melinda soon vegan chef

Melinda Soon, the Accidental Vegan Chef

It’s hard to imagine now but when Melinda Soon’s students first suggested she run classes on vegan baking she was initially reluctant. The classes were an immediate hit; by now, Soon’s reluctance had turned to enthusiasm.

It’s hard to imagine now but when Melinda Soon’s students first suggested she run classes on vegan baking she was initially reluctant. At the time she was running the classes at a charity organisation, the Tzu Chi Society, in Malaysia, and vegan baking was becoming a common request. But all Soon could think was: “Can you imagine a cake without eggs? It won’t taste nice.”

After a while, though, curiosity got the better of Soon. She began studying vegan recipes and in her first vegan class, attended by 15 students, she used natural ingredients to produce no-bake biscuits. The classes were an immediate hit; by now, Soon’s reluctance had turned to enthusiasm.

The response from the students encourages her to work on other methods to produce vegan cakes and desserts. After about three years finally managed to find the right ingredients and techniques to create a fluffy cake without the use of any dairy products or eggs.

Replacing dairy was relatively easy. Soya milk and other nut milk work well, while potato protein or soya milk can be whipped to make vegan creams. Grains like millet and aquafaba can also replicate the texture of cream.

But eggs were a bigger problem. In Soon’s experience, vegan cakes tend to be tough and chewy without them. Finding a successful replacement was hard work and came about through her experiments with fermentation: eventually she found that using an ingredient from rice wine created light and fluffy cakes.

“When you separate the rice and wine, you get this cha (Cantonese for protein), and I use it in cakes,” she says.

Cha is a natural protein that is added to the cake mixture. It contains the right amount of acidity and reacts to the cake mixture to create air pockets that lighten a vegan cake, negating the need for eggs or egg whites.

Soon says the alcohol is evaporated or cooked away during baking, and vanilla paste can be added to the cake to remove any traces of rice wine flavour.

Alternatively, she has found that both mashed potatoes and apple sauce also help to produce fluffy vegan chocolate cakes.

From the corporate to the culinary world

Vegan baking classes are a long way from Soon’s former career as an information technology sales consultant.

After years in a demanding corporate environment, stress, illness and depression were beginning to set in. “I was so stressed and sick every month,” she recalls.

Her weight dropped to 36 kilograms and doctors strongly advised her to reconsider her choice of work. Searching for some respite, she decided to join a baking class.

She began making delicious treats for her colleagues, and their positive response gave her the confidence to enrol at the China Grain Products Research and Development Institute in Taipei to deepen her baking knowledge. She began working part-time at Tzu Chi on the side and within a year had quit her corporate job to focus full-time on baking.

She decided to set up her own baking studio, but never expected her classes to prove as popular as they have.

She says her clients are mainly Mandarin speakers and many are home cooks who want to bake without using animal products. Soon also uses organic and natural ingredients in her classes, and artisanal products or home products where possible to avoid heavily processed ingredients.

Despite her initial reluctance to offer vegan baking classes, Soon has delved deeper into the movement and is now vegan herself.

“One of the hardest part for me is [not eating] eggs, but I’m slowly getting used to it. And cappuccino!

“I love coffee and unless you use good quality soya milk, it is tough to replicate milk.”

Despite her love for milky coffee, Soon is now a firm believer in the principles of the vegan movement.

A dairy-free future

Taking up the challenge of vegan baking has encouraged Soon to head abroad in search of new recipes and techniques.

The vegan movement is truly international and she finds travelling is the best way to stay on top of the trends in the vegan world, such as attempts to make vegan cheese. She is now experimenting with lemon juice to coagulate nut milk to make vegan cheese.

Her next challenge is perfecting entremets, a French dessert that relies heavily on cream and eggs. Gelatin can be replaced with pectin to create a glaze, but finding a replacement for butter or animal fat – which is important for enabling mousse to set – has proven more difficult.

While cocoa butter or coconut oil will set mousse, they begin melting at room temperature when the desserts are being served. Instead, Soon is trying out other products such as seaweed powder so that her entremets stay set for longer when they are out of the fridge.

She hopes that as demand rises for vegan desserts, naturally produced ingredients will be cheaper and more accessible to home cooks.

“For now, I am happy with my lab [home kitchen] experiments and I love learning new skills to share with more vegan enthusiasts.”