India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
December 20, 2009

Naturally, Good

Text by Mandira Nevatia. Photographs by Ankur Chaturvedi

From a young bride who had trouble making tea to one of Asia’s foremost vegan lifestyle experts, she counts the cooking of Buddhist monks and her own roots in Indian vegetarianism as prime inspirations. Verve chats with master chef Hema Parekh

There is so much to eat,” exclaims Hema Parekh, creator of cutting-edge lifestyle cookbook The Asian Vegan Kitchen. A vegan herself, she describes her choice as a harmonious way of life, a respect for the natural order of things. Veganism avoids utilising anything made from animal and animal by-products, be it food, clothing or other essentials. Parekh believes we all live only once, so depriving another living creature of their right to live is questionable. As a fervent advocate of the inherent organic strength of an ingredient, Parekh’s philosophy is this: the essence of a meal is in its flavour, and that succulent savoury taste that we cherish in our meats can be prepared identically in a vegan meal. Spices and seasonings are the life forces of Parekh’s recipes, and her blueprint for health proves that you can be a vegan and still enjoy varying cuisines, without depriving yourself of flavour.

Parekh’s journey to becoming a master chef is a testament to fate. Parekh journeyed to Japan as a young bride and immediately decided to learn the language. But adjusting from a large, devoted family unit to a household of two was a lonely transition. Back then, she could not make a cup of tea. The first time she hosted a soirée for eight, she spent 30 days in preparation for the big night. Parekh, raised a vegetarian, could not imagine a life where compassion for all living things wasn’t an ingrained belief. In Tokyo, it was a hard-fought assimilation into a culture with little popular conception of vegetarianism. But she prepared simple vegetarian meals for her acquaintances and soon, the appetising, zesty flavours of Indian foods turned acquaintances into friends, and a passion into career.

Parekh’s initial instruction in Japanese cooking was with Buddhist priests, who were purely vegetarian. As she developed her personal cooking style, her recipes evolved and her path expanded. From giving lessons to a small group at home, she began running cooking classes at the prestigious Tokyo American Club.  From meticulously pouring over menus for her students, she matured to become an expert planner, a quality she finds invaluable as a chef. Japanese health and nutrition magazines sought out her expertise, and ultimately commissioned from her multiple cookbooks.

Today, she is accustomed to planning meals for a 100, and even creating royal platters for Japan’s blue-blooded. She is an internationally renowned chef, an accomplished author, a charitable emissary, and a devoted mother and wife. Her home is always warm and welcoming, and the food she cooks is distinct, vibrantly healthful and wholesome. When Parekh puts on her chef’s hat, her mind, body and soul become one. The ingredients in front of her are pigments of colour waiting to create a masterpiece. As Parekh cooks, she is inspired by the people for whom she is preparing the meal. Each dish, she says, is prepared with love, passion and a keen intuition for flavour.

Parekh vows that an equally important part of a meal is the presenta–tion. She makes that extra effort to create a centerpiece, light some candles, arrange the food in small delectable portions, and present it like the art form that it is. “If you don’t think you’re worth it, who else will?” So dedicated is Parekh to her artistry, she often makes her own glassware for serving. Parekh is adept at creating beautifully engraved crystal dinnerware. She partakes in an intricate process that involves using sophisticated technology to sandblast glass, and create ornate items of beauty.

Parekh describes herself a life long student, eager to learn and blossom in an environment of creativity. As such, she committed to learning Bonseki, the ancient Japanese art of creating miniature landscapes on black lacquer trays using white sand, pebbles, and small rocks, painted with delicate instruments like feathers. Parekh is one of the few remaining Bonseki artists in the world today, and her Bonseki masters have aptly named her ‘Purple Moon,’ purple symbolising royalty, and the moon standing for peace; a perfect union.

Parekh hopes to one day open a restaurant, and is currently working on a fourth book. She recently moved back to India, and as fate comes full circle, in Mumbai, too, she has a group of enthusiastic students waiting to seek her instruction.

The Asian Vegan Kitchen includes over 200 recipes from nine countries including India, China, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and, of course, Japan. Mothers from all over the world email Parekh with enthusiastic appreciation; her recipes finally make them able to prepare mouth-watering meals for their environmentally conscious children. The key, she maintains, is balance.

Hema’s recipe for Renkon Kimpira (Stir-fried lotus root)

Kimpira is made when the vegetables are quickly stir-fried in hot oil and flavoured with soy sauce, mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) and sugar. It is usually made in a large quantity as it keeps for a couple of days. Lotus root has a crunchy texture and a flower-like appearance when sliced, which makes it my personal favourite. Roasted sesame seeds give an attractive finish, while the hot chillies bring a fiery flavour to this dish.

Ingredients:
1 tbsp vegetable oil
300g lotus root
1 red dry chilli, finely sliced

Seasoning:
2 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sake
1 tsp castor sugar
2 tbsp soy
2 tbsp dashi (Japanese cooking stock)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp roasted sesame seeds

Method:
1. Scrape the outer skin of the lotus root and cut into 3mm thin slices. Soak in water with a little vinegar added to it to prevent it from discolouring.

2. Heat the oil in a broad saucepan and stir-fry the lotus root quickly over high heat for a minute to glaze the vegetables with the oil. Add the chillies and mix.

3. Lower the heat and gradually add the mirin, sake, sugar, soy sauce and dashi. Cover and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat and continue to stir-fry until most of the liquid is absorbed.

4. Drizzle the sesame oil and sprinkle the sesame seeds. Transfer to a serving dish and cool before serving.

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