Updated: Sep 2, 2019
I was a fussy child. To be more precise, I had what was probably a medically-diagnosable level of fussiness. I subsided primarily on cheese and tomato frozen pizzas, chips and turkey dinosaurs. Although this was very stressful in many cases for both me and my parents, it has resulted in some weird quirks which I quite enjoy pulling out as little tidbits of patter in gatherings. My mum chasing me around the living room to try to get me to try one spoonful of apricot fromage frais (they came in packs of apricot, raspberry and strawberry and I would only eat 'red flavoured' things). The fact that I've never tasted lamb or a Pot Noodle. People are often particularly perplexed by my lack of childhood experience with takeout. If it wasn't pizza, I'd be happier with cheese on toast or a bowl of cereal.
I've never eaten a Chinese takeout. They're hugely popular here in the UK and where I live many of the fish and chip shops are run by British-Chinese families running a sort of half British half Chinese menu. I even had a friend through primary school whose parents owned one. Unfortunately, I was frightened of vegetables. And just about everything else in the dishes. I don't have any memory of eating rice before my early teens and noodles even later (although I was fine with pasta!). Even these very anglicised establishments were just too exotic for me.
I started to feel differently about food when I was around 15 or 16. I had gotten into the habit of watching a LOT of cooking shows with my dad (who also never cooked) out of a sort of fascination with this alien world of food. When I watched the Michelin starred chefs creating these dishes, I started to see the food as something more like art. Art was something I understood and loved. I studied English, writing and art in various places and ways throughout my life.I can see now that this was the beginning of my love for food, but the catalyst was when I moved out at 17 and decided I was going to cook everything myself.
I have no idea where this assertion came from, as the only cooking I had ever done was baking brownies occasionally or making cupcakes with my Gran. I bought cookbooks and asked for them as gifts. I bought a recipe box and my mum passed on recipe cards, cuttings and photocopies. Within a year, I learned to cook. I went vegetarian. I learned to cook again. I gave up eggs and dairy, opened a restaurant and spent most of my days cooking. The restaurant business is behind me now, but my love for the creative side of cooking has never waned.
Sometimes when people talk about their childhood memories of these foods I missed out on, I wish I could experience it for myself. Unfortunately, there's rarely an opportunity for a plant-based takeout that isn't serving up bean burgers or pizzas topped with a questionable smelling cheese-like goo. Chinese food, given the amount of egg and fish sauce used, is particularly difficult to find. So, I have gone on something of a mission to discover some of the flavours of Anglo-Chinese cooking for myself. One dish I often see on British and American menus is Mongolian Beef - essentially beef cooked with soy sauce and rice wine. I thought I'd give it a go and given the sound-alike quality of their name, not to mention the fact that my veg basket is bursting with them right now, beets seemed a good choice. I added a hit of citrus to cut through some of that earthy, funky flavour and boom, we have this dish. I don't know if it's anything like its distant takeout cousin, but honestly it's so delicious I don't think I mind.
Mongolian Beets with Orange & Cashews
Serves 2-3 Ingredients
For the beets:
3 medium raw beets, cut into 1cm dice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons plain or whole wheat flour
For the stir fry:
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cm ginger, finely chopped or grated
A handful of cashews
For the sauce:
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon orange oil of the zest of half an orange
A pinch of chilli flakes
For the beets, mix together all of the ingredients except the flour and let the beets marinade for 15 minutes.
Toss with the flour.
Spread out on a lined baking dish and roast for 35-40 minutes at 220c (430f), turning halfway through.
For the stir fry, heat the oil over a high heat in a large pan or wok.
Add the onion and fry until completely caramelised (around 15 minutes), deglazing the pan with a couple of tablespoons of water if it starts to stick.
Add the garlic and ginger and fry for a further 2 minutes.
Add the cashews and fry until they begin to colour slightly.
Add the roasted beetroot and continue to deglaze the pan when needed.
For the sauce, just mix all of the ingredients together and pour into the pan.
Cook for 2 minutes, then serve with sticky rice or noodles.