Permaculture guru and magical, edible garden owner Cecilia Macauley shows me how to prepare some incredibly tasty Japanese vegan fare. From the Japanese summertime favourite shiso tea that turned a magical ruby red to a simple but ridiculously tasty vegan soba noodle salad that has become my latest obsession!
"You are the average of the five people you hang around with and I love hanging around the bees. I feel so productive," says Cecilia, an ethereal wisp of a woman, floating past her bee hives and towards her herb piano where pendant-like eggplants grow alongside herbs. She's busy snipping things for our lunch.
Vegan soba salad and red shiso tea
Cecilia's house in Annandale is well known among neighbours and in the permaculture community. She keeps the front door open and every available surface sprouts something either deliciously edible or decorative. She lives here with her army of woofers and they get a meal and board in exchange for working. Cecilia also spends time in Japan teaching permaculture and her love of the country shows in the food that she cooks.
One of the most popular summertime drinks in Japan is shiso tea. Cecilia describes red shiso, "Just as in the 50's every house had a lemon tree, I believe every house should grow shiso each summer. Because its exotic, we don't have pests that know they can eat it. It loves the sun and grows in low, fluffy drifts, softening hard edges, disguising whatever's not pretty around your back doorstep. You harvest armfuls of it each week over summer to make shiso drink, and it cheerfully grows back. In the autumn, it produces delicious shiso flower-seeds, the ones you see as garnish at sushi shops. Thousands of them. They are amazing in ochazuke rice soup, little explosions of fragrant flavour. Then the seeds drop, the plants get eaten, or wither away. You pull them up, plant something else, forget about them. Then come next summer, they are back, all by themselves."
But even if you don't have access to red shiso you can still make hers soba salad easily. Cecilia's vegan soba salad is so delicious that it was all I could think about for days and I made it every day for close to a week much to Mr NQN's delight until I reminded myself that we had meat to cook. The key to make this so tasty are the marinated shiitake mushrooms that are so intensely umami that you simply don't miss meat. Cecilia always has a "tower of power" of containers in her fridge that contain the ingredients to make a soba salad.
She explains, "I like soba salad because it makes me look magical. Guests turn up at my house, I boil water for noodles, grab handfuls from the garden, see what's in my tupperware in my fridge, then assemble. It might be mustard greens, tatsoi, rocket, mitsuta or shiso. In the fridge is always butter-simmered sweet potato, red capsicum and more, ready to go. Frying takes attention. So does love and connection so as a designer, I've forbidden myself from frying when I have guests. The stress of it goes under the radar, but its there. Instead, I pre-simmer and store my favourite things so I can enjoy both food and guests properly. There is always long-life tofu or dried shitake ready for when I host vegans, and like every inner-city home, somehow little packs of pink sushi ginger keep on finding their way in."
Cecilia explains that for these magical shiitake mushrooms to work, you need to use dried shiitake mushrooms and not fresh ones as dried ones have a concentration of flavour. She gives me the recipe and I cook them in a large batch and toss them in salads or anywhere where I need a pop of flavour in place of meat. I won't ever become vegan because I love meat and seafood too much (Cecilia is also not vegan and loves butter) but it is nice to alternate food with vegetarian or vegan meals and this is where the soba salad comes in.
Vegan soba salad ingredients
I watch as Cecilia blanches snow peas, halves sweet cherry tomatoes, peels the skin off red capsicum and then tosses the soba in dressing before topping it with seri and mitsuba herbs from her garden. Mitsuba is also called Japanese parsley and has a three pronged leaf. But don't worry if your garden isn't as well furnished as hers. I also made this for a family picnic last weekend as there were a few vegans there and used whatever vegetables I had and it was very popular. Mr NQN wolfed down an enormous container of it and it's absolutely perfect for warmer days.
The soba itself only take 3 minutes to cook as they're so thin but make sure not to have this sitting around-the Japanese warn eaters not to let their soba get "too long"!
So tell me Dear Reader, are you much of a gardener? How often do eat vegetarian or vegan meals or do you think no meal is complete without meat? Have you ever tried red shiso?
Magical Red Shiso Tea
Recipes by Cecilia Macauley
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
- 5 cups red shiso, you can leave the slender branches on
- 1.5 litres water
- Juice of 2 lemons
- Honey to taste
Step 1 - Rinse the red shiso leaves well under running water. Put the water onto the boil and tear up the leaves roughly discarding any woody stems. Simmer the leaves for 5 minutes. It will be a dark brown liquid. Strain and discard the leaves into a compost container.
Step 2 - Add in the lemon juice and watch it turn bright ruby red. Sweeten with honey (it may need quite a bit of honey). You can also add soda water to this and keep it in the fridge.
Shiitake Vegan Soba Salad
- 200g/7ozs. soba noodles
- 1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 4 marinated shiitake mushrooms (recipe below)
- 3 tablespoons finely sliced green onion
- 1/4 cup blanched snow peas
- Grilled, skinned capsicum
- 1 tablespoon pickled ginger
- Mitsuba and seri herbs (if available)
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon pickled ginger juice
- 1 teaspoon yuzu wasabi
- A few drops roasted sesame oil
Amazing shiitake mushrooms. This makes more than you will need but they are so delicious. A little goes a long way as they are quite salty.
- 100g/3.5ozs. dried shiitake mushrooms (do not use fresh, they have a different flavour)
- 2 cups boiling water
- 5 tablespoons mirin
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 sachet kombu dashi
- 1 cup water
Step 1 - Soak the shiitakes in the boiling water in a container with a lid for 30 minutes or overnight. Place the shiitakes and any soaking liquid in a saucepan and add the mirin, soy sauce, kombu dashi and water and bring to a boil and simmer with the lid for 10 minutes. Then simmer lid off until the liquid becomes syrupy. Cool and slice thinly.
Step 2 - Cut up the vegetables and herbs and make the dressing. To make the dressing, whisk all ingredients together until emulsified. Lastly, just before you want to serve it, boil the soba in plenty of boiling water (make sure to scatter the soba in lightly so that it doesn't clump). Cook for 3-4 minutes and then drain under cold, running water. Place in bowls and then top with the tomatoes, mushrooms, capsicum, green onions, snow peas, ginger and herbs. Drizzle dressing over the soba.