Some foodies dismiss vegetarian food as uptight, and lacking the taste and textures that can only come from a meat source. For the carnivore, nothing comes close to the sweetness of a fine cut of medium-rare steak, or the hot juicy flavours of chicken wings straight from the fryer.
Lawyer-turned-vegetarian chef Shalu Asnani wants to spread the word that vegetarian food doesn’t have to be bland or boring. Her cooking school and food consultancy Little Green Kitchen is spicing up vegetarian cuisines and showing the unconvinced and the curious alike that when done right, vegetarian dishes can just be the most tantalising things in the world.
Located at Upper East Coast Road, Little Green Kitchen was established in 2011. Asnani is a qualified chef and newly-certified nutritionist, and is excited to see that more people are looking to add vegetarian meals to their diet.
“People are becoming more aware and educated about their health, and they’re making healthier choices. And response has been growing for the last five years,” said Asnani. This is a certainly a welcome change, as compared to when the business was in its infancy, when there was little awareness about the benefits of a vegetarian diet or well-prepared vegetarian food.
“It was quite discouraging to start with. I reconsidered my decision and I thought it wasn’t the right place or the right time. I decided to stick with it. Three years down the road, I saw a big change and ever since it things have been looking up,” she said.
Asnani attributes this to an increasing consciousness over where store-bought food comes from. On top of that, documentaries revealing the unethical practices in commercial livestock farming have also spurred further interest in cruelty-free diets. “Documentaries in particular have a way of impacting you; I wouldn’t say everyone changed their diets overnight. But it definitely made them question where their food comes from,” she said.
The Little Green Kitchen runs one-to-two classes a week. Each class is about two hours. The classes cover various aspects of vegetarian cooking, from quick 30-minute meals, to gluten-free cooking, to Asian cuisines. Asnani also provides food consulting for restaurants, as well as individuals and families who want a customised vegetarian diet. For those who want an intimate dining experience, Asnani also runs private sessions in which she cooks for business meetings or corporate events, or a special occasion between family and friends.
Asnani turned fully vegetarian when she was 13. While turning doing so is a daunting task to most, she found it rather effortless as she has always preferred eating vegetables. “I don’t like the idea of eating animals and so I decided to give it up completely,” she said.
“For me the overarching reason would be health. I strongly believe it’s the healthier way of living and my ultimate goal is to be in good health – to know how my body performs in optimum capacity, and to get natural nutrition from plants and grain instead of relying on medication,” she said.
Asnani was working in-house as a lawyer in Asia Pacific Breweries before she became a vegetarian chef. Her venture into cooking professionally came about when she relocated to Beijing with her husband for a few years. “I was quite happy in my career,” she said. “I thought I would figure out getting a job once I moved to Beijing. But it was hard for me to find work because of the different legal system and the language barrier,” she recounted.
Already a confident home chef, she began taking cooking classes at the Hutong, a renowned cooking school in Beijing that prides itself on immersing students in Chinese and global food culture. “I wanted to learn new skills and I really enjoyed it,” she said. She then discovered a strong passion for teaching when the school invited her to teach in a few trial classes, after which she was promoted to head chef of the school’s cooking classes.
“Fast forward a few years, I decided to give it a go by setting up my own business. I have always been into cooking on a leisure level but I have never imagined growing up that i will ever make a career out of it,” she said.
Becoming a professional also meant she had to invest in her culinary skills. She graduated with a Diploma in Vegetarian Cuisine at Cordon Vert, a leading vegetarian cuisine school in the UK. She also completed an internship with celebrity chef Bobby Chinn in his restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam. This year, she obtained a certificate in plant-based nutrition from eCornell and T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
Brimming with inspiration, Shalu returned to Singapore in 2011 to set up Little Green Kitchen. Her philosophy towards cooking lies in a combination of secret family recipes and a modern take on vegetarian cuisine, with a focus on down-to-earth, clean and wholesome food. She also trawls overseas cooking workshops and travels frequently to bring fresh tastes and ideas to her classes.
Becoming vegetarian in a sustainable way
Some vegetarians get a bad rep for their preachy and judgmental ways. However, Asnani maintains that converting meat eaters to vegetables-and-fruit only is not her motivation. While she respects all diets, she encourages people to eat consciously. “We should make informed decisions about what we eat; to know the fat levels in our food. And part of the reason behind the cooking school is to show that vegetarian food can be delicious, with lots of variety and nutrition,” she said.
“In fact, most of my students are people who eat meat. They are looking to introduce vegetarian meals into their diets and are looking for inspiration on how and where to start,” she continued.
She advises those new to vegetarian food to start with Asian cuisines, where vegetables feature dominantly. Tofu and tempeh, which are also plentiful in Asian food, are excellent sources of protein. This compares with Western cuisines, where their main component is meat. “Whether it is Indian, Indonesian, Vietnamese or Thai, your options are limitless. With the abundant of use of fresh spices and herbs, at the end of the day you get a really tasty vegetarian meal,” she said.
As for those who want to give vegetarianism a try, she suggests to take it slow instead of going cold turkey. “The goal is to make it part of your lifestyle over the long-term, she explained.