Vegetables, by themselves, I find rather bland and lacking in depth. That’s probably why salads are drizzled with zesty dressings to wake up the veggies. With all-vegetable stir fries, rich sauces and flavored oils are added at the last minute to coat the vegetables with flavor and give them a perk-me-up aroma.
With stews, it starts with the aromatic base. In the Philippines, we call it the process of sautéing. We throw in garlic, onion, tomatoes and, sometimes, ginger and chilies in hot oil and let them soften until they release the flavors and aromas. In other countries, the sautéing is taken a step farther by allowing the aromatics to cook to a paste. In many Spanish-speaking countries, the paste is called sofrito. In Portuguese-speaking countries, it is called refogado or estrugido. In some parts of Asia, we call it spice paste. The Malays have their sambal; the South Asians have their masala.
What vegetables, spices, aromatics and seasonings go into the base, and how they are cooked, vary from culture to culture, and from cook to cook. The intent is always the same though — to create a rich base for a dish.
Lately, with all the vegetarian cooking going on in the house, I have discovered that the technique of cooking aromatics in oil long enough until they are really soft and almost pasty makes the best base for an all-vegetable dish. The cooked dish comes out richer and the flavors are deeper. That’s probably why South Asian and South asian-influenced Malay vegetable dishes are always so richly flavored even in the absence of meat or seafood.
Chayote, shiitake and pepper with tamarind sauce
- Julienne the chayote and bell peppers. Thinly slice the mushroom caps.
- Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan. Add the garlic, onion and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until very soft and the tomato pieces are falling apart.
- Add the tamarind paste and sugar. Cook, stirring, for another half a minute.
- Add the chayote, mushrooms and bell peppers. Sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pan and cook the vegetables for five minutes or just until done but not too soft. You want them to retain their texture and their shape so don’t overcook.
- Sprinkle in the sesame seeds and serve the vegetables hot.