Eat with your eyes: Asian Rainbowl

Japanese food. I love it, or used to love it . In fact for years Japanese cuisine was my favorite. I dragged my friends out for it eve...

Japanese food. I love it, or used to love it. In fact for years Japanese cuisine was my favorite. I dragged my friends out for it every birthday and ate it weekly without fail. Then one sunny day I developed a soy allergy. I bid Japanese food farewell shortly afterward.

Forget Jiro, sometimes I dream of Sushi.

For awhile I found going soy-free really difficult. I loved Asian food and restaurants, consumed miso regularly, and didn't know how to fathom life without soy sauce. But my body thanked me for ditching the soy products. Without soy in my diet I wasn't bloated and overly hormonal anymore.

The results were dramatic. The week after I gave up tofu I lost 8lbs of water weight.

I have been soy-free for years now but I still miss things -- chowmein, yakisoba, sushi, bibimbap bowls, tempura vegetables, sushi restaurant salad dressing, tempura onion rings...I could go on for awhile.

It is Spring in Toronto and my food-loving brain wants Asian cuisine. In my nearly daily cookbook browsing sessions at local bookstores I am now scanning the pages of Japanese and Thai cookbooks, foregoing Italian and French which dominated the winter months of my tireless food "research". Asian food is full of bright color and flavor but comforting enough for a chilly Spring evening. The flavors are bold and the ingredients are fresh. I love Asian cuisine because of how it shows off fresh vegetables and the inherent beauty and color of fresh food.

I was diagnosed with a soy allergy several years ago and am going to be retested for the first time since then this week. I am not sure what to expect. Perhaps my elimination of soy from my diet will result in a disappearance of the allergy, or perhaps not. Either way, I don't think I will ever reincorporate soy in my diet to the extent I once consumed it.

Soy is a controversial ingredient.  It is both prized as a health food and denounced as one of the most over-processed and dangerous foods on the planet. To read a concise article about the soy debate, click here.

I have mixed feelings about soy.

 I love it as an ingredient and am constantly amazed by its versatility. Its health benefits are substantial but may not outweigh the concerns around it.

I find it intensely scary that soy is found in so many things. 

Foods like corn, soy and sugar creep their way into a host of foods in different forms. Soy lecithin and soybean oil are found on the labels of countless foods, from margarine to curry paste. When I went soy-free I abandoned all of these packaged foods as well.

Eating out with a soy allergy is very hard. Asking waiters if they can double check that everything the chef used doesn't contain soy is borderline embarrassing at times. I no longer eat Japanese out. Many of the Asian restaurants in Toronto often have servers who speak very little English. Asking a server who doesn't understand you if a dish has soy in it or not doesn't go over well.

Over the past few months I have been debating ordering in sushi to test the waters. I would eat it without soy sauce and hope for the best. I haven't worked up the nerve to try but as Spring sets in my Asian food cravings get stronger and stronger.

My plan for this coming weekend is to make my own vegan sushi. 

Its been awhile since I rolled my own sushi, and I was never terribly good at it to begin with, so last night I decided to visit Indigo bookstore and read up on sushi rolling techniques. In the process I started having all kids of innovative ideas about vegan sushi fillings and garnishes. I will test them all out this weekend and will be sure to blog about my experiments.

Last night, after reading several books about sushi rolling and Japanese cuisine at large, I could not stifle my craving. I had to make some Asian food. I started by creating a soy-free sauce.

I had done some online searching for soy sauce substitutes and found a few recipes for some that sounded interesting.

I never follow recipes. I experiment.

I created a pretty interesting sauce that combined sweet and savory flavors with a fishy salty undertone. The sauce I came up with reminds me more of tempura sauce more than soy sauce but that's fine with me as Tempura may be my favorite thing. The rest of the dish just sort of came together in my head. I wanted vibrant color and nearly raw vegetables to be delicately and sweetly seasoned. I wanted there to be a "sushi rice" component and I wanted spicy mayo (my other favorite thing). I wasn't ready to test out my sushi rolling skills so I decided to create a sushi bowl instead and skip the nori altogether as I didn't have any at home. 

The dish I ended up with was breathtaking. 

The flavors and textures were distinct and pungent but came together beautifully and the dish was so pretty!

The vegetables were so vibrant, they were almost in technicolor. The dish deserves a special I'm calling it my Asian Rainbowl !

You've seen how it looks but how does it taste? This meal was like a vegan and very health conscious cross between a sushi pizza and a donburi. If you have never had sushi pizza before, it is basically a deep fried and crispy sushi-rice cake topped with fresh fish and spicy mayo. If you have never had donburi before, it is a large bowl of sushi rice topped with cooked fish or vegetables in a sweet and savory marinade. I have enjoyed both of these dishes over the years.

I always found sushi pizza a little over the top. I would have liked it much more if it was not fried. And though I enjoyed the flavor of donburi, I rarely ordered them as the texture was too delicate for my taste (especially eel!). The Asian Rainbowl is the best of both worlds.

The grain base of my dish has the firmness of a sushi pizza without the grease factor. The toppings are fresh but have the sweet and savory flavor notes of donburi

Best of all this dish contained no soy or fish but totally satisfied my craving for Japanese food. I have a feeling I will make it again and again.

Asian Rainbowl

 Makes 2 Asian Rainbowls (2 servings)
  • 1 batch Quick Cucumber Pickle (recipe below)
  • 1 batch Quick Beet Pickle (recipe below)
  • 1 batch Spicy Vegan Mayo (recipe below)
  • 1 thinly sliced avocado OR 1/2 kabocha squash, roasted till tender and mashed (optional)
  • 1 tbsp finely sliced or diced yellow beat mixed with a few drops of rice wine vinegar
  • 2 dashes rice vinegar
  • 2 cups greens (I used Swiss chard and kale), lightly steamed
  • Soy free sauce
  • 1 Rice-millet-quinoa "sushi rice cake" (recipe below)

Grab two large deep bowls or dinner plates. Scoop half the prepared sushi rice into the base of each deep bowl or onto the center of each dinner plate. Spread out into a round disk shape about 2 inches thick.

Add a few dollops of spicy mayo on top of the rice mixture. Spread over top of the mixture like you are icing a cake using the back of a spoon.

Add avocado slices or squash mash if using on top of the mayo layer evenly.

Add half the steamed greens on top of that layer or the mayo if not using avocado/squash.

Add half the beet pickle on top of each serving. Add half the cucumber pickle on top of each serving. Garnish each bowl with the yellow beet slices. Serve with Soy Free Sauce either on the side or a few tablespoons lightly drizzled over each serving.

Asian Rainbowl Toppings

Soy Free Sauce

2 cups soy free low sodium vegetable broth
2 tbsp onion powder
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1-2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp Himalayan garlic salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp kelp flakes
3 dashes coarse sea salt
2 drops sesame oil (optional, I didn't use it but it would be a nice addition)
3 heaping tsp pear butter

Bring all ingredients except pear butter to a boil in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add pear butter and stir to incorporate. Reduce heat to medium and allow sauce to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Taste. Add more garlic salt if it is not salty enough for you, add more onion powder if it is not savoury enough for you. Reduce heat to low. Sauce is ready to serve.

Quick Asian Cucumber Pickle

1/3 large English cucumber, grated with a cheese grater
2 dashes rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 dashes Himalayan garlic salt

Grate the cucumber. Place the grated cucumber in a bowl. Add the vinegar and onion powder and garlic salt. Toss the cucumber shreds with your hands to work the spices and vinegar through them. Set aside until ready to eat.

Quick Asian Candy-Cane-Beet pickle

1/2 very large candy cane beet or 2 small candy cane beets, grated with a cheese grater
2 tsp pear butter
3 dashes rice wine vinegar
1.5 tsp onion powder
2 dashes Himalayan garlic salt

Wash, peel and grate the beets. Transfere the shreds to a small bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients with a spoon until evenly incorporated. Taste. Add more pear butter if you want it sweeter, add more onion powder for a more savoury flavour. Set aside until ready to serve.

Spicy Vegan Mayo

3-4 tbsp soy free veganaise
2 dashes himalayan garlic salt
3 dashes rice wine vinegar
1/2 tsp onion powder
1.5 tsp ground cayenne pepper
dash of hot sauce or sriracha (optional)

Mix all ingredients until smooth. Set aside until ready  to use.

"Sushi Pizza" Base
Makes 2 servings

2/3 cup brown rice grits
1/2 cup millet grits
1/2 cup quinoa flakes
2 dashes cinnamon
2 tsp chia seeds
4 tsp kelp flakes
2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 dashes Himalayan garlic salt
2 tsp onion powder

Fill a saucepan with 5 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil. Add the rice, millet. Stir for a minute. Add the cinnamon and chia and stir quickly to distribute. Reduce heat to medium low. Stir often. When the mixture starts to resemble cream of wheat, add the quinoa and stir it in thoroughly. Continue to cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure the mixture doesn't burn. Turn off heat. Add the spices and stir thoroughly to incorporate. The mixture should be like thick grits. Serve according to instructions in Asian Rainbowl recipe (above).

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