It generally doesn’t take long in one’s life as a vegetarian to get that eventual question… “But what if you were on a deserted island? What then? Would you eat animals then?” Surprisingly, as often as this question comes up, I’ve never known a vegan who accidentally ended up on a deserted island, but the threat must be imminent! Otherwise, why would people be so concerned about our livelihoods? While one might assume that a deserted island would have plants, herbs, tropical fruits, and other vegetation, we can’t be too safe! Sure, at least some of the wild animals who live on the island are probably herbivores, and I could just eat what they’re eating… But since I have time to prepare, I figured I’d make a packing list just in case. That way the next time that someone asks me that eventual question I can say, “No worries. I’ve got it handled. I’ve already made a packing list.”
So this week, that’s what I’m doing. I figure I don’t have that much room in my suitcase, and so I should probably limit myself. Today I’m focusing on the five herbs and spices that I’ll bring. (Hey, other vegans, in case you end up there too, could someone bring those cute little umbrellas for drinks? That will make the whole experience a lot more festive.)
1. If I only had room for one spice, I would bring cumin. (So if any of you plan on coming to the deserted island too, no need to bring that one. I’ve got it covered.) Cumin is used in the cuisines of India, the Middle East, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain. Romans and Greeks used it medicinally, and in Egypt cumin seeds have been found in the Old Kingdom Pyramids. Cumin is so incredibly useful. It’s a spice I use every day. It goes in hummus, chili, and chickpea tacos. A dash is added to salsa and guacamole. It’s imperative in Indian fried rice and my weekend tofu scramble. It has an earthy, warm taste that translates well in a lot of dishes.
2. The first herb I would bring is the controversial cilantro, the love-it or hate-it herb. Some say it tastes like soap. I wish that my soap tasted like this. Not that I’d eat soap. But I’m getting distracted… Cilantro has an appearance similar to parsley. When purchasing a batch, always give it a sniff first to make sure you have the right herb. It adds such an interesting finish to a variety of dishes. I adore Indian samosas or Ethiopian sambussas dipped in cilantro chutney. Cilantro adds another dimension to spicy Thai noodles. Of course, stuffed into tacos and burritos, it’s the perfect fit, and added to any salsa from tomato to peach to mango those other flavors are brought to life. Pesto made with a half and half combination of cilantro and basil or tabbouleh with cilantro instead of parsley makes for a dynamic twist on a typical taste.
3. Next on the list is the very fragrant rosemary, which reminds me of so many hikes in the mountains of Southern California. Rosemary grows wild there, and as I’d hike, the smell of it would waft in the air. Fresh or dried, rosemary adds a deep, savory quality to a dish. Add it to tiny red skinned potatoes with a drizzle of oil and a hearty helping of garlic and the side dish becomes the best part of the meal. It brings out the flavor in roasted squash, it’s great on baked tofu, and starting the morning with a fresh-out-of-the-oven olive oil and rosemary bagel with a schmear of hummus is a beautiful thing. (What? There are no bagels on this island? Who organized this trip anyway?)
4. Basil, preferably fresh, is featured prominently in Italian dishes but is also used in the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Its robust taste, full of bite, adds a punch to a dish. Added to polenta, pasta, or Tuscan White Beans, it takes something simple and gives it more interest. What would pesto or pizza be without basil? Best of all, basil takes the simplicity of garlic, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and crusty bread, and makes it bruschetta.
5. I’m finishing out the list with paprika. Paprika, which was first produced in Spain, is a spice that is made from grinding dried mild peppers. Its beautiful color and flavor doesn’t overwhelm and is a go-to when making rice, soup, stew, fajitas, potato salad, hummus, or a tofu scramble. Smoked paprika takes cashew sour cream from the fatty, slightly sweet deliciousness that it already is and makes it sing. And to think that there was a time before I was vegan when I thought the only use of paprika was to garnish once-a-year deviled eggs!
(I’d like to give an honorable mention to sage, thyme, parsley, and turmeric. If for any reason paprika is unwilling or unable to fulfill its duties as the Island’s #5 spice, I’ll call you…)