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.
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.
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?