This is me. Well, my neck is shorter, my eyes are squintier, my arm is fatter...but I do have a shirt just like that.
Welcome to my blog!
My name is Alina Niemi, and I am a writer, artist, teacher, Licensed Massage Therapist, gardener, musician, dancer, woodturner, and dabbler in more things than I have time for.
I have been a vegetarian since 1983. In the beginning I ate a lot of salads, plus things like pork tofu without the pork, which ended up being mostly tofu…not exactly inspiring fare.
Don’t get me wrong–I love tofu. It’s delicious plain, with simple condiments like shoyu (soy sauce,) green onions, and ginger, especially in the summer. But more on that later.
Over the decades my love for food and cooking has allowed me to discover a world of tastes, textures, and treasures. A true food fanatic, I have magazine pages, newspaper clippings, snippets of paper with barely-legible scribbling on them, all over my house, all with recipes on them. And yes, in this computer age, now my computer files are bulging with them too!
Most are collected, many are in various stages of refinement. I develop vegetarian and vegan recipes to add to my collection, enter contests, and fill a need.
If I eat something that sets my heart a-flutter, I try to re-create it at home. Everywhere I travel I attempt to get a sense of the food and bring recipes home to keep a part of the culture with me. I’ve sniffed herbs pulled out of a pot in someone’s home in Turkey, cloistered away with the women of the family, just to learn how to make that stuffed pepper dish.
I stomped through the grocery aisles with the principal of the school where I was teaching in Japan (well, he stomped; I rushed to keep up with him). He pointed, and I nodded or shook my head. He said things I did not understand. I “hmm”-ed, just so he knew I would have enough vegetarian food to eat in his town. (It would have brought shame to the town if I had starved.)
I took notes at a restaurant in a small trading village on a remote island in Indonesia, while the owner patiently showed me leaves of things I had never seen before, so I could try to make it at home. Afterwards, I mistakenly drank from the bottle of unboiled water that was on the table and intended for hand-washing. He rushed out, grabbed it from me, then explained in sign language that I would end up sick to my stomach. I waited in tense terror every day for a week, until I was sure my chances of contracting Giardia, a severe intestinal disease from a parasite, or toxic liver failure, were over. (Yeah, I’m a bit dramatic. But hey, these things really do happen!)
Typically I return from a vacation with CDs, books, and chocolate (I think my record was 9-1/2 pounds of chocolate after a trip to Scandinavia.) I tend to take clothing with the intent of giving it away to make more room for stuff to bring home!
Since I am basically a lazy cook, I try to cut out unnecessary steps and ingredients whenever possible, without ruining flavor and texture. Why wash two bowls when I only need one?
I also trim sugar, salt and fat and increase fiber and nutrients, using whole wheat rather than white flour, and substituting for eggs and dairy products. This way I can have my cake, know exactly what is in it, and eat it, too.
Whenever I have something growing well in the garden, I try to utilize it. And because I am also a lazy gardener, I let volunteer plants take center stage. That means anything that grows by itself, or continues to grow without needing me to spray, trim, cover, shade, protect, or coddle it in any way.
Translation: I eat a lot of herbs, kabocha, kale, and whatever that variety of cherry tomato is that keeps springing up like magic. So I develop recipes to use those.
My recipes have won several contests and been published in magazines such as Taste of Home’s Cooking Light, Delicious Living, and Better Homes and Gardens. I include links to where they can be found elsewhere on the internet whenever possible.
I love anything different or unusual, especially new flavor combinations or directions that force my mouth and my mind to veer off course and be happily surprised. Strawberries and rosewater; chocolate and curry; chakalaka (stay tuned…!)
I am interested in how different cultures treat the same ingredient. For example, we eat corn mostly as a vegetable or part of breakfast cereal. In Japan, they put it on pizza; in Thailand, they put it in sweet snack pancakes; in Italy it turns into polenta; in Mexico and South America it becomes tortillas.
The thrill and challenge of coming up with something new using the same old ingredients ignites my creative fire. I watch and re-watch Top Chef and Iron Chef America, taking pages of hurried notes and sketches, gathering ideas for plating and presentation.
If a dish comes out well, I smile and run to input it into the computer before I forget how I made it. If it comes out terribly, I try feeding it to the dog or my father, who will eat almost anything. If it comes out delicious, I stutter with excitement as I give samples to my “guinea pig” friends, awaiting their opinions. I’m like a junkie catching my jollies from the vicarious thrill of turning someone on to some new high.
Despite vegetarians comprising about 10% of the population in the United States, with numbers rising every year, many people still think all we eat is salad and rice. Potlucks where I have more to eat than carrot sticks, cheese, and tortilla chips are still the exception to the rule, unfortunately.
So if you are wondering what a vegetarian eats, this blog is for you. If you need a recipe you can take to the next potluck and know anyone can eat, you’ll find many here. If you are looking for ways to cut out dairy, eggs, or saturated fat, or want to add more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to your diet, ideas abound.
And fear not…I have a father, dog, neighbors, and friends who serve as “normal” eaters and guinea pigs for my creations. If they don’t approve with their “what the heck is tempeh?” palates, the recipes won’t get posted here!
Feel free to play with these recipes, add and subtract, substitute and change. I have a sweet tooth, so my salad dressings, for example, will have a sweet or sweet-sour flavor to them, never one where sour predominates.
My only request is that if you pass these recipes on to others or post them elsewhere, you also link to my blog or include my blog address so they can visit if they’d like to, and so I get credit. There is a lot of work, time, effort, and money that is involved to fine-tune recipes, photograph them, and put it all together here, so I ask that you respect me and my work.
Why would anyone give up eating meat? Reasons abound, but I did originally when I heard there was a link to an increase in diseases. In the 1980’s, I heard about higher incidence of colon cancer. Since my grandfather ended up with colon cancer and had a colostomy bag strapped to his body, the news hit close to home. I did not want to follow in his footsteps.
Current research has also shown consumption of animal products increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, breast and other cancers:
Red Meat Consumption Can Be Dangerous
Since heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the U.S., a vegetarian diet is a huge step to prevent getting it. Diabetes is becoming epidemic. Studies all over the world, including here in Hawaii, by Dr. Terry Shintani, have shown that a plant-based diet can cause drastic reduction of disease and diabetes.
Dr. Shintani’s Hawaii Diet information
Here is a link to a video by Registered Dietician Brenda Davis, who oversaw a program in the Marshall Islands which significantly reduced disease rates:
Reclaiming Your Health: Lessons From the Marshall Islands
But I continue to be a vegetarian because I know that meat consumption is bad for the environment. It takes a lot more corn and water to feed a pig to make that pulled pork sandwich than it would if you ate the corn and drank the water yourself. Raising livestock, allowing them to graze on native habitat, and cutting forested areas to raise livestock are all detrimental to ecosystems. These practices do more to increase global warming than driving our cars.
The Environmental Defense Fund reports:
If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains, for example, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.
Source: Environmental Defense Fund
Finally, going meatless is better for the animals! The conditions many animals are raised in only to end up chopped up on someone’s plate are sad at best, horrendous and inhumane at worst. Besides, if you have ever seen a meat grinder in action and watched how a 300-pound dead cow can be pulverized and turned into ground beef, hooves, tail hair, guts and all, in about 20 seconds, you might not have such a hearty appetite the next time you are eyeball-to-eyeball with a hamburger. Or a cow, for that matter!
A vegan is someone who does not eat animal products, including eggs, dairy (cheese, ice cream, milk, etc.) or honey. Many vegans expand their philosophy to include eschewing animal products in clothing and other items. They don’t wear leather, for example, or use leather wallets, shoes, or bags.
I’m not a vegan. I include dairy products and eggs from time to time, and I see no reason to remove honey from my life. Thus the name of my blog, Almost Vegan in Paradise.
About the “Paradise” Part
YES, I live in Honolulu, Hawaii, and yes, I love it here. Yes, I frequently complain about the heat and humidity, so, yes, I travel every year to get away from it all. But every time I go away, I come back and kiss the ground at the Honolulu International Airport. (Well, not really, but I sure feel like it!)
Going away restores my soul and reminds me how lucky I am to live in a place where the weather is moderate year-round, the people are down-to-earth, the variety of cultures and experiences I can find within an hour’s drive is fabulous, and the Nature that surrounds me is colorful, fragrant, and amazing!
Hawaii has a varied cuisine due to influences from Polynesia, Japan, China, Korea, the Philipines and Portugal. Neighbors from islands south of us introduced plants which became important staples for food and life to the ancient Hawaiians. Taro, coconut, breadfruit, sweet potato, Hawaiian cotton and ti are still used for food and crafts. Immigrants from Portugal, the Philipines, Japan, China, and Korea, who came to work in the sugar cane, pineapple, and coffee plantations, introduced dishes and ingredients that survive to this day.
Eventually Mainland U.S. and other European-based cultures have added to the mix, along with more recent immigrant cultures of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The result is a potpourri found nowhere else in the world.
A “plate lunch” or “bento” (Japanese for “box meal”) can include Japanese rice and takuan (pickled vegetables), Korean kimchi, Chinese dim sum, and a hot dog, covered with chili, with a haupia (Hawaiian coconut pudding)-filled malasada (Portuguese doughnut) for dessert. Not exactly easy to categorize!
In the last 20 years or so, chefs have taken the melange of available fresh and ethnic ingredients and blended them with modern cooking techniques and styles, producing what is called by several names: Hawaii Regional Cuisine, Hawaiian Fusion, or Asian or Pacific Rim Cuisine. Notable chefs include Alan Wong, Sam Choy, George Mavrothalassitis and Russell Siu.
Increasingly, chefs are incorporating locally-grown and organic produce whenever possible, which helps support people who live and grow here and reduces our dependence on imported food, thereby reducing our consumption of energy to transport everything. And while the only place I am likely to have a salad that includes edible flowers, kohlrabi and French sorrel is my own kitchen, with stuff I’ve grown myself, I am happy to see more variety in the stores, more action at farmers’ markets, and more awareness around me.
My co-workers for years have been asking me, “What’s that?” as they peer at my lunch from home. In Japan, my students and other teachers watched in shock as I ate cucumbers and apples whole! With the peel on!
Now you too can look over my shoulder and find out what that yellow stuff is, or what that herb is in the salad, or what that funny-looking thing is that is growing in my garden.