For the last few weeks, I have been surrounded by youngish people gripped with some sudden illness and concerned spouses/girlfriends calling me about what they should feed their male partners now that they have been certified “sick”. Pity I don’t get those kind of calls from as many concerned men asking me about what to feed their women.

I have lots of answers to that one. The “sicknesses” in question range from various coronary-related problems to inflammation of the pancreas, diabetes and cholesterol. The other newly-emerging health problems are allergies – these range from MSG or ajinomoto, artificial colour and flavour (which exists in most processed foods), wheat or gluten, nuts and more commonly lactose intolerance which means ‘no’ to any dairy.

Stumbling blocks

To my mind this has been caused by a combination of things; gradual build up, past excesses, bad eating habits, increasing amount of artificial rubbish in our food which gradually breaks down any immunity we have built up, pollution, lack of exercise, lack of leisure time and of course the biggest culprit of them all, stress.

How to make a restricted diet interesting seems to be the stumbling block. The eternal debate of taste versus health. I believe it definitely is possible. It requires awareness and a dash of creativity, things which unfortunately, most hospitals and many doctors lack. They tell you what not to eat but aren’t very helpful when it comes to making what you can eat more appetising or enjoyable.

Soya is a good ingredient to start including in your diet. My children used to love flavoured soya milk. Soya beans and flour have started appearing in supermarkets. Tofu, or beancurd, has been on the “right things to eat” health hit list for many years. It is made from crushed soya beans in the same way that paneer or cottage cheese is made from milk. They take soy-beans and soak them to soften them up, grind with water into a puree. This is then boiled and the curds and whey are separated. This is the way tofu has been made in the East for over two thousand years. In fact, tofu is one of the oldest “processed” foods known to man.

The exotic Asian food

Tofu was earlier considered either an exotic Asian food or “hippie food” from the 60s and only recently did it finally graduate into the “serious nutrition” category. It is said to have cholesterol lowering and cancer fighting properties, is low in fat, is completely vegetarian and dairy-free and is high in protein.

The downside is that it is pretty bland to taste and boring to look at. This does mean that you can pep it up with almost anything. You can use it much in the same way as paneer. You can also puree it into a milk shake and use it in desserts like a cheesecake instead of cream cheese or curds. I came across a fantastic book called the Art of Tofu, a few years ago, by a smiling Californian “health food chef to the stars” with vegetarian recipes for tacos, soups, cakes, burgers and shakes.

I recently visited a relatively new dining space called Vintage Asia at the JW Marriott in Kolkata. It looks like a space where good Chinese food is served without the clichéd lanterns and dragons. Although it is called Vintage Asia, the menu is largely Chinese with a bit of Thai but it is traditional Chinese that reigns supreme here. This is probably because chef Alex is from Taiwan and specialises in Cantonese food.

His dim sums are undoubtedly the best you will find in the city. Apart from the unique and authentic flavours of his dishes, what is extraordinary is the presentation. The chunky braised home-made bean curd with spinach and oyster sauce was at another level of taste, health and sophistication completely. I especially appreciated the fact that the bean curd was made in house. It was the texture of snow with a light but significant flavour. I would definitely go back for this dish again and again. Here is the recipe.

Vintage Asia at the JW Marriott in Kolkata looks like a space where good Chinese food is served without the clichéd lanterns and dragons
Homemade bean curd with spinach in oyster sauce
From the Kitchen of: Chef Alexsander, Vintage Asia (serves 2)

Ingredients:

To make bean curd
250ml soya milk
3 whole eggs
Salt to taste
Mushroom powder to taste
Sugar to taste

To make spinach
100g spinach
Chopped garlic to taste
1 tsp vegetable oil

Method for bean curd:
Mix together eggs, soya milk and the seasonings. Pour into a tray which is at least 1 inch deep. Steam for 15 minutes in an idli or vegetable steamer until set. Remove from steamer. Keep in refrigerator for 1 hour. Remove and cut into large squares.

Method for the spinach:
Stir fry the garlic in the oil for 30 seconds. Add the chopped spinach and stir fry quickly. You should get a heady aroma of garlic. Remove from heat. Keep it aside.

To make the sauce
1 tbsp oil
½ tsp minced garlic
15g button mushroom
15g shitake mushroom
1 tbsp vegetarian oyster sauce
1 tsp light soya
1 tsp dark soya
¼ tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp mushroom powder
½ tsp corn starch for thickening mixed with quarter cup of water
Chopped spring onions for garnish

Method
Heat oil in a wok, add the minced garlic. Fry on a high flame. Mix all the ingredients and adjust the consistency. Put the corn starch mixed with water to thicken it while finishing.

Final plating

•Make a bed of tossed spinach.
•Deep fry the bean curd and place on top of the spinach.
•Pour the sauce on top of the bean curd
•Garnish with chopped spring onion

Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

From HT Brunch