Born to a Eurasian mother and Indian father, Sasha Gill’s childhood revolved around the kitchen. She learnt to read from the ghee-stained pages of her nana’s recipe book collection and helped her grandfather butter big round cake tins to fill semolina cake batter with. “Food was probably the first language I learnt, and indeed it is the language most used in my family.” Sasha recounts.
While she had always nursed the idea of adopting a vegan diet, she only made the switch after moving to the United Kingdom at the age of 16. While she says that her transition to a meatless diet was relatively easy, her biggest struggle was having to turn down her nana’s devil curry or her grandfather’s sugee cake on her visits home.
Nostalgic for flavours of home, she spent six years in her tiny university kitchen creating plant-based versions of the food from her youth. Her first cookbook Jackfruit and Blue Ginger is the culmination of that effort, featuring dishes from her childhood with a vegan spin.
Here’s what Sasha has to say about how she manages to enjoy the flavours of home, while adhering to a vegan diet.
Whenever someone asks me about Eurasian cuisine, I think… not of curry devil or pang susi – undeniably two of the most adored Eurasian dishes – but of sugee cake. It is a cake made out of semolina, butter, and an ungodly amount of egg yolk (it’s in the double digits). It is brushed with warmed apricot jam, which behaves like a glue to which you stick a thin layer of marzipan to enrobe it entirely. It is brought out whenever there is anything to be celebrated – for such an indulgent cake requires a bit of festivity. It was what I had every birthday, Christmas, Easter… and every event in between.
Growing up in a Eurasian/ Indian household… our cuisine was a melting pot of others. We had steamboat dinners and Christmas roasts, and made devil curry (a Eurasian stew made up of leftovers, so no two were ever the same) to follow any big feast – but it was still uniquely our own. Vegetables were always at the centre of our table. Though never a strict vegetarian, my Indian father always emphasized the need for meat to be a side in our meals, and vegetables to be the main event.
We should take the focus of a meal away from animal products and more towards plants because… the environment is suffering. And while I am in no way a vegan evangelist, I think it is important that this shift happens, even if it is something as little as having oat milk in your morning coffee instead of dairy.
One thing that I discovered while writing my books is… that so many Asian recipes are perfectly fine without meat, or a meat substitute. Vegan burgers are great, but you will always be comparing it to whatever it is trying to replicate or stand-in for. With Asian dishes, the wonderful melange of spices and herbs that go into cooking packs the dish so full of flavour that you don’t even need something to swap in for the chicken or the fish.
The key to flavourful vegetable-focused mealsis… to tap on umami. Umami is a sense that triggers a reaction from you through the glutamate receptors in your brain. Meat is naturally rich in glutamate, though there are other ways to trigger your receptors without the meat. I make a mean fish sauce substitute with seaweed and pineapple juice. There is this sauce that you can get from Thai supermarkets called ‘golden mountain sauce’, that has a similar aroma to shrimp paste. Miso is another umami bomb, which I like to add to my food, often with a bit of nori.
One food item that I miss with my new diet is… my nana’s sambal belacan. It was, and still is, difficult for me to say no to it, as it is so nostalgic to me. It will always hold a special place in my heart – but I love finding new ways to eat the old food I grew up with, and there is a certain kind of magic in that.
Since I moved to the UK, the one dish I miss the most is… popiah. Now, before leaving – I liked popiah, but I didn’t love it. I would never have listed them in my top 5 foods before moving away. I do now. I had a part-time job near Maxwell food court in Singapore that had a stall that served them plump and absolutely stuffed with juicy tendrils of stewed yam bean. But I didn’t realize how much I would miss them until they were taken away from me.
Some hard-to-find Singaporean ingredients in the UK are… yam bean and wrappers to make popiah with. To pacify my cravings, I make do with swede and spring roll wrappers, though kohlrabi works even better as a stand-in for yam bean if you can find it. Palm sugar in the UK is granulated and comes in a tiny jar, a huge contrast to the big blocks you get in Singapore. I usually use muscovado or coconut sugar instead. Dark soy sauce in the UK is not dark in the slightest – I usually mix it with agave or rice syrup to get that same syrupy, intense quality that we get back home. Ingredients that are almost impossible to source here are of the fresh variety – pandan leaves (for which I use extract as a substitute), lotus root, winter melons and so on. Supermarkets here are always getting better though. I can walk down the world food aisle at the one I am local to and grab glossy tamarind paste, the thick bark-y Indian cinnamon sticks, five different types of miso paste, canned bamboo shoots and water chestnuts… the world is my (vegetarian) oyster (sauce).
My favourite thing to cook for friends is… dal. At home, we always had some variety of it on the table at mealtimes, be it in the form of a red lentil dal, stewed down and crowned with a glistening tadka (tempered spices), or a dal makhani that is rich with coconut cream. You can change it almost completely by mixing up the spices you throw into the tadka. There is some alchemy at work there, and I am always in awe of how something so simple can be so devastating complex in flavour.
If I could give any aspiring vegan or vegetarian advice, it would be… to discuss it with a doctor who is happy to support you in doing it. This might mean a blood test ever so often, maybe even a B12 shot, but you will get valuable nutritional advice and on-going care. Trying to do it on your own is difficult and easy to get wrong. Also, start with the Asian recipes – make a dal, or a Thai curry packed to the brim with herbs and vegetables. You won’t miss the meat.