What are some common vegan and gluten-free ingredient substitutes you can use in Asian cooking? Let’s get inspired by Mekhala’s vegan and gluten-free recipes.
Asian cooking has often taken inspiration from its geography, with the ocean and its bounty providing much of the flavor found in Southeast Asian, Korean, and Japanese cuisines. In Thai cuisine, we often turn to fish sauce for depth of flavor, while in Singaporean/Malaysian cooking, we turn to shrimp for the same. At Mekhala, we’ve found a great substitute in seaweed, a plant found in the oceans also known as a vegetable of the sea.
Cow’s milk is not often found in Southeast Asian cooking. Some say it’s because many Asians are lactose intolerant. Or that dairy cows are not common in the region, and milk itself goes sour quickly in hotter climates. (This was back in the day of course.) Coconuts, on the other hand, are abundant in the tropical region and coconut milk is the de facto creamer in Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean cuisines.
To replace animal fats, try vegetable or plant-based oils like Rice Bran Oil, Sunflower Oil and Coconut Oil. Consumed in moderate amounts as part of a balanced diet, it is generally accepted that fats and oils are not harmful. A helpful rule of thumb is to avoid the ‘bad fats’ like trans and saturated fats, and stay within daily recommended limits. (Do consult your doctor or nutritionist for advice specific to you.) As for which type of oil to use, consider i. how strong a flavor the oil has and how that affects your recipe, and ii. whether it is suitable for the type of cooking you are doing. For example, searing or cooking at high temperatures calls for oils with a high smoke point like sunflower oil.
Gluten-free Soy Sauce or Tamari
Soy Sauce or Soya Sauce is ubiquitous in Asian cooking. From teriyaki sauce to Chinese stir-fries, soy sauce is the star of the show, along with all the gluten it contains. At Mekhala, we use a special type of soy sauce made with brown rice instead of wheat flour that makes it naturally gluten-free. Fortunately, gluten-free substitutes are becoming more common and it’s easier to get your hands on gluten-free soy sauce, or tamari sauce, another substitute. If you have a serious allergy, always check the ingredients label carefully!
Herbs and Spices
There’s no simple rule to substituting animal and gluten products with herbs and spices. But in our years of cooking and experimenting, we’ve found that using wholesome, fresh, and flavorful herbs and spices more than make up for the taste and sometimes produces even more delicious results when we leave out the fish sauce, shrimp paste, animal fats, etc.
This article is not meant as health advice.