The joys of vegetarian plates are quite understated in a community that loves meat, or at least think that a meal isn't complete without having chicken, pork or beef main course. I grew up in Cebu, where the love of pork is inherent and apparent in lechon and pork barbecue at roadside eateries.
Around my senior year in college, I gave vegetarianism a try. It wasn't so much as getting fed up with meat; on the contrary, it was because I was bothered that the demand for so much meat was polluting our planet and contributing to global warming. It was only much later, almost a decade after, when I was convinced to return to eating meat responsibly, as long as I was comfortable with the source of meat, and what the supplier was doing to raise healthy animals and keep farms sustainable, not just profitable. It is more difficult said than done, and I know while I have lapsed into a no-questions-asked consumerism -- when salivating over a sizzling plate of sisig, do you even wonder if the pork bits came from a farm that practices ethical processes? Or do you just bite heaping spoonful after spoonful, content at having your cravings satisfied anytime you want? A philosophical quandary, or just simply, feeding our primary needs (i.e. hunger).
These days, I still like to take a breather in between the incredible range of food choices we are privileged to partake of whenever we want, and whip up something with vegetables. Preparing vegetables does not have to bland nor overly oily. It's all about procuring fresh crops, seasoning them with aromatics and spices, and serving them fresh and crunchy.
The recipe below is my take on ma jiang mian 麻酱面, or spicy vegetarian noodles, that are a staple in Taiwan's night markets and street food stalls. It is usually served cold, and topped with steamed vegetables, peanut crunches and scallions. My version uses julienned carrots, cut wing beans (also known as sigarilyas locally), Romaine lettuce, celery, and sesame seeds, and skipped the scallions altogether. For the sauce, I mixed a combination of sesame oil, peanut butter, chilli oil, soy sauce, vinegar and red chilli flakes.
There's also another noodle variety that my sister and I are obsessed with, called tea seed oil noodles, made of mee sua, tea seed oil, sesame oil and soy sauce, and topped with wolfberries. The dish is delicate and fragrant. I can only dream of flying again and having this bowl of noodles.
Cooking time: 6 minutes
1 pack thin wheat noodles or soba
1 carrot, peeled and julienned
2-3 stalks celery, cut in small coins. Separate leaves for topping
4-5 wing beans, cut in small quarters
5 leaves from romaine lettuce, cut in thirds
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 tablespoon chilli oil
6 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon ground peanuts (optional)
1. Boil noodles in water for 3 minutes. Take out noodles and wash in cold running water. Set aside. Leave boiling water in saucepan.
2. Boil carrots, celery and wing beans in water for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, assemble romaine lettuce on a deep plate or bowl.
Once noodles have cooled, place on bed of lettuce. Coat noodles with half-tablespoon of sesame oil.
3. Make the sauce by combining sesame oil, peanut butter, chilli oil, soy sauce and chilli flakes. Turn off heat. Drain saucepan. Top noodles with cooked vegetables. Pour sauce in. Toss everything to combine.
Top with sesame seeds and ground peanuts (you can skip the peanuts too if you are allergic to it).