This month’s Don’t Call Me Chef challenge put me in a real tizzy: cooking with canned food. I admit that I always have some canned food stocked in my pantry. Usually it’s a can or two of green peas (my all-time favourite can food which I featured in the column), a can of Campbell’s soup (a quick sauce/casserole solution), a can of chickpeas (when cravings leave you no time to soak dry beans overnight) and a few cans of pureed tomatoes – Italian variety tomatoes, cut and sometimes herbed are such a wonderful shortcut.
My, it does seem like I use canned food quite a bit. Anyhow, looking at my stock, I realised that nothing I had was quite exciting enough to be featured. Except the green pea because nothing compared to canned green peas. Yes, I will stand by this.
I usually feature recipes that I am inspired by but this time I decided to use this space to report on my first encounter with a canned food I am unfamiliar with. For that, I had to go grocery shopping. Oh Joy. I decided to scout around: visiting small sundry shops as well as big-chain grocery shops — just so that I could suss out the selection.
Like a kid in a candy store (or a dude in a tool shop) I spent hours looking at canned food. The kind of food Michael Pollan would balk at. Canned beets, spinach, sliced potatoes, refried beans, sauerkraut, canned raspberries, pineapple, mandarin oranges … the choices were endless and, mind you, that’s only the vegetarian options. For meat eaters, there’s more to play with: anchovies, corned beef, luncheon meat and spam.
I really wanted to buy the canned chestnuts and artichoke hearts but at RM15 a can (a small one at that) I was hesitant. Well, actually I turned around and walked the other way, down the next aisle.
I found what I wanted in my neighbourhood shop: Kedai Runcit Peng Soon. My choice was a can of fake meat or “mock chicken”. Made wholly out of gluten, this was a challenge indeed. Firstly, the texture of the canned gluten is rubbery. Next, the taste is salty because of the brine in which it sits. The canned gluten is actually pre-cooked but you will not want to eat it as is. Salty with a tinge of chemical is not really appetizing. On the plus side, the canned meat was visually interesting because the fake meat actually had fake chicken skin.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I decided to make a curry with the mock chicken. While I couldn’t alter the rubbery texture of the gluten, I discovered that sugar and spice can make anything nice. Cinnamon, star anise, curry powder, ginger, garlic, shallots and lemon grass and a little coconut milk made this gluten curry a tasty side dish which I ate with plain white bread.
The verdict: Would I used canned gluten again? Probably not but it isn’t because the dish wasn’t tasty; rather, why used a canned alternative when using fresh ingredients are not only tastier but easier?