Today, I am going to tell you a little story about the power of denial. And the power of really good Thai food.
It all started when I was nearing the end of my vegan transition, which basically meant that I was starting to actually tell people that I was “vegan” (but still had a lot to learn). I had also just moved back to Michigan and was starting a new job in Ferndale, a city in Michigan with a small but fun and eclectic downtown that seemed to me to be bursting with amazing food options. One of those options was a small hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant that charged only $6 for a lunch special that was not only generously portioned but exceedingly delicious. And, to my delight, it was (or so I thought it was) “vegan”. Coconut-Vegetable Curry, as I assumed at the time, was of course made strictly of coconut milk, vegetables, tofu (non-GMO, of course) and secret Thai spices that made it so delicious that I would eat the entire aforementioned generous portion in one sitting, inducing an afternoon food coma that was not the most conducive to productivity in my new job.
I was obsessed with this curry dish. I would crave it. My co-workers soon became obsessed with their respective favorites from this small place as well. Eventually, we were all sheepishly suggesting office carry-outs 2, 3, 4 times per week. After all, it was cheap, quick and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I tried to ignore the splitting headaches I would get after each meal, the bloating, or the fact that my mouth was so parched that I would go through 4 bottles of water within an hour after eating.
But it was one day that I went in to this restaurant for my weekly office pick-up duties that I noticed that behind the checkout counter, there was a glass refrigerator filled with cartons of heavy cream. Yes, as in dairy cream. I started glancing around the small restaurant, searching for the coffee pot. Surely, that’s what the cream was for. But there was no coffee. Then I remembered. Ah, yes. They serve Thai iced tea here. That’s what the cream is for. But there was a lot of cream. I mean, loads of it. And slowly, I started realizing that all of that cream wasn’t just for iced tea. It was for something else: our food. A few questions with the manager confirmed my suspicions. Devastation crept in.
With the realization that for the last several months, I had been eating a meal ladden with heavy cream multiple times per week, other realizations started to sink in as well. This was probably not the only restaurant that was resorting to such fattening and unhealthy measures to keep me coming back. So I started asking questions elsewhere. And before long, it occurred to me that what once seemed a perfect cuisine for the newly-minted vegan — Thai food — was actually loaded with not only fish sauce, but yes, heavy cream. Turns out my little hole-in-the-wall was not the only restaurant using that “trick” to get their curries to taste so good.
Grave disappointment eventually turned to relief that I was no longer subjecting my body to such fattening, unhealthy meals (not to mention what was likely MSG making me parched and giving me headaches). And while I was still saddened to find that what once seemed to be a plethora of Thai options in my area dwindled down to just one place that served about two dishes I could eat, I was nevertheless resigned to never again make assumptions and to always ask questions about what’s in my food. I also came to the realization that if I wanted to remain truly healthy and stay true to my vegan lifestyle, I would be better off getting my Thai fix at home.
And so here we are.
This noodle curry dish is far from traditional. It will not taste like the cream-filled curry you might have enjoyed at one point, too (I can’t be alone in this, right?). But it is creamy. It’s spicy. It’s coconutty (did I just make up a word?) and it’s still yummy. You won’t feel bloated or yucky after eating it. And you will feel good knowing that there was little fat and lots of vitamins and veggies loaded into this dish. It was inspired by my butternut squash mac and cheese, because if butternut squash yielded such a creamy, bright orange mac and cheese sauce, I imagined it would make a great curry sauce as well.
For this photo, I made this dish with brown rice spaghetti noodles. But for a more traditional take, I would suggest using Thai rice noodles — those glassy-looking noodles that are usually found in the Asian section of your grocery store. The brown rice spaghetti yielded sort of a thicker, alfredo-like sauce, while the traditional rice noodles would not tend to thicken the sauce as much. I actually prefer the more “Thai” version, using traditional rice noodles.
But I hate to limit you to just noodles. This sauce is great poured over rice, veggies and tofu, for a yummy curry bowl option (which you can mix yourself at the table, if you’d like). Play around with it. As a serving suggestion, I added Sriracha, but a little bit of crushed pepper flakes or cilantro would be a nice finish as well.
Butternut Squash Coconut Curry Noodles:
1 lb. gluten-free pasta (either Thai rice noodles or regular brown rice linguine)
Sauteed veggies (see note)
Crushed pepper flakes (optional) to taste
Sriracha (optional) for serving
1 can lite coconut milk
1/2 roasted butternut squash, skin removed*
2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste
1 tbsp curry powder (I used Trader Joe’s brand)
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 small clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (plus more to taste)
2 teaspoons Tamari or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
Vegetable broth for thinning sauce, if desired
* To cook butternut squash: halve squash lengthwise using a sharp knife. Scoop out seeds and stringy stuff in the middle. Lay squash flat, skin-up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until squash is soft and skin is browned. Remove skin before using in this recipe.
Note: For this recipe, I sauteed 1/3 of a medium red onion, thinly sliced, with about 5 sliced mushrooms and 3 handfuls kale until everything was soft. I like to saute my veggies in vegetable broth, so I used about 1/4 cup vegetable broth to saute. You can really use any vegetables with this dish, including green onion, broccoli, bell pepper or bok choy. I just used what I had on hand.
1. Cook pasta according to package directions and set aside. While pasta cooks, saute veggies and set aside as well.
2. After butternut squash has cooked, place it in a high-powered blender with other sauce ingredients and blend until smooth. If the squash was not hot when blending, lightly heat sauce in a small saucepan until warmed through (I add the squash when it’s still hot, which kinda heats everything else and saves me a step in the cooking process).
3. Toss pasta and veggies together in a large pot or serving bowl. Add sauce until pasta is covered liberally (but not swimming in it). Toss. Alternately, serve pasta topped with veggies and drizzled with sauce for a different look. Sprinkle with crushed pepper flakes or drizzle with Sriracha to serve. If sauce is too thick, add a little vegetable broth to thin out. Adjust salt to taste.