I still remember my cousin telling me a while back about how I would go trumpeting around when I was younger on my high horse, informing anyone and everyone in the family house that I was not going to eat animals when I “grew up”–because going vegetarian, obviously, was not something one simply did as a kid. It was a big deal. It was a responsibility. It was a way of stalling on something that I knew even at the tender age of nine and a half would mean lots of personal sacrifices. What can I say? I’m a natural procrastinator–born, bred, raised. My parents deny that they have anything to do with it, but of course you always have to take what they say with a grain of salt: for example, when I accused my mom of this incurable procrastinatory disease last week, she vehemently denied it–as she played a round of Mah-Jong matching tiles instead of doing her work.
So about three years ago, when I started seriously considering for the first time going “all-out vegetarian,” the prospect frankly frightened me a little bit. Located in the heart of good ol’ liberal Berkeley, I had been in a prime place for the slow food movement, and it wouldn’t be a typical day without receiving a polemic-laden flier on animal cruelty and the current state of factory farms, not to mention the abhorrent sorts of “regulations” that govern what makes it to our plates.
I was also reading Michael Pollan for the first time around then. He’s a prolific journalist and writer who has done some of the best investigative journalism–not to mention amazing reporting in general–about the current state of American attitudes towards food, the love-hate relationship we have with it today, and why we should care. I could go on and on about his profound work, but I feel like it’s more fair to let him speak for himself.
The two books you should know about if you’re at all interested in the topic of food reporting and culture are The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Not to go on a sappy sentimental tangent (which I realize I’m doing anyway), but these books changed my life. Seriously. You remember that line from Barrington’s Peter Pan where a fairy is born every time a new baby laughs for the first time? For every person who picks up a copy of Michael Pollan’s books, I’m pretty sure a new foodie is born. And not just your run-of-the-mill, Yelp-monsterific foodie. Foodies who are really passionate about not only what we eat, but why we care about what we eat, too. Foodies, I’d like to think, like me.
I seriously think Michael should just redirect all of his online book summaries and reviews to this page. Forget the canned words of praise from high and mighty editors of Tit-for-Tat Periodical–I’m practically doing his advertising for him, and with good reason. Did I ever tell you that I tried to get an interview with him for a journalism class I took? Yeah. I got a very sweet email from his secretary telling me that he was off being famous and doing book tours, which, you know, sounds like a perfectly good excuse to me.
His books thoughtfully discuss the problem that we living in developed countries face with food surplus–specifically, cheap, processed, and mass-produced food. “Food,” I should also say, with big fat quotation marks–know that Wonder Bread you get from the store? Ever wonder what goes into it, or why it’s wonder bread? Hmm…
Anyway, I said that I would let you read that one on your own, and I’m not keeping my promises. The point about all this is that after reading Michael Pollan’s thought-provoking work, I decided that I’d give it a shot.
For more than a year, I yoyo’ed between being a full-fledged vegetarian and not. It wasn’t that I missed meat at all–in fact, it’s always been relatively easy for me to skip it, to the point where my parents have come up with ingenious measures to slip in meat where I least expect to find it, like pork in my tofu or beef in my soup. But I am very much concerned about the unbounded and unscrutinized tyranny of factory farming practices, especially when we consider how much time people spend investigating and advertising other causes, like animal adoption and animal testing. (Not to say these aren’t great causes–they absolutely are–but when you consider how many Sarah Mclachlan commercials we see touting animal shelter adoptions, it seems cruelly unfair to think about how many born-to-be-slaughtered animals are dying in the most miserable, lonely conditions ever seen–or, rather, unseen.)
One of the things I love about Pollan’s books is his conclusion: unlike a lot of the look-at-us-we’re-so-green or the-only-interaction-I-will-henceforth-have-with-animals-is-petting-the-fluffy-chickens-I-raise books, Pollan concludes after all that it’s okay for him, personally, to be omnivorous. Sustainability and health are important, and making wise choices about our food is critical–but it shouldn’t be about limiting. Food is about living. You hear about people hating their jobs, or leaving their marriages–but food is a natural go-to for all of us when that happens. As the saying goes–and I subscribe heavily to this one–“Forget love–I’d rather fall in chocolate!”
Fast-Forward to Today:
Even now, three years later and in an entirely new city, I’m still struggling with the idea of vegetarianism. I no longer call myself a vegetarian–I am a “pseudo-vegetarian,” a “flexitarian,” whatever you want to call it. I’d like to think that I think about labels like “vegetarian” or “vegan” less, but the truth is that I don’t. I still feel guilty every time I go home and sit down to meat dishes with my family–it’s a huge part of my life and culture, and I realize that meat is still something that I eat because it’s associated with so many fond memories for me. I haven’t given it up entirely, even if I eat so little I could pass for a vegetarian by most lenient definitions.
I do, however, make a conscious effort to make smarter choices, like explaining to people about why I do what I do, as well as take more time to shop for food, prepare it, and share it. That’s how this food blog–like many other food blogs out there, maybe even yours–was born. I’m a tried and true foodie, or “the biggest foodie many of us know,” as my friend told me jokingly over dinner last night. But I don’t consider myself a foodie for foodie’s sake, or health’s sake, or even my own sake, as I do for awareness’ sake. People deserve to know, to share, to learn, and to learn to love learning about food. So that’s where I’m at now.
Of course, super-serious posts and thoughts also make me have a super-monstrous appetite, which is where this next recipe comes in handy. (I made it for a “healthy food” potluck while my friends and I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives, and it went over like a maelstrom, blew everything out of the water. The boys brought pizza. Vegetarian pizza. Boys will be boys.)
Anyway, hope that’s enough food for thought for the moment–happy reading, and happy eatings!
The ingredients to a successful spring roll: rice wrappers, tofu, pickled carrots and daikon, vermicelli noodles, and lettuce.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Throw in the dried vermicelli noodles and cook until al dente (approximately 3-5 minutes).
Meanwhile, in a non-stick frying pan, heat up some oil and fry your tofu on all sides.
When you’ve finished preparing all of the ingredients, fill a medium bowl with hot water. Quickly dip in the rice wrapper so that all parts of it are wet, but be sure not to dip it so long that it gets soggy. It will continue to soften as you make the wrap.
Place the dipped wrapper on a plate, leaving about an inch or so hanging off the edge. (This will make it easier to pick up without ripping.) Layer your vegetable ingredients: lettuce, carrots, daikon, and cilantro. Make sure you leave at least 1 – 2 inches on each side for easy rolling.
Slap on your vermicelli noodles. Almost there!
Finally, add the grand finale–fried tofu! To roll: Carefully fold in the two flaps opposite each other on the plate (not the flap that’s hanging over the edge). These will be the ends of your roll. Then take the hanging flap and roll it tightly over the filling. The dampness of the rice wrapper should keep it sealed nicely together.
Ingredients for a fantastic honey peanut sauce! (Note about this peanut sauce: It is my absolute favorite sauce of all time. I make it for just about everything: sauteed rice noodles, vegetable stir-fries, appetizer dips…learn this one by heart and you’ll never be short on a great meal again!)
Tofu Vegetarian Spring Rolls with Honey Peanut Dipping Sauce
Yield: 12 spring rolls
- 1 medium carrot, julienned
- 2 – 3 oz. daikon, julienned
- 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 1 package firm tofu
- 1/4 cup soy sauce (for tofu marinade)
- 1/3 cup brown sugar (for tofu marinade)
- 2 tablespoons honey (for tofu marinade)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or 1/2 teaspoon chili sauce (for tofu marinade)
- A few leaves of cilantro, to taste
- 4 oz. dried vermicelli noodles
- 12 rice wrappers, 8-inch diameter
For peanut sauce:
- 1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
- 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
- 2/3 cup honey
- 1/3 – 1/2 cup rice vinegar (adjust to taste)
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil (or any oil you have on hand)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- In a bowl, combine distilled vinegar and white sugar. Place daikon and carrots in bowl to pickle; store at least overnight, or multiple nights if you can to let then soak up the flavor. (If you’re making this recipe on the day of the meal, don’t worry! Just cut up your carrots and/or daikon and include them in the rolls as they are, or give them a quick stir-fry to soften them up first.)
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add vermicelli and cook over medium heat until al dente-soft, or about 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain noodles and set aside.
- Cut tofu into twelve slices and pat dry. In a medium, flat-bottomed dish, combine tofu marinade ingredients (soy sauce, brown sugar, honey, and red pepper flakes or chili sauce). Marinate tofu for at least 30 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
- In a non-stick frying pan, heat up oil and fry tofu until outer edges become crispy. Flip tofu when each side browns, making sure to brown the outer edges as well. When finished, remove tofu from pan and pat dry to remove excess oil. Set aside.
- Fill a medium bowl with hot water and gather up the rest of your ingredients. It’s time to assemble your spring roll! Quickly dip wrapper in hot water until all parts are wet. (Be careful not to dip too long, otherwise your wrapper will get soggy. It will continue to soften as you make your roll.) Place spring roll wrapper on a plate, leaving one edge hanging about one inch off the edge. Layer lettuce, carrots, daikon, cilantro, vermicelli, and tofu.
- Carefully fold up the two opposing edges that are completely on the plate. These will be the ends of your spring roll. Then grasp the side that is hanging over the edge and bring it over the fillings. Tightly roll the wrapper until your roll is completely sealed. Voila! It’s spring roll eating time.
- For the peanut sauce: Mix all of the peanut sauce ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve with spring rolls. Can be stored for up to 24 hours before flavors begin to meld in possibly funny ways.