The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

Thai-style aubergine and shiitake balls with peanut sauce

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During the 1970s and 1980s, Costa Rica was being cynically exploited by multinational burger companies. These companies, most prominently Burger King and Wendy’s, incentivised native farmers to burn down rainforest in order to create grazing land for beef cattle destined to end up in fast food burgers.

Similar exploitative forces are continuously at play elsewhere across the world, most recently in the Brazilian rainforest, as the rapacious beef industry continues to eat up precious forest land.

Deforestation reduces the Earth’s overall capacity to absorb carbon emissions. It also creates a host of other problems, including drought, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, reduced water supplies and desertification, as has happened in Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Libya and Cameroon.

In Costa Rica’s case, however, an imaginative, forward thinking governmental programme introduced in 1986 has turned things around to such an extent that Costa Rica is now one of very few countries to have exceeded its targets set under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Essentially, the Costa Rican government reversed the perverse incentives that had encouraged farmers to create deforested areas. It eliminated subsidies for the cattle industry and introduced instead financial incentives to farmers who reforested and preserved existing forest.

Before this change of direction, Costa Rica had lost almost half of its forestland, but just over three decades later that forestland has been replaced and restored.

Combined with other policies, such as a moratorium on oil and gas exploration and a commitment to 100% renewable power in the transportation sector, Costa Rica is a shining example of the kind of bold, brave, long term political vision that is so needed across the world right now.

All governments should be these eliminating perverse incentives, which not only encourage bad farming practices but also effectively penalise sustainable farming.

So often it is the ever-growing world demand for meat that is at the heart of the pressure to slash and burn precious forestland across the world. The most important change needed, therefore, is for us all to transition to a diet that contains much less meat, a diet that would not only be good for human health but for that of our planet.

On to the recipe.

These beautiful, vegan and gluten-free Thai-style aubergine and shiitake balls with peanut sauce are packed full of wonderful flavours. Serve them with rice noodles or jasmine rice

Thai-style aubergine and shiitake balls with peanut sauce

400 g block tofu
1 aubergine, cut into roughly ½ cm cubes
150 g shiitake mushrooms, cut into roughly ½ cm cubes
6 spring onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed, finely chopped
3 cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 chillies, seeds in, finely chopped
100 g organic crunchy peanut butter
50 g gluten free panko breadcrumbs
70 ml soy sauce
zest of 1 lime
1 tbsp fresh coriander, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh Thai basil, finely chopped
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp groundnut oil

for the peanut sauce
70 g peanut butter
juice of 1 lime
2 cm piece ginger, chopped
1 chilli, seeds in, chopped
50 ml soy sauce
50 ml fresh water
20 ml maple syrup
more groundnut oil, for frying

to garnish
lime wedges
a little chopped coriander


1. First prepare the tofu by wrapping the block in a clean tea towel or several layers of kitchen paper and placing it between two flat chopping boards or baking trays. Put weights carefully on top and leave for at least thirty minutes.

2. Put the chilli, garlic, ginger and lemongrass into a food processor, or use a pestle and mortar, and process into a rough paste.

3. Pour the 1 tbsp sesame oil and 1 tbsp groundnut oil into a wok over a high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chopped aubergine and shiitake. Stir fry for 5-6 minutes, or until the aubergine is tender. Add the chilli, garlic, ginger and lemongrass and stir-fry for a further 2 minutes. Remove the wok from the heat and set to one side.

4. Roughly chop the drained tofu and pulse in a food processor until it has broken down into a crumbly texture. Tip this into a large mixing bowl. Add the aubergine and shiitake mixture, the peanut butter, spring onions, lime zest, soy sauce, breadcrumbs, Thai basil and coriander. Mix to combine. Shape the mixture into small balls, each weighing around 30 g. Roll each ball in the rice flour to dust lightly.

5. Make the peanut sauce by placing the peanut butter, lime juice, ginger, chilli, soy sauce, water and maple syrup into a blender and processing until smooth.

6. Wipe the wok clean and pour in groundnut oil to a depth of around 1 cm. Place over a high heat. Once the oil is hot, carefully add the aubergine and shiitake balls and fry on all side until golden brown and crispy on the outside. You will need to do this in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Briefly drain the fried balls on kitchen paper, then serve with plain rice or noodles, accompanied by the peanut sauce, the lime wedges and a little chopped coriander.

Categories: dairy free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian

Tags: , ,

10 replies

  1. I wish I could have that right away on my table. I am starving!

  2. Oh that sounds so delish! I’m vegan but have a serious mushroom allergy (I love mushrooms but they want to kill me) so I’ll leave them out but add some miso for the flavour perhaps? Go Costa Rica! How long before the USA demands regime change to bring down this obviously dangerous government? Thanks for another great recipe.

    • Thank you Miranda. That’s unfortunate about your mushroom allergy. Miso would certainly add an umami element, but you may need to adjust the quantities of the other ingredients to get the right texture to form the balls. The environmental record of this USA administration is truly shocking, but to be expected from a President whose election campaign was bankrolled by oil, coal and fracking corporations, who don’t like environmental constraints and regulations placed upon their activities. 🙁 Steve

  3. The Costa Rica story is totally new and most welcome to me. At present am so ashamed looking my own beloved Down Under land following the United States – amongst other matters its cruel and dangerous feedlot and disgusting abattoir practices to keep the holy burger on the table ! Does the Third World have to show us the way ? Absolutely love your recipe . . . have not used your combination and cannot wait to do so . . .

    • Thank you Eha. Costa Rica is a beacon of hope, and it’s reforestation programme has inspired other countries like India and Ethiopia to undertake massive tree planting exercises. I hope you enjoy this recipe! Steve x

  4. Another one of your fascinating and tempting vegetarian dishes!! I loathe and despise shiitake mushrooms but I imagine this could be made with any other variety, right?

    • Thank you Vanessa. You are right, this recipe would work just fine using other mushroom varieties. I just happen to be very fond of shiitake! Steve x

  5. Sorry to add another comment – but I’m just about to create this gorgeous recipe using some cooked short grain brown rice plus some white miso paste to replace the shitake mushrooms. Just saying.

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