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Taking a trip to Thailand and catering to a vegan

July 3, 2010
By Alec Rader

I decided to challenge myself last week. There were two things I wanted to accomplish and I was determined to succeed.

As a fan of a specific nerd-themed TV show, where Thai food is consumed on a weekly basis, I wanted to try this exotic food. However, as many people who make West Virginia their home know, it's easier to find ramps than a Thai restaurant. The only other option, therefore, is to make the stuff yourself. There's an "exotic food" section of my favorite grocery store that offers a humble selection of Thai and other Asian food choices.

Challenge one: Create a Thai dinner that is delicious and easy.

Two friends of mine were married this past Sunday. The Friday before, I helped host a stag night for the groom. A demure couple, neither the bride nor the groom wanted a "traditional" bachelor/bachelorette party. For the guys, we spent the night watching a marathon of the original Star Wars trilogy. I was in charge of the cake. A simple enough task, except for the diet of my college roommate who would be in attendance: Bovis, who is a vegan.

Challenge two: Bake and frost a cake that was vegan-friendly.

The History

Thailand has a storied history with its food including several cookbooks written by the royal family. One of the only southern Asian countries not to have been colonized, Thailand has done well to place its cuisine throughout the Western world. Thai food has been gaining in popularity for the past decade and promises to only continue.

The food generally has a strong base in spicy curry, peanut, coconut and vegetable flavors. Recipes often call for one, or all, of these ingredients alongside or covering beef, chicken, pork, tofu, rice and/or noodles. Thailand's national food has been influenced by multiple outside and inside sources, including the topography of the country itself.

With sweeping mountains, valleys, rivers and coastlines, the food of Thailand is as diverse as the landscape. One tie that binds it all together, as with most Asian countries, is rice. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, rice simply as the grain isn't the only place it appears in the Thai diet. Noodles, both dry and fresh, as well as dumplings made with rice flour appear in dishes across the country.

While the term vegetarian is a relatively new term, the concept has been around since before the common era. There are specific types of vegetarianism that have developed throughout the years. Many of the variations on the theme include not eating meat but including fish in the diet. Others include veganism (no meat or other animal byproducts including eggs and dairy), fruitarianism (only eating fruit) and ovolactarianism (like veganism, but includes eggs and milk).

The reasons one becomes a vegetarian or vegan or ovolactarian vary. For many, it comes down to the treatment of animals, whether it is how they are kept before they are slaughtered, how they are slaughtered, how the eggs and/or milk are produced or extracted or a combination. There are a few people who confine themselves to a vegetarian diet for the simple reason they don't like meat.

Notable, or infamous as the case may be, vegetarians include Gandhi, Voltaire, Leo Tolstoy and Adolph Hitler.

The Recipes

My friend, for whom I was assigned cake-making duty, is a vegan. No meat, no eggs, no dairy and no non-ingestible products involving animals (e.g. down comforters, leather jackets or wool sweaters).

I found a recipe online that had no eggs, milk or bacon of any kind. Following the recipe, everything seemed fine. It looked like cake batter, it tasted like cake batter and if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck. That is where I made my first mistake.

The instructions said to pour the mixture into a floured and greased loaf pan. I, however, wanted the cake to look like a traditional sheet cake. And, besides, I bought a sheet cake pan and I was bound and determined to use it. I sprayed the sucker down, floured it and poured in the chocolatey concoction. After a short time in the 350-degree oven, my apartment was full of cakey smells. What came out of the oven was what, my photographer said, "looked like a piece of cement."

Undaunted, I frosted it and decorated it. The flavor was fine and the same photographer who said it was cement-like said it was more moist than most cakes. After all was said and done, doubling the batter and dividing it into two 8-inch brownie pans, I could have had a traditional-looking layered cake that was not cement-like.

In the Thai kitchen, I followed all the directions as prescribed with two exceptions.

I could not find a piece of flank steak and used a bottom round instead. The result was a little tough, but not inedible. Flank would have been better.

I also could not find red curry paste at my local grocery store. As a substitute, I used a pad-Thai sauce and the end result was delicious, probably not as spicy as curry would be, but good nonetheless.

The meat marinaded in syrup for 30 minutes. Relatively new to grilling, at least anything beyond hamburgers, the meat was a little pink for my comfort after the suggested cooking time. Back on the grill it went for another 15 minutes. The marinade was also used as a glaze, after a short simmer on the stove.

Between the meat and the glaze and the rice, the dish was full of unique flavors that wasn't hard to put on a plate. Pairing the meat with coconut, ginger, garlic rice was perfect. The two tastes complimented each other very well with the flavor in the rice amplified by the grilled meat.

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