By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
While promoting her first cookbook, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens,” Patricia Tanumihardja met a lot of people at events who expressed difficulties finding Asian ingredients.
“Living in the Seattle metro area, with its larger Asian population, it was so easy to get Asian ingredients,” said Tanumihardja. “But if you live in a small town in the Midwest, it’s next to impossible to find some of the ingredients [listed in my previous cookbook].”
Tanumihardja had been putting in hours managing a farmer’s market in Pacific Grove, Calif. at that point. At the market every week, Tanumihardja discovered the sheer variety and tastes of local, seasonal produce — many vegetables she had never even seen before.
This is how the seed of her second cookbook, “Farm to Table Asian Secrets: Vegan & Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season,” was planted.
“I wanted this [new] cookbook to be all vegetable focused,” said Tanumihardja. “A lot of vegetarian cookbooks that are Asian tend to have a lot of tofu [in the recipes]. I wanted to create a cookbook that is just vegetables-focused. With all of my recipes — the veggies are the stars.”
Tanumihardja’s great-great-grandfather was a Chinese merchant who traveled to Indonesia to trade. Tanumihardja said that he had a wife in China and also one in Indonesia, which was not an uncommon practice at the time. While Tanumihardja is mostly ethnically Chinese, she was born in Jakarta and describes herself as Indonesian. Her family moved to Singapore when she was young because of her dad’s work.
Her family’s food culture is rich. She has memories of family dinners punctuated by her mom’s vegetarian dishes that displayed vegetables, such as water spinach (morning glory) and loofah squash.
Tanumihardja eventually made her way across the ocean to study at the University of Washington, earning a degree in communications.
“[I went to college in the United States because] I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. In Singapore, there’s only one university. You had to pick your major when you enter. Having gone through the whole Singapore education system, I knew what they emphasized — math and the sciences — was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something more creative. I wanted to be a writer, [but] working in the arts was not a preferred profession.”
Tanumihardja landed in Seattle simply because her other brother, Marcel/“Mars,” was already studying in the city.
“My mom was like, ‘If you want to go to the U.S., the only place you can go is Seattle,’” Tanumihardja said, laughing. “[Mars and I] rented an apartment together. We shared a car. We shared long distance phone calls. We saved money together. And it was nice to have someone watching out for me and showing me the way. And I had instant friends. I mean, that was a long way for a 19-year-old girl to travel.”
Tanumihardja’s brother is currently working in IT at Vulcan in Seattle. Her younger sister, Maureen, is a nurse practitioner.
“I’m the middle child,” Tanumihardja said. “It’s kind of expected for me to be different.”
After earning her degree, Tanumihardja spent some time working at the Henry Art Gallery and with Jack Straw Productions, after which, she went back to Singapore and worked at its national museum doing public relations and marketing. While these positions required her to write, Tanumihardja didn’t start writing about food and travel until she married her husband, Omar Wheatley, who is half Pakistani.
Wheatley was in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in the United Kingdom for two years.
“I couldn’t find a job in the arts because we were living in a really small village,” said Tanumihardja. “I figure I had a computer, an internet connection, and I knew people who were magazine editors. So I started writing.”
In the beginning, Tanumihardja wrote a lot under the travel and home and garden umbrella. That eventually expanded to people and multicultural issues.
“I knew that food was one of my loves,” she said. “I ended up doing a lot of food articles for the Northwest Asian Weekly. That gave me my start in food writing.”
Tanumihardja actually met her first book publisher through the Northwest Asian Weekly. Around 2007, Tanumihardja was assigned to write a profile on Sasquatch Book’s then-publisher Gary Luke. During that interview, Luke told Tanumihardja that he always wanted to publish a cookbook about Asian grandmothers and their recipes.
“And I sent him a proposal!” Tanumihardja said.
“The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens” was published in 2010.
While Tanumihardja admits that the conceit of her cookbook may seem like a deterrent to the most “hardcore of carnivores,” she emphasized that the recipes inside are for everyone. They hail from the traditions of bold and diverse flavors of Indonesian cuisine — and they also fall well within the East Asian tradition of having the family meal be relatively light on meat and punctuated by side dishes of rice, noodles, and vegetables.
When Tanumihardja’s mother moved to the United States in 2002, she also brought with her this legacy and knowledge of Indonesian cuisine. The one snag she encountered was the scarcity of certain vegetables that are staples in Indonesian food. So, Tanumihardja’s mother started to creatively substitute. When she couldn’t find sweet potato or yam leaves in the markets, she would buy spinach or kale to use instead in a dish.
“This cookbook is kind of an homage to her and her creativity,” said Tanumihardja.
It’s this spirit of thoughtful substitution and improvisation that Tanumihardja encourages and expects from her readers. In the introduction of her book, Tanumihardja has charts with substitution suggestions, differentiated by seasonality. When a recipe calls for spring greens such as fiddlehead ferns and dandelion greens but the current season is autumn, Tanumihardja suggests a mix of rainbow chard instead. Cooking and buying seasonally, she said, ensures freshness and peak of flavor.
“Locally grown vegetables are my choice,” she adds, “because — for one thing, you’re supporting the local economy, and you’re supporting the local farmers directly. You’re reducing the carbon footprint because the vegetables don’t have to be trucked in. You’re not feeding into the pollution that trucking contributes to. Sustainably grown food tends to have a lower impact on the soil and less pollutants go into the water system, the streams, the lake. [Compared to livestock,] veggies take less money and less space to grow. You also see the fruits of your labor a lot quicker.”
Additionally, a diet high in vegetables tends to be healthier. Last month, Imperial College London released a report that stated that 10 portions of vegetables a day could prevent 7.8 million premature deaths each year. (A portion is three ounces, about the size of a pear.) Currently, the World Health Organization recommends that five portions of vegetables and fruits are eaten a day.
“Farm to Table Asian Secrets: Vegan & Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season” is available for pre-order and will be released on March 28. It can be purchased at many bookstores and on Amazon.com.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.
Stir-fried cellophane noodles
Pancit, the universal Filipino crowd-pleaser, is usually made with egg noodles or rice noodles. This version, pancit sotanghon, uses bean thread noodles, commonly known as cellophane noodles or glass noodles. Cellophane noodles sometimes end up being too bland or too chewy, but I’ve circumvented this by soaking the noodles in vegetable stock first to both soften them and amp up their flavor. Enlivened by the tang of lemons, this dish is sure to be a hit at your next potluck or party.
Prep time: 20 minutes + 20 minutes soaking time
Cook time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
- 4 cups (1 liter) low-sodium vegetable stock
- One 8-oz (250-g) package cellophane noodles (bean thread noodles)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 cup (150 g) sliced yellow onion
- 2 cups (200 g) chopped broccoli (cut to a similar size as the other vegetables)
- 4 cups (400 g) shredded cabbage
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt, divided
- 2 large carrots with their green tops, peeled and cut into matchsticks (remove tops and reserve)
- 1 large red bell pepper, sliced
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 3 green onions (scallions), cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces
- ¼ cup (60 ml) soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving
- Washed, chopped carrot tops for garnish
- Chili paste such as sambal oelek
- Bring the vegetable stock to a boil over high heat in a medium pot. Remove from the stove and add the cellophane noodles in batches, allowing the noodles to soften before adding more to the pot. Let the noodles soak until they are soft and the stock has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.
- Swirl the oil into a large wok or skillet and set over high heat until shimmering hot. Fry the garlic and onions until aromatic and the onions turn translucent, about 1 minute. Add the broccoli, followed by the cabbage and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Next, add the carrots, then the bell pepper, then the celery, stirring for about 30 seconds between each addition.
- Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, black pepper, and sugar. Keep stirring and cooking until the vegetables are cooked to your liking, 3 to 4 minutes more.
- Fluff the noodles to loosen the strands and toss them into the wok with the green onions. Stir to combine, then add the soy sauce and lemon juice and stir to coat. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. When the noodles are heated through, dish onto a large serving platter. Garnish with the reserved carrot tops; serve with lemon wedges and chili paste in small dishes on the side.