The one thing I get asked consistently is: “Priyanka, how can I cook vegan dishes regularly at home?”
Initially, this question would frustrate me because I’d think: “Why does everyone find it so difficult to cook vegan? I mean, what’s so difficult about eating vegetables?”
But as I grew older, wiser and more patient, I realised that upbringing, environment and culture play a huge role when it comes to one’s perspective on food. For instance, I was born and raised in New York City, but as a first-generation Indian-American, my perspective on food is heavily influenced by my Indian roots and the fact that I’ve travelled to about 40 countries.
I leverage my culture and life experiences to create a widened perspective on food and to develop original vegan recipes. So to everyone who asks me now, I say eating vegetables is a lot easier (and tastier) than you might imagine.
As a self-taught vegan and sustainable chef, here are my top hacks to make your kitchen vegan, eco-friendly and tasty.
Spice up your life
If I had a megaphone, this would be the first thing I’d yell: use whole dried spices in your food — it’s the easiest way to make literally anything taste amazing. You can cook with whole cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, chillies … the list goes on.
Whole dried spices are packed with natural oils, flavours and texture, so adding your favourite veggies to a skillet with hot oil, whole spices, salt and a bit of garlic will make the perfect stir-fry. Many spices also have natural medical properties, notably fennel, turmeric and mustard seeds.
Don’t always try to mimic meat
Imitation meat has flooded the vegan market in recent years. While I wholeheartedly support these products and efforts, which are created from the lens of sustainability, I don’t think you need to constantly use faux meat to make a wholesome meal. Having grown up as a pure vegetarian, I can tell you the possibilities for vegan cooking are endless. If you need something “meaty” to bite into, consider a whole blistered aubergine in a miso glaze; a turmeric-marinated cauliflower steak; or a falafel pita if you’re in the mood for a hearty sandwich.
Use leafy greens in sauces
Some of my favourite pasta sauces are made with vegetables, including one of my most popular recipes — spinach jalapeno pesto. Sauces are a great way to cook and eat leafy greens, which are high in fibre, iron and other essential nutrients. The key is to blanch your greens for two to three minutes first, drop in an ice bath and blend with your favourite aromatics, such as garlic, onion, chilli and lemon.
Texture is key
Monotone dishes are boring and will not satiate complex palates. Texture is a huge reason why people will not miss meat, so ensure your dishes come in varying styles. For example, if you’re making a dish that is on the softer or mushier side, consider garnishing it with fresh chopped herbs such as coriander or sprinkle pomegranate for some crunch.
Shopping local means you’re supporting the community and getting produce that’s in season. This is better both for the environment and our bodies, as seasonal produce tends to be higher in nutrients and is tastier too. Shopping at farmers’ markets can also help inspire recipe ideas and dishes, as it provides an opportunity to talk to local producers who know best how to use their delicious goods.
Get creative with leftovers
I am that person who packs food at restaurants, even the leftovers from the bread basket. Why? Because the majority of wasted food ends up in landfill, producing harmful methane gasses.
Packing leftovers can help alleviate this and even a slight effort makes a difference. Best of all, leftovers can be transformed into tasty options — pulse leftover white rice in a food processor with some beans, spices and potato to make a wholesome burger, or turn leftover pasta into a pizza frittata in a hot non-stick skillet.
Superfoods are incredibly powerful, not just for your body, but in recipes too. Cashews, for instance, when soaked, will soften and can be blended into a creamy, dreamy sauce. The same applies for a variety of nuts and seeds (sunflower seed butter, anyone?). Blueberries are high in antioxidants and when frozen, can be blended with frozen bananas to create a soft and tasty cream. So go ahead and make yours a creative vegan kitchen.
Priyanka Naik is a self-taught Indian vegan chef, Food Network champion, Quibi Dishmantled winner, TV personality and author of The Modern Tiffin. She’s put together a customised vegan and sustainable menu for W Maldives, which will be available until October 2023