Life

Sasha Gill: The student who's finding vegan ways to create her favourite Asian dishes

Just because your diet is plant-based doesn't mean you can't eat pad Thai and 'butter chicken', Singapore-born student and cookery writer Sasha Gill tells Ella Walker

Singapore-born Sasha Gill (22), a food writer and medicine student at Oxford University

THERE are many reasons why you might prefer to not throw yourself into a vegan lifestyle. Perhaps you can't face a world without cheese, or know that boiled eggs and soldiers, or bacon sandwiches make you far too happy to consider giving them up. The stumbling block might be beef burgers, or pepperoni pizza, or your nan's roast chicken on Sundays.

However, thanks to Sasha Gill – author of new cookbook Jackfruit And Blue Ginger – at least missing your favourite foods from the cuisines of China, Japan, India, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia wouldn't be a problem you'd need to contend with.

Singapore-born Gill (22), a medicine student at Oxford University, has made it her mission to conjure up vegan alternatives to her Asian favourites – from Japanese yaki soba and nasi lemak (a traditional Malaysian breakfast), to Thai massaman curry and satay chicken (inspired by the 'satay man' who would cycle down her street in Singapore and cook fresh satay to order, on a grill on his bike).

As a teenager, Gill had played with the idea of going vegetarian, but then made the wholesale switch to veganism when she moved to start boarding school in the UK.

"It was a good moment, a good opportunity," she says of making the change, as at home she hadn't wanted to "inconvenience my family" by demanding separate meat-free dinner options. Now, almost six years into veganism, her parents don't mind at all – and "in fact, I do most of the cooking when I go home," notes Gill.

That's not to say that facing a plant-based diet wasn't something of an adjustment for her to begin with. Although, perhaps more extreme was going from the wildly colourful, cultural mingling and myriad cuisines represented and eaten in Singapore, to Britain's somewhat duller offering.

"It was a bit of a shock," Gill concedes, but adds there were some unexpected benefits too. "I went mad buying fruit – it's so expensive in Singapore, but it's much more affordable here."

As a student, affordability is undoubtedly an element of Gill's recipes, and she's adamant that "you really can be vegan on a budget". Considering, also, that her food blogging (at thesashadiaries.com) and photography career took off from the cramped basement room of a student house, one that didn't really have any windows or natural light ("I had to buy these huge photographer's lights"), and this was on top of a tough, all-hours medical degree, she's adept at stretching ingredients and making the most of what little time you've got.

But even she doesn't always have time to indulge in her fluffy peanut pancakes ("They're like peanut clouds") or teriyaki tofu, and will happily try packaged vegan substitutes and products. "There's much more availability now," Gill muses. "I find it interesting seeing what my non-vegan friends think of them, but normally I can do without, or I make my own versions."

She's definitely noticed a change in peoples' reactions towards veganism too. "People don't panic so much when they ask me for dinner, and tend to just serve vegan food for everyone. It's not really a problem."

And for those who do need a nudge towards appreciating the potential deliciousness of plant-based dinners, the dish she finds most satisfying to feed people doesn't involve jackfruit at all – despite its top billing in the book title. It's her vegan 'butter chicken'...

"I love giving that to people, because it doesn't have butter or chicken in it!" The joy is in the surprise that it's still totally delicious.

:: Jackfruit And Blue Ginger: Asian Favourites Made Vegan by Sasha Gill is published by Murdoch Books, priced £18.99. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.

VEGAN FENNEL AND PARSNIP TARKA DAL

(Serves 4)

200g red split lentils

1tsp ground turmeric

2 bay leaves

1L vegetable stock

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 5cm long batons

2 fennel bulbs, tops and roots cut off, outer layer peeled with a vegetable peeler, then diced

1tsp vegetable oil

1tsp cumin seeds

3/4tsp salt

75g coriander, leaves only, finely chopped

35g flaked almonds, toasted

Naan breads, rice or chapattis to serve

For the tempering:

1tsp vegetable oil

1tbsp mustard seeds

1tsp fenugreek seeds

1tbsp cumin seeds

Pinch of asafoetida – optional

1 red onion, finely chopped

5cm ginger, finely chopped

2 green chillies, deseeded and finely chopped

2 large tomatoes, diced

1tsp chilli powder

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the lentils, turmeric, bay leaves and stock in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and leave to cook gently for about 30 minutes. In a bowl, mix the fennel and parsnip with the oil, cumin and a quarter of a teaspoon of the salt. Tip out onto a baking tray and roast for 25-30 minutes, or until tender.

Meanwhile, in a medium non-stick frying pan, temper the spices: Pour in the oil and set over medium heat. When it's hot, fry the mustard, fenugreek, cumin seeds and asafoetida until they're fragrant, the mustard seeds 'pop' and the pungent aroma of the asafoetida starts to subside.

Add the onion, ginger and chillies, and continue to fry until the onion is soft and translucent. Pour in the diced tomatoes and chilli powder, and cook for a further three to four minutes until the tomatoes have softened.

When the lentils are creamy and ready, season with the remaining half teaspoon of salt. Pour over the tempered spices and oil, then add the roasted fennel and parsnip, and mix well.

Garnish with coriander leaves and flaked almonds, and serve with naan breads, rice or chapattis.

VEGAN ALMOND AND SEMOLINA SUGEE CAKE

(Serves 12)

115g vegan butter

300g fine semolina

250ml plant milk

75g plain flour

130g firmly packed icing sugar

130g vegan yoghurt or 125ml coconut milk

1tsp baking powder

1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda

Pinch of salt

1/2tsp vanilla extract

1/2tsp almond extract

1tbsp agave syrup

1tbsp brandy

1/2tsp ground cinnamon

40g finely chopped almonds

2tbsp apricot jam, for brushing

Flaked almonds and whole pistachios, to garnish

For the vegan marzipan:

150g ground almonds

110g sifted icing sugar

1tbsp maple syrup

1tsp lemon juice

1/4tsp almond extract – optional

Method:

Cream the vegan butter in a large bowl to soften it, then mix in the semolina and plant milk. Cover the bowl and chill in the fridge overnight to soften the semolina. Next day, preheat the oven to 180C, and grease and line an 18cm round cake tin. Take the bowl of semolina from the fridge and sift in the flour and icing sugar. Stir well, then add the yoghurt, baking powder, baking soda, salt, vanilla and almond extracts, agave syrup, brandy and cinnamon.

Mix until just combined, then fold in the almonds. Pour the batter into the tin and bake for 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the marzipan. In a food processor, blitz the ground almonds for 30-60 seconds to make them a little finer – but don't over-process or you'll end up with almond butter! Tip out into a large bowl and sift in the icing sugar. Drizzle in the maple syrup, lemon juice, one tablespoon of water, and the almond extract, if using. Knead until it starts to come together. Shape into a ball, then flatten into a disc – this will make it easier to roll it out later. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour before using.

Let the cake cool completely before turning out of the tin. Roll out the marzipan into an 18cm circle. Warm the apricot jam in a small pan (or the microwave) and brush over the top of the cake. Lay the marzipan onto the cake, then garnish with almonds and pistachios.

VEGAN PEKING JACKFRUIT PANCAKES

(Makes 12 pancakes - enough for 4-6 people as a starter)

1x400g tin young green jackfruit, prepared (drained, rinsed, tough cores, seeds and seed pods removed)

1tsp sesame oil

2.5cm ginger, finely chopped

2tbsp rice wine, dry white wine or apple juice

1/2tsp five spice powder

Pinch of black pepper

1tbsp dark soy sauce

100g hoisin sauce

Thin strips of carrot, cucumber and spring onion to serve

For the pancake dough:

225g plain flour, sifted

Pinch of salt

170ml boiling water

1tbsp oil, for brushing

Method:

First make the pancake dough. In a large bowl, knead the flour, salt and water until you have a smooth, elastic dough, about five minutes, adding a teaspoon more flour if it seems too sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C. Place the shredded jackfruit in a loaf tin. Whisk together the sesame oil, ginger, wine, five spice, black pepper and soy sauce and pour over the jackfruit. Roast for 15-20 minutes or until very tender – there may still be liquid in the tin, and that's OK.

Unwrap the dough, roll it into a log and divide into 12. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, then flatten slightly by patting it with the palm of your hand. Brush a thin layer of oil over six of the flattened dough balls, then place the unoiled dough balls on top of them to form sandwiches. Use a rolling pin to roll out each sandwich into a flat pancake, flipping it midway so both sides are rolled evenly.

Set a dry non-stick frying pan over medium heat, place a pancake in it and cook until it is puffy and the bottom is flecked with brown, about two to three minutes. Flip it over and cook the other side for two to three minutes, then remove. Carefully separate the two layers to give you two pancakes. Keep on a plate, covered with a clean tea towel, while you cook the rest, separating them as well, to give you 12 in total.

Transfer the jackfruit to a serving platter. To eat, scoop a little bit of jackfruit onto a pancake, top with a drizzle of hoisin sauce and a few slivers of carrot, cucumber and spring onion, then wrap up and enjoy.

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