Sunday, January 25, 2015

Thai Red Vegetable Curry

Thai red vegetable curry and rice

Herbs and spices are used to enhance flavour in many types of cuisine across the globe.

Many of us know from travelling abroad, dining out or cooking at home that there’s considerable variability in the amount, type and combination of herbs and spices used in different types of cuisine.

Thai cuisine, for example, is famous for its aromatic and spicy dishes created using herbs and spices such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, galangal, ginger, garlic, chilli peppers, cumin, coriander and peppercorns.

Thai herbs and spices

Usually these variations in use of herbs and spices are attributed merely to cultural preferences.

But is this the only reason?

Each herb and spice has a unique aroma and flavour, which derive from compounds known as phytochemicals or “secondary compounds”, because they are secondary to the plant's basic metabolism.

These chemicals evolved in plants to protect them against herbivorous insects and vertebrates, fungi, pathogens, and parasites [1].

Most herbs and spices contain dozens of secondary compounds, including glucosides, saponins, tannins, alkaloids, essential oils, organic acids, and others, many thousands of which have been described in the literature [2,3].

Before the advent of modern medicine, herbs and spices were used in most cultures to prevent and treat a variety of health conditions, either incorporated into food or in specific preparations. Indeed, in many places, herbal medicine is still an important part of healthcare.

Scientific studies are generating more and more evidence to support the medicinal properties of herbs and spices.

Many of the phytochemicals or “secondary compounds” in plants have been shown to possess powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-hypertensive, anti-cancer, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and cholesterol-lowering activity [4-6]. Herbs and spices frequently contain high concentrations of these substances.

As many herbs and spices have considerable anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic activity, it’s likely that their traditionally high use in hot climates is no accident. People found by trial and error that food kept longer and/or caused fewer stomach upsets if herbs and spices were incorporated [7].

This recipe for Thai-style red vegetable curry contains a range of herbs and spices rich in phytochemicals known for their medicinal properties.

The vegetables, herbs and spices used in this recipe contain high levels of antioxidant activity.

Antioxidants protect your body from damage caused by highly reactive molecules, called free radicals, produced as a normal by-product of metabolism.

Damage caused by free radicals contributes to aging and the development of chronic disease.

The picture below shows the antioxidant content of one serving of this Thai Red Vegetable Curry compared with one serving of a Burger King Double Whopper and Cheese with a medium portion of French fries.

The antioxidant content of the Thai Red Vegetable Curry is almost 5 times higher than that of the burger and fries.

The dish is also high in vitamins A, C and K; and contains substantial amounts of vitamins B1 and B6, as well as the minerals magnesium and manganese.

Lemongrass, for example, has been shown to have activity against the fungus Candida albicans [8] as well as anti-bacterial activity [9].

It’s also reported to have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-mutagenic, hypoglycaemic and anxiolytic properties [10].

Kaffir lime leaves contain volatile oils and other phytochemicals [11].

Traditionally, kaffir lime leaves have been used for treatment of colds, congestion, and coughs. In addition, they’re recommended for alleviating flatulence, treating indigestion and treating menstrual disorders.

Kaffir lime phytochemicals have also been shown to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive properties, which may be useful for preventing cancer and heart disease [11].

Kaffir lime leaves

Modern scientific investigations of coriander (also known as cilantro) have focused on its antimicrobial properties, anti-anxiety action, and cholesterol-lowering effects.

Its cholesterol-lowering action is the result of coriander stimulating the conversion of cholesterol to bile acids within the liver, an effect that would likely improve digestion of fat.

Turmeric is reported to have numerous health benefits due to the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties of its phytochemicals, particularly curcumin.


Makes 4 servings

  • 1 red onion (150g/5oz) (finely sliced into half-moons)
  • 1 clove garlic (crushed)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1 medium carrot (cut into matchsticks)
  • ½ red bell pepper and ½ yellow bell pepper (finely sliced)
  • 240g/8oz cooked beans – you could use green lentils, black eye beans, butter beans, haricot beans, cannellini beans, edamame, flageolet beans, pinto beans or whatever you have available. You can use canned beans or cook your own dried beans (see below). You could also use tofu (cut into small cubes) instead.
  • 1 strip dried kombu sea vegetable (optional - see instructions for cooking your own beans below)
  • 2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste. I made my own (see below for instructions) or you could buy a jar from the shops and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • 1 can coconut milk or make your own by adding 2-3 tablespoons coconut powder to 1 cup water (making your own from coconut powder is cheaper than buying cans of coconut milk. Coconut powder is available online or in certain supermarkets and international food stores). Coconut contains a high percentage of saturated fat, so it's best not to use it too frequently in your cooking.
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • 40g baby leaf spinach
  • Small bunch of fresh coriander/cilantro


Cooking your own dried beans

It's fine to use canned beans to save time.

If you're cooking your own dried beans, you'll need approximately 3/4 cup dried beans and 4-5 cups water to cover them completely to a depth of 2 inches/5cm, depending on the size of the pan you use.

You can also add a strip of dried kombu sea vegetable, as this adds valuable minerals, and helps to tenderise and enhance the flavour of the beans.

If you soak the dried beans overnight in cold water before cooking, this will reduce the cooking time. Drain and rinse the beans before cooking. If you forget to soak them first, it doesn't matter, they may just take a bit longer to cook properly.

I usually cook dried beans in my slow cooker, as I can put them on and forget about them whilst doing other things, safe in the knowledge that they won't dry out and burn.

You can use a regular cooking pot but be aware that if you need to cook the beans for a long time, the water will evaporate. You'll need to keep an eye on them and top up the pan with boiling water if necessary.

Cooking time depends on the type and age of the beans.

The smaller and fresher the beans, the less time they'll need.

Large and/or old beans typically take longer.

Green lentils, for example, will probably be soft within an hour; pinto beans may take 2 to 3 hours. If your dried beans are past their "best before" date, they may remain like bullets however long you cook them for. Hard beans are very indigestible and create more intestinal gas, so I recommend that you use dried beans that are as fresh as possible.

To test if they're cooked, remove a small number of beans and press them between your fingers and thumb; they should squash easily.

Preparing the curry

Add olive oil and salt to a thick-based pan and gently sauté onion and garlic for 5-10 minutes until soft and translucent.

Add carrot, peppers, beans, Thai red curry paste, coconut milk, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves and simmer for 15 minutes until the vegetables are cooked.

Add baby spinach leaves and some fresh coriander to taste and simmer for a further 5 minutes.

Serve with brown rice and garnish with fresh coriander/cilantro.

How to make Thai red curry paste


  • 1 stalk fresh lemon grass (finely chopped)
  • 2 large red chilli peppers or 2 small birds eye chillis if you want it to be hot (seeds removed and finely chopped)
  • 2 cm piece fresh root ginger (peeled and finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1-2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce or Ume Plum seasoning if you are vegan
  • ¼ red onion (finely chopped)
  • 2 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 1 tablespoon rice malt syrup
  • 2 tablespoons coconut milk


Blend all ingredients using a hand blender or food processor. Freeze what you don’t use in portions, so you have some ready prepared for future meals.

Alternatively, you can buy pre-made Thai red curry paste. This isn't as fresh but is very convenient.


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Nutrition information


  1. Fraenkel GS. The Raison d'Être of Secondary Plant Substances: These odd chemicals arose as a means of protecting plants from insects and now guide insects to food. Science. 1959;129(3361):1466-1470.
  2. Lampe JW. Spicing up a vegetarian diet: chemopreventive effects of phytochemicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;78(3 Suppl):579s-583s.
  3. Lai PK, Roy J. Antimicrobial and chemopreventive properties of herbs and spices. Current Medicinal Chemistry. 2004;11(11):1451-1460.
  4. Howes MJ, Simmonds MS. The role of phytochemicals as micronutrients in health and disease. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2014;17(6):558-566.
  5. Rodriguez-Casado A. The Health Potential of Fruits and Vegetables Phytochemicals: Notable Examples. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2014:0.
  6. Liu RH. Dietary bioactive compounds and their health implications. J Food Sci. 2013;78 Suppl 1:A18-25.
  7. Sherman PW, Billing J. Darwinian Gastronomy: Why We Use Spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us. BioScience. 1999;49(6):453-463.
  8. Amornvit P, Choonharuangdej S, Srithavaj T. Lemongrass-Incorporated Tissue Conditioner Against Candida albicans Culture. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR. 2014;8(7):Zc50-52.
  9. Mickiene R, Bakutis B, Baliukoniene V. Antimicrobial activity of two essential oils. Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine : AAEM. 2011;18(1):139-144.
  10. Shah G, Shri R, Panchal V, Sharma N, Singh B, Mann AS. Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Cymbopogon citratus, stapf (Lemon grass). Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & research. 2011;2(1):3-8.
  11. Orranuch Norkaew KP, Patcharee Pripdeevech, Phumon Sookwong and Sugunya Wongpornchai. Supercritical Fluid Extraction and Gas Chromatographic-Mass Spectrometric Analysis of Terpenoids in Fresh Kaffir Lime Leaf Oil. Chiang Mai J. Sci. . 2013;40 (2):240-247.

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to make vegetable sushi nori

When I was a PhD student, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship for a study trip to Japan. 

There, I visited all the key University labs and Research Institutes working in my field of research.

Beforehand, I'd bought a Railcard and had planned to stay in Youth Hostels over the country. 

Due to the extraordinary hospitality of my academic contacts, however, I ended up staying with different Japanese families for the entire time, which was a real privilege.

I'll never forget one evening in the home of a Professor at the University of Okayama. His wife and three young children all sat round the kitchen table making sushi rolls, which we later ate for supper.

The children were so excited to meet an English person and thrilled to show me their food and customs. It was magic.

In Japan, making sushi is considered a vocation, an art form, and chefs, or itamae, train with almost military rigour for anything from 2 to 20 years to become proficient.

Traditionally, raw fish is used in sushi and cutting it up in the correct way appears to be akin to learning to perform brain surgery.

Even the preparation of rice is a precise procedure. Too much rice and it will be more than a mouthful; too little and it will be overpowered by the fish; too much pressure and it will be hard; too little and the pellet will fall apart.

Most of us don't aspire to the heights of becoming a senior sushi chef, so we can relax and enjoy creating simple vegetable sushi rolls, which are great for lunchboxes, snacks, picnics and parties. 

This recipe for sushi rolls uses the sea vegetable known in Japanese as nori (Porphyra spp).

Nori is the most popular of all sea vegetables as it's versatile and easy to prepare. It has a sweet and salty taste. 

Nori contains more protein than other sea vegetables, averaging a remarkable 40% by weight.  It contains about 1.5 times more vitamin C than oranges and as much vitamin A as carrots.  Nori is the only sea vegetable reported to contain the biologically active form of vitamin B12. The mineral content of nori is about 10% by weight, which is lower than other sea vegetables, but is still very high for a vegetable food.  

Sea vegetables have numerous health benefits and are valuable for boosting mineral intake in your diet.

Nori is sold either as flakes or as sheets, which are folded 7 or 10 to a pack.  

The flakes don't require soaking or cooking and can be sprinkled directly onto grains, or incorporated into purées, batters, sauces, dressings and dips to give an appealing herb-like flavour.  

Nori sheets are best lightly toasted before use.  This is done by rotating the sheet, shiny side up, over a low flame for a few seconds until its colour changes to a lighter green.  Pre-toasted nori sheets are also available in the shops.  Once toasted, nori can simply be torn into smaller pieces or cut with scissors into attractive shapes.  These pieces can be added as a garnish to cereal dishes, soups and salads or mixed with nuts and seeds to make a tasty snack.  Toasted sheets of nori can also be used to make sushi rolls and rice balls.


Makes 2 sushi rolls, at least 3 servings

  • 2 sheets nori sea vegetable, toasted
  • 1 cup short-grain brown rice
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 tbsp brown rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp rice malt syrup
  • 1 tsp peanut butter
  • ½ tsp umeboshi plum paste (available online or in health food stores)
  • 1 carrot (100g/4oz), finely sliced
  • 1/3 raw cucumber (100g/4oz), finely sliced
  • ¼ red pepper (30g), finely sliced
  • 50g/2oz marinated tofu, finely sliced
  • Few pieces of sushi ginger or 1 tsp mustard 


Add 1 cup short-grain rice and 2 cups boiling water to a thick-based pan, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. 

Turn down to a very low heat and simmer for 40-45 minutes until water has evaporated and rice is soft. 

Mix brown rice vinegar and rice malt syrup together and stir into rice. 

Allow to cool. You need to use short-grain rice as this sticks together, unlike long grain or basmati rice.

You can buy nori sheets already toasted. 

If you have untoasted nori, simply hold the rough side of each sheet over a low flame for a few seconds until colour changes to a lighter green. 

Cut the carrot and cucumber into fine strips. I cut the vegetables thinly on the diagonal and then slice the pieces into narrow strips.

Having prepared all the fillings, lay one sheet of toasted nori, shiny side down, on a bamboo sushi mat, with the stripping of the map running horizontally.

Spread 1 cup  cooked rice evenly over the nori, leaving 1/3 inch (1cm) at the bottom, nearest you, and 1 ½ inches (4 cm) at the top, firmly pressing the rice into the nori

Gently spread nut butter, umeboshi paste, carrots, cucumber, pepper, tofu and sushi ginger horizontally in a strip across the rice.

If you add too much filling, you'll find it difficult to roll the sushi up.

Pick up the edge of the bamboo sushi mat and carefully roll it away from you around the ingredients, into a cylindrical roll. 

Using your finger or a pastry brush, spread a little water on the exposed top edge of the nori to help the roll stick together.

You should end up with a cylindrical roll as in the photograph below.

Using a sharp knife dipped into water, cut the sushi nori roll into slices and serve garnished with chopped vegetables and salad.

You can create many variations with different fillings and flavours, just like sandwiches.  

For example, you can include avocado with lime juice; spring onions (scallions); bean sprouts; roasted sweet potato or squash; sesame seeds; toasted walnuts; shiitake mushrooms sautéed in soy sauce; mustard; wasabi; regular mustard; steamed broccoli pieces or asparagus.


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Mushroom stroganoff - plant-based, vegan recipe

Stroganoff or stroganov is a classic Russian dish normally containing sautéed pieces of beef served in a sauce with smetana (sour cream). 

According to history books, the first published recipe for stroganoff was in Elena Molokhovets' classic Russian cookbook A Gift to Young Housewives (1861), which involved lightly floured beef cubes (not strips) sautéed, sauced with prepared mustard and bouillon, and finished with a small amount of sour cream: no onions, no mushrooms.

This version, adapted from a recipe in the Forks Over Knives Cookbook, is free from meat or dairy products, contains onions and mushrooms, and is 100% plant-based and vegan, so quite different from the original. Nevertheless it's full of flavour, highly nutritious and very delicious.

Most notably, this recipe contains more than the daily guideline amount of vitamin B12, a nutrient which is typically hard to obtain on plant-based or vegan diets.

Please click here to read more detail about vitamin B12 and plant-based and vegan diets.

The vitamin B12 comes from shiitake mushrooms and nutritional yeast, which is added to impart an umame, savoury, almost cheesy flavour.


Makes 4 servings

  • 1 tbsp olive oil or 2 tbsp water
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced into half moons 
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp dried rosemary
  • 250g (8oz) chestnut mushrooms, washed, stemmed and cut into pieces
  • 125g (4 oz) shiitake mushrooms, washed, stemmed and cut into pieces
  • 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 cup tofu sour cream, made from:
  • One 340g/12oz package of silken tofu, drained
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp ground arrowroot powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 450g (1lb) whole wheat pasta (e.g., fettucine, penne) or gluten-free pasta if you are wheat intolerant


Add oil or water and salt to a large pan and gently sauté onion until soft and translucent. Add garlic, thyme and rosemary and cook for another minute. Stir in mushrooms, nutritional yeast, soy sauce and wine, stir, and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes.

While mushrooms are cooking, prepare tofu sour cream by combining all ingredients in a blender until smooth and creamy. 

Add pasta to boiling water, bring it back to a boil and stir for a few seconds to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Cook according to manufacturer’s instructions. For dried pasta, this is usually 10-12 minutes to achieve an al dente texture. Fresh pasta generally takes less time. Drain.

al dente [al-DEN-tay] An Italian phrase meaning “to the tooth,” used to describe pasta or other food that is cooked only until it offers a slight resistance when bitten into, but which is not soft or overdone.

When the stroganoff has finished cooking, stir in 1 cup tofu sour cream. 

Add the cooked pasta and toss well. Serve garnished with fresh parsley and a side salad.


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Nutrition information