Influenced by my parents, I grew up eating vegetarian. They came from Shandong, the northern part of China which is famous for being Confucius’ hometown. I came here at 3 years old when they decided to immigrate to Singapore. Being raised here, I identify as Singaporean Chinese since I have no memories of my early childhood in China. Food wise, I’ve always had the best of both worlds. I grew up on homemade Shandong dumplings and millet porridge, as well as Singapore’s hawker fare like laksa and Hokkien mee. As a child, I enjoyed visiting hawker centres as I could eat foods that my parents didn’t make at home, like my favourite rojak, masala dosa, wanton mee and kway chap.
As I got older, I started having digestive issues that worsened while studying architecture at university. After consulting many doctors to no avail, I decided to change my diet and lifestyle. I started by cutting out dairy, and then avoided eating highly processed and junk foods for a while. For some time, I mainly ate whole foods close to original forms, like beans, tofu, tempeh, vegetables, grains, seeds and nuts, while learning how to prepare them properly for maximum digestibility. The results were fantastic – Other than improved digestion and appetite, I realised it helped with me getting better sleep and mood.
Stepping into the world of cooking
Adopting a whole-food based vegan lifestyle meant it was difficult to dine out initially, since I was still a student. Hawker food is not always the most gut-friendly and cafes selling healthy food were too expensive. I was under immense stress during university, so I was constantly looking for a way to ease my mind. I started exploring using ingredients that I could buy easily to make different foods. Cooking and baking felt relaxing and refreshing, thus it became a way to take care of my physical and mental health. They are also hobbies that are in line with my philosophy of touching the world as lightly as possible.
Years ago, there were also no places that sold affordable vegan cakes or muffins in Singapore. I was craving for cake as well as familiar hawker fare that has no MSG, mock meats and less oil. I found some non-vegan recipes and tried to veganise them with affordable ingredients. It was not an easy process. There were lots of trial and error, and online searching involved. I also went to any vegan baking classes that were available, to learn and improve my recipes – The pandan cake recipe in my book alone took more than 20 tries to perfect!
Despite the arduous process, I was happy with the results. This motivated me to post recipes, such as Asian dishes like bak kwa (Chinese meat jerky) and roti jala (Malay/Indonesian rolled crepe), constantly on my blog ‘More than Veggies’ . It started around 2010 mainly as a place to store my recipes and photos, and to share with those interested in a vegan lifestyle. Since the vegan diet was very niche at that time, I didn’t promote my blog a lot at first since I thought there would not be much interest in it.
The journey to my first vegan recipe book
Around 2015, the vegan scene in Singapore grew rapidly. I found a bigger community on Instagram and Facebook to share my recipes and food with. The positive feedback from these communities encouraged me to continue creating recipes that were close to our hearts.
At the start of 2020, when Marshall Cavendish approached me to write a plant-based Asian recipe book, I jumped at the chance. I thought it’s a good chance to contribute more diversity to the international vegan scene, as vegan recipes out there can be quite Western-centric, focusing on dishes like pizza, burgers, salads etc. Some of the Asian recipes out there were not even authentic, like Singapore noodles – we don’t have it here. I could barely find recipes for vegan versions of some dishes I grew up with. There’s been a huge rise in interest in plant-based lifestyles in recent years, so I hope that people will realise that their familiar favourites can be made plant-based.
To me, plant-based cooking and baking is about coaxing out the full flavour of edible plants to create robust dishes. My approach is not to imitate egg, seafood or meat, but rather draw out the potential of plants to create familiar flavours. I’m inspired by my Northern Chinese heritage, Singapore’s diversity, Southeast, South and East Asia’s colourful cuisines, family recipes and vast vegan resources available everywhere.
I made good use of the circuit breaker (Singapore’s version of lockdown) to compile recipes, update and refine them, and finally write and photograph. The main difficulty was finding certain ingredients, as it was during the pandemic period.I had to stay alert to quickly buy ingredients online when they were available. However, other ingredients such as canned chickpeas and baking powder were constantly out of stock, so I learnt how to make my own from online tutorials. Getting camera equipment was another issue as well, since the sellers were not allowed to open their stores. I could only wait till they had permission from the government to open, and ship the orders to me.
Since my book was released, it’s heartening to see people who have not eaten pandan cake for years, celebrate making their own vegan cake successfully. Someone from San Francisco even made my monkey head mushroom satay recipe – I was quite surprised to learn that fresh lemongrass and galangal can be bought there.Moving forward, what I’d really like to do is put out more videos teaching people how to cook, or where to find delicious and affordable dishes in Singapore or Japan, where I’ll be moving to. I love making videos and have already shared a few on my YouTube channel, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to video production. As a professional trained in media arts, I’m quite particular about the quality. With current work and study commitments, it’s a little hard to find enough time for it, but it’s definitely on my to-do list for next year.
Joy is a Singapore-based creative, food and travel blogger. As a professionally trained designer and self-taught photographer, She has been creating and sharing plant-based recipes for the past decade. Her first recipe book, titled “More Than Veggies – Asian Favourites Made Plant-based” was released this year. It can be purchased from most countries here. It is also available on Amazon SG and Kinokuniya.
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