I just had a press interview this week, and I was asked: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about veganism that you face now?
My answer was that many people believe that going vegan is expensive.
I explained that most plant-based references we have are from the west. Pictures of mouth-watering dishes would typically use produce that is accessible in the area. If all we see are pictures from Europe, United States and Down Under, of course it would look expensive to the pennywise Malaysian! I myself didn’t know any better when I started out going vegan, buying expensive imported supplements and making only western food with western ingredients.
This is a situation I want to change as Davina Da Vegan. I wish to be a part of a localized narrative for the vegan movement, one that has a familiar touch. One that my friends and family can refer to, within arm’s reach, to be able to look at the food and think, “Hey, I can do that too!”And most of all, to help make healthy living accessible and affordable to all.
Here’s a list of some ingredients that are used a lot in western dishes, and my suggestions for cheaper alternatives in Malaysia that may be similar or reminiscent in taste and texture… and in some cases, could even be better for you!
Replace with: Lime
Lemons are highly recommended to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle, but its green-coloured sibling deserves just as much mention. Limes have half the vitamin C of lemons , but it largely makes up for this with its stronger concentration of other vitamins and minerals such as Vitamins A, E and B3 (niacin), calcium, zinc and copper. Limau Nipis (Key Lime) and Limau Kasturi (Calamansi Lime) are sold in abundance in markets all around the country.
Replace with: Kailan
Both coming from the same species, Kai Lan is also known as Chinese Broccoli or Chinese Kale. Kale has been hailed as a nutritional powerhouse, packed with Vitamins K, A, C and more Iron than beef. Kailan is equally rich in these nutrients, including the stalks. Kale loses a point in this area, as its stalks are typically too tough and fibrous to be eaten. Kailan can be eaten raw, but it has a stronger taste than kale. The leaves are on the bitter side, and are not as thick as kale leaves, so they don’t hold their shape as firmly either. Kailan is much more popular in stir fries, which brings out a natural sweetness in the vegetable. If you have a recipe that involves cooking or baking kale, substituting it with kailan may be much cheaper for Malaysians – and more nutritious too, thanks to the edible stalks.
Kailan is available at most wet markets around the country. If you have access to an oven, get ready to be mindblown with your own homemade Kailan Chips.
Replace with: Brown Rice
My husband was watching a documentary in Danish, that compared the nutritional value of the pricey quinoa with that of the cheaper brown rice. The difference? Not thaaat much, considering how much more one needs to spend on quinoa.
After doing some homework of my own, turns out that a cup of quinoa has three grams more protein than a cup of brown rice. Quinoa wins over brown rice in the mineral department too, like magnesium, phosphorous, iron and folate. However, brown rice has more manganese, selenium, has better cholesterol-lowering powers in the form of niacin, and has half the fat of quinoa. Carb wise, either option offers more or less the same amount.
Quinoa is indeed a highly nutritious grain. But the question of whether or not the benefits of something are worth what you pay for it, is something you barely need to think about when you purchase brown rice in bulk. Brown rice is still a fantastic grain to support a healthy lifestyle, and very easy to find in grocery stores nationwide. Better still, if you can get your hands on some red rice from Kelantan state, it will give you an iron boost, and its earthy colour courtesy of anthocyanins will help to reduce inflammation and cancer risk.
Replace with: Barley
Oats are easy to find in supermarkets, and easy to cook too if you get the instant variety. One of the most famous options for a healthy breakfast , oats are sought after for a unique type of water-soluble fibre called beta-glucan. Beta glucan is a helpful ally in managing cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Despite barley not being quite as hyped as oats, it actually contains more beta glucan, and twice the protein! But barley is more calorie-dense than oats, so a word of caution to those who are on calorie-focused diets. Barley is also not ideal for those who are gluten intolerant.
Hulled barley is more nutritious, but pearled barley is faster to cook and easier to find in most local markets and grocery stores. It is cheaper too. You can cook it in a pot of water for 45 minutes, and store the barley water as a nourishing beverage (it keeps in the fridge for a day). Like oats, the cooked barley grains itself can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. If there is leftover barley, it can be frozen for up to a month.
Replace with: Guava
A is for Apple! As one of the first fruits we learn about the moment we can talk, apples are synonymous with being one of the most palatable, handiest snacks that carry us through from school life to work life. But it may not be the first thing you’d find at a fruit stall in a Malaysian kampung. What you may find instead is the guava…The humble, homegrown, VITAMIN HULK of a guava. Compared to apples, guavas delivers 4 times more Vitamin B1 and E, 12 times more niacin and vitamin A, and 50 TIMES more vitamin C.
If they say that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, a guava a day files a permanent restraining order.
Both fruits share a similar tartness and crisp mouthfeel; the guava being a tad drier. I’ve substituted apple with guava in this easy classic crumble dessert.
Ironically though, the recipe uses oats!
Taking the ingredients for the guava filling, cutting the guava into smaller pieces, doubling up the water, and gently cooking all of it in a pot for 10-12 minutes will produce a beautiful chunky sauce that can be enjoyed as a a pie filling, or topping over breakfast or dessert.
Replace with: Mulberries
Blueberries are all the rage these days for their high antioxidant qualities. This is in the form of anthocyanins, that is responsible for the berry’s trademark purplish blue skin.
Imported fresh blueberries in Malaysia are not for the frugal, and we tend to only have access to the variety that has white or light green flesh. This is not the species that is famous for anthocyanins. It is the wild European blueberry (also known as bilberry), that contains antioxidant-rich flesh as purple as their skin. I have yet to see this type sold fresh here.
What some of us may have access to instead, is locally grown mulberries.
I recall my first taste of mulberries in Fraser Hill, some fifteen years ago. I ate them straight off the tree. The not-so-ripe red ones were on the tart side. The dark purple ones had a wonderful balance of sour and sweet, and stained my hands purple.
In terms of anthocyanin content, mulberries outdo blueberries by a mile, containing almost 80% more. It also has 2.5 times more potassium and TEN TIMES more vitamin C.
Mulberry trees grow well in Malaysia, but for some reason the fresh berries are not commercially popular and therefore not the easiest to find as a consumer. They are grown and sold in Sabah. I’m not sure what the full scope of access is like for the peninsular. But for the Klang Valley at least, I have often seen it as a product of local organic produce brand Zenxin, which is distributed at a few large supermarket chains, and at standalone Zenxin stores in Uptown Damansara and Sri Petaling. Chances are that their other outlets around Malaysia might sell them too – do call the outlets individually to check! Their mulberries get sold at double the volume of blueberries, and at half the price. If they are too sour for your liking, a small sprinkle of brown sugar (or shaved Gula Melaka!) always helps.
7. Maple Syrup
Replace with: Gula Melaka (Malaysian Palm Sugar)
Maple syrup, made from the sap of the maple tree, is the pride and joy of Canadian natural produce. Its delicate smoky caramel taste helps to sweeten desserts and adds a touch of elegance. The elegance in taste equates to an equally elegant price tag, as it takes up to forty litres of raw sap to produce one litre of syrup, and the work behind creating the final product is very labour intensive. Pure maple syrup is very nutritious. But to make it more accessible for the masses, most brands dilute their maple syrup with other cheap sweeteners like glucose and corn syrup. If an ingredient label isn’t thoroughly inspected, it may be easy for one to believe that they are buying real maple syrup from the supermarket, when all they are mostly buying is maple-inspired sugar.
Gula Melaka is directly translated from Bahasa into ‘Malacca Sugar’. It is made with the sap of coconut palm, reduced to a viscous liquid, then left to harden in bamboo molds, hence their cylindrical shape. The taste of gula melaka is much more distinct than maple. Depending on the species of palm used and the artisanal process, the taste of gula melaka can have hints of smoke, caramel, fruit, toffee, butterscotch, even coffee. With little label regulation enforcement and also when bought from small-time makers that don’t print labels at all, it’s not easy to tell when you are purchasing gula melaka in its pure form. One indication of cane sugar being added is when the blocks are light in colour and very hard to cut with a butter knife. Even when you do have access to pure gula melaka, it is still much, much cheaper than buying pure maple syrup. And the taste is just as, if not more, unforgettable. Heat up a block in a pan with some water to create a syrup. The less water you use, the thicker your syrup, and the quicker it hardens back to its original form upon cooling.
Gula melaka has been used for centuries in the region long before cane sugar was introduced by European colonies. Beyond being just a substitute for maple, I particularly enjoy using gula melaka for the heritage it represents.
Pure gula melaka, like pure maple, contains nutrients and has a low glycaemic index. This means that it won’t cause your blood sugar levels to spike as fast as refined white sugar. But as with all sweeteners, use sparingly. Gula Melaka can be found at most wet markets, grocery stores and supermarkets around the country.