TRAVELLING is known to open the mind and awaken creativity and, for some, writing a book is the fruit of the adventure. That’s certainly true for Canadian chef Cameron Stauch whose sojourns in various countries combined with a natural curiosity about vegetarian food have led to the compilation of his first cookbook – on Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine.
The book was launched a few months ago in the US and UK and more recently in Thailand, which Stauch has called home for the best part of two years.
Cameron Stauch with his “Vegetarian Viet Nam” book
An experienced chef with 18 years under his belt in Asian and North American kitchens, Stauch spent six years cooking for three Governors General of Canada at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall. During that time, he was able to share Canada’s rich culinary landscape with, among others, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Emperor and Empress of Japan.
As the husband of a Canadian diplomat, Stauch has travelled the world and taken advantage of his stays in different countries to explore the local cuisine and culinary techniques, most notably of Hong Kong, India, Vietnam and Thailand.
Mini banh mi sandwiches
Stauch describes his personal cooking style as “cooking globally and sourcing locally”, explaining that he often has to modify recipes because an ingredient or two may be unavailable or too expensive wherever he happens to be living.
He particularly enjoys learning about local ingredients and meeting the people who grow, produce, and cook local flavours.
From 2012 to 2015, when his diplomat wife Ayesha Rekhi was posted to Hanoi, Stauch was inspired to research and write his first cookbook, “Vegetarian Viet Nam” which highlights the tradition of vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine.
Steamed vegetables with fermented tofu, lemongrass and chilli
Although not a vegetarian himself, his time in Ottawa’s kitchens gave him plenty of opportunities to prepare food for people with restricted diets and he thought it would be fun to take that experience one step further.
“I used to make specials plates for vegetarians, vegans or those with food allergies, so I was interested in developing those skills,” he tells The Nation.
That became more pressing when the couple’s four-year-old son decided not long after settling in Hanoi that he would only eat vegetarian food – “probably because he didn’t want to eat animals”, the chef says with a grin.
Since then, 85 per cent of the dishes on the family’s dining table have been vegetarian, although they do eat meat and fish when eating out.
Vietnam, he says, was a great place to learn about vegetarianism.
In Vietnam, most strict Mahayana Buddhists, especially the monks and nuns, do not eat meat, while lay people go vegetarian on days of the new moon and full moon. Vegetarian restaurants around temples or pagodas do a roaring trade on those two days,
His curiosity aroused by this tradition, Stauch travelled around the country and researched the different dishes enjoyed by devout Vietnamese, even adopting the habit of eating only vegetables |and rice on both full and new moon days.
Lemongrass chilli mushroom on rice cracker
“That allowed me to explore what they used instead of beef or pork. And I found that they use vegetables or tofu so I focused on both,” he explains.
Unlike in many other countries, the Vietnamese still prefer their vegetarian dishes to look like meat or seafood. The famed Vietnamese noodle soup pho, for example, comes in both chicken and vegetarian options though it’s impossible to tell the difference just by looking.
“I focused on how to obtain the best flavour while trying to make the taste as close as possible to the meat version of the dish,” he says, adding that he combined the tricks of street-food cooks, locals and monks and nuns to develop a range of special dishes.
And Thais had the chance to try them out last week at the launch party for “Vegetarian Viet Nam”.
Vietnamese vegetable curry
Served buffet style, the food included jackfruit salad on rice cracker, lemongrass chilli mushroom on rice cracker, nutty fermented soybean dipping sauce, pomelo salad, and mini banh mi sandwiches as hors d’oeuvres. Jasmine rice was served with Vietnamese vegetable curry and steamed vegetables with fermented tofu, lemongrass and chilli.
“Stauch is a gifted chef and very capable. When he lives in Asian countries, he always researches the local cuisine and he’s now doing exactly that in Thailand for his next cookbook,” Donica Pottie, the Canadian ambassador to Thailand and host of the launch, tells The Nation.
Canadian ambassador to Thailand Donica Pottie, right, and Cameron Stauch at the recent launch party for “Vegetarian Viet Nam” held at the envoy’s official residence.
What she likes most in his cookbook is the section that details the ingredients that can be substituted in cases where the designated ones are not available.
“That’s missing from a lot of cookbooks. I can’t possibly make the dishes because I can’t find the particular ingredients needed but this book tells me what I can substitute. That’s great as he makes his recipes more accessible to ordinary people,” the ambassador adds.
Though she’s not a vegetarian, the ambassador says that these days she avoids eating much meat and is increasingly sensitive to the issues of environment and sustainability as well as resources.
Seasonal fruit with coconut and condensed milk
She hopes the book will help everyone learn about the richness and diversity of vegetarian dishes in Asia and try out the recipes for themselves.
Stauch is already researching Thai vegetarian food for his second cookbook, which will cover the different dishes and traditions peculiar to all parts of the country.
“I want to be able to give a taste of different vegetarian flavours from all over Thailand,” he says, pointing to the Shan people who live primarily in Shan state of Myanmar as well as adjacent regions of Thailand. “They cook with lentils and replace fish sauce with soy sauce, so much of their food is naturally vegetarian.”
He will also research the veggie specialities of Isaan and Laos, plus the southern dishes of Phuket where vegetarian food is very famous, as well as travel to the eastern provinces.
“I want to show some different dishes that maybe the locals have never thought to share with vegetarians. I want to see if they are already naturally vegetarian or if I can find a way to turn them into a tasty vegetarian plate,” Stauch says.
He also wants to learn how to use the wild or forest vegetables like bamboo and greens of which Thais are so fond.
“And I’ll be spending time in Bangkok’s Chinatown, Yaowarat, and Phuket province where the vegetarian festival is held every year. My aim is to complete the book in 2020,” he says.
>>Based on recipes devised over centuries by Mahayana Buddhist monks, the dishes in “Vegetarian Viet Nam” use of the full arsenal of Vietnamese herbs and sauces to make tofu, mushrooms, and vegetables burst with flavour like never before.
>>The book includes a lavishly illustrated glossary to help the reader recognise the mushrooms, noodles, fruits, and vegetables that make up the vegetarian Vietnamese pantry.
>>The hardcover 288-page book with about 100 recipes is on sale at Asia Books for Bt1,195.