impart flavour. Or the other extreme - that vegans just eat salads. Forget imitation meats and OD-ing on Kale. The wet market has always been my biggest resource, with its wide array of fresh whole foods. Especially if you – like us – enjoy Asian food, you can very easily eat vegan without feeling like you're going out of the way.
The difference was palpable mostly when we dined out: those moments when we could no longer share our starters or had to reconsider restaurants and cafes that we previously loved because they didn't serve up any vegan options. Or those times when we went out for dessert, and my poor sweet tooth would look longingly at the foods he loved but couldn't enjoy. Singapore has a long way to go in terms of inclusivity, in every sense but in this case, in making people with specific dietary requirements feel welcome. Of course, with an increasing number of restaurants embracing meat alternatives such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Quorn, Heura, and so on, the visibility of plant-based diets is certainly higher than it was even just a year ago. And it's always a joy when we discover places that serve up delicious food that just so happens to be plant-based!
What is the most important element when coming up with a dish, for both you and your partner?
Past nutrition and sustenance, food has a lot to do with memory and emotion for me. In cooking and eating, I look not only to be nourished but to feel connected to something larger - and food, to me, is the conduit. A lot of the dishes I cook at home have been borrowed and adapted from the various people in my life, penned down on the corners of napkins or translated to English and sent to me as a long text message. So, when it comes time to prepare something, I look into my repository of recipes and ideas and inspirations (thanks to Instagram, these exist in abundance), and match it to what we're feeling that day. Are we feeling like we need insulation from the world, or we feeling hopeful and experimental? The food that I cook is a reflection of this. I like to think I cook with equal measure of practicality and emotion.
Share with us the one thing you must have in your kitchen.
A good stone mortar and pestle. My only family heirloom is my grandmother's old mortar and pestle, edges rounded with age and wear, that's waiting for me back in Chennai. There's something very tactile, visceral... sensory about using a mortar and pestle to pound aromatics. It gives me a real sense of affecting change on ingredients. You drop some garlic and pepper into the waiting bowl, and they're whole. You pound slowly and feel them take new form under your hands. You hear it, you smell it, and eventually, you'll taste it. Modern appliances don't afford this notion of surrendering yourself to your senses. In South India and Sri Lanka, a larger flat grinding stone is used, the ammikallu. I hope to own one of these too when space permits.
Lastly, do you feel like cooking is an essential skill?
Absolutely. Cooking is as much an act of survival as it is an act of love. The ability to make a meal out of the odds and ends in my fridge is an expression of autonomy and self-reliance. It's a form of meditation that engages my senses fully. It's a way that I give expression to parts of myself buried under the mundane or if I'm being honest, constant befuddlement at twenty-first-century living.
Many times, I look at the food I cook to tell me things about myself and the needs that lurk beneath the surface of my conscious mind. Sometimes, I crave foods from my childhood with a fervour that is blinding. And as I proceed to cook them, I discover that this craving is my soul's breadcrumb trail, telling me I'm feeling vulnerable and reminding me to slow down and tend to myself. But also, a meal I've put an hour of time to prepare can say so much – I love you, you matter, I want to try harder. So in that sense, yes, cooking is an essential part of my life.
In Balli Kaur Jaswal's book 'Sugarbread', the protagonist Pin and her mother can't find the language to express the complexity of emotion that runs beneath the surface. Pin feels her way to her mother's emotions through the food she cooks: wading through tastes and flavours, spices and colours – seeking in them clues that will tell her what her mother cannot. In Ruby Tandoh's 'Eat Up' - a book I consider essential reading - she talks about cooking as a way of expressing what we cannot or perhaps don't want to give words to. It's the breakfast we scurry out of bed to make for a lover who has spent the night for the first time or the specific dish that our mothers make for us when we're sick.
Today, more so than ever, we're told we're either this or that, things that were good for us are now bad, there's division and there's incredulity, there's injustice all around. Things always feel like they're on hanging on the precipice of disaster. But in cooking, and sharing space over a table of food, all of this fades away. All we're left with is a connection, a sense of being alive, and so much love.
Grilled Tofu (makes around 6 medium tacos)
2 slabs of firm tofu
1/2 pack of Panggang BBQ Marinade
1 tbsp ginger & garlic paste
Salt to taste
1 tbsp oil (we used groundnut)
A handful of chopped coriander leaves
Cut the tofu into medium squares, and marinate for at least 30 minutes in the above ingredients.
Then, place on a baking tray and roast in the oven for around 20 minutes at 200C or until slightly crisp.
Roasted Red Pepper Salsa
1 large red pepper
3 cloves of garlic
4 vine tomatoes or 1 regular tomato
Coriander leaves - as much as you like!
A spritz of lime
Quarter the peppers and place them skin side up on a baking tray. Add the garlic cloves, skin on.
Add oil, a sprinkle of smoked paprika, and salt and mix well
Bake in a searing hot oven or grill on a griddle pan until the skins are charred.
Then, peel the skins off the peppers, and remove the garlic from their skins.
Add these to a food processor along with the tomatoes and coriander leaves.
Give everything a blitz. Add salt and lime juice to your liking.
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 ripe avocados, smashed with the back of a fork
Coriander leaves to your liking
Lime juice to your liking
1 green chilli, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Mix all the ingredients together and season with salt and lime juice to your taste.
Warm flour tortillas in a pan.
Add the guacamole, tofu, and salsa. Add crunchy veg of your choice for texture. This could be shredded lettuce, or even red cabbage!
Enjoy with your hands, and really get messy with it.
VEGETABLE KOFTA CURRY
To make the Koftas (makes 6-8 koftas)
0.5 head of a medium cauliflower cut into florets
A handful of cooked lentils of your choice (chickpeas, black beans, so on)
1 large potato, cut into cubes
0.5 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
2 cloves of garlic (do not cut)
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
A spritz of lime juice
Chickpea flour 0.5 cups or so
First, on a baking tray, toss the cauliflower and potato with the powdered spices, salt, oil, garlic, cumin seeds and curry leaf.
Roast in a low oven until everything is well-cooked and fragrant. Let it cool.
Then, transfer your veg into a bowl and mash it together with a fork or your hands. Add the lentils in now. You should have a nice textured mash.
Add chickpea flour a spoonful at a time. Stop adding the flour when you're able to shape the mash into balls. Check seasoning.
Form the dough into ping-pong sized balls.
Leave it in the fridge to set for at least half an hour.
When you're ready to fry the koftas, coat them in a dusting of chickpea flour and shallow fry in very hot oil until they turn golden brown.
To make the curry
1/2 pack of Batu Lesung Spice Company Classic Curry Paste
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tbsp ginger + garlic paste
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 large tomato, finely chopped
2 tbsp groundnut oil
100 ml coconut milk, loosened with water
Heat oil in a pan. When hot, add the cumin seeds and curry leaves and wait until they crackle.
Then add the onions and ginger and garlic paste, saute until they turn a light golden brown on a medium flame. Do not rush this!
Then, add tomatoes and salt, and stir. Wait until a paste forms.
Then, add the curry paste and saute until fragrant.
Finally, add the coconut milk, and add water until you get a gravy that is slightly watered down. Then, let it bubble away on a low flame until the curry thickens.
Add the koftas, and gently spoon the gravy over them. Cook for a further 5 minutes, and serve hot with rice.
Photos by Hizuan Zailani.