By Lora O’Brien
If ever there was a real life superwoman, then I think Maja Brekalo is most definitely her. Not only is Maja a passionate foodie who shares her healthy lifestyle and cooking with her 138k instagram followers, she also provides us all with access to her tasty creations online at her blog, dhmaya.com. And if that isn’t enough, alongside Maja being a mother to a teenage daughter and a loving wife, she’s also a flight attendant, travelling the corners of the Earth, by day. For the past four years, Maja has also held cooking workshops where she inspires and teaches people about plant based cooking, and how great for us it truly it.
So no surprise that we considered ourselves very lucky indeed when Maja offered us some time for a little sit down and get to know this magical mum a little bit better. We grilled her on why she feels a plant based lifestyle is the best, the foods she loves to cook with, and if that isn’t enough, we also have some of her delicious recipes for you to try and introduce plant based goodness into your daily lifestyle.
Tell us a little bit about your plant based lifestyle?
I think the best way to describe my lifestyle is plant based. We are all different but I think that the healthiest, most nourishing food for living is unrefined food of plant origin: vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, seeds, nuts and algae. This should be our base, what we have every single day and as the biggest part of our diet. I also prefer using seasonal ingredients and seasonal cooking. By this I mean that during colder months of the year I eat more “warming” cooked food: for example soups, stews, roasted and baked foods, and during warmer months more raw fresh food, salads, lots of fruits, ice cream… Of course, there are always exceptions and I don’t follow this to a T.
What does plant based mean for you?
My base education is in Macrobiotic, one of its main principles is seasonal eating. I totally agree that returning to nature in that way, remembering that nature provides us with what we need in each season, is the best way to go, both for us humans and for nature. I’ve moved away from the Macrobiotic way of eating over the years, finding what best works for me in the process. But I have kept many of basic principles though and I have to emphasize it’s amazing wisdom which first taught me how food, in terms of ingredients and ways of cooking, influences our bodies. That helped me immensely in finding a balance for myself.
Plant based can be described in more ways than one. I can tell you about my way of plant based eating. The shortest description would be plant based, unrefined and wheat free diet. Moreover, most food I have is seasonal vegetables, then seasonal fruits, smaller amount of whole grains (especially pseudo grains – quinoa, buckwheat; then rice, millet, oats, and no wheat if possible), legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils), seeds (especially flax, chia, hemp and sesame), nuts, algae and naturally fermented soy products (miso, shoyu, tempeh, tofu) with the addition of superfoods. We try we buy ingredients in their most natural form possible and go from there.
It also helps that I make my own sweets, cakes, granola and pates, etc. I love having smoothies and chia puddings for breakfast, a light lunch in form of lots of veggies with a small amount of grains (a soup or stew, salads with quinoa or rice, steamed or cooked veggies, risottos, and for dinner a mixed stir fry with soba or rice noodles or rice, toasted veggies, vegan tacos… served with lots of fresh lettuce arugula or something similar.
What was your diet like before you became plant based?
I have always been into healthy eating and living a healthy lifestyle, ever since my childhood. I was never fussed about eating sweets, and actually loved the “grown up” food. I even used to gladly taste all the weird stuff my parents ate, like frog’s legs, caviar, all the seafood, even cabbage stews traditionally made in my home country. Our mother cooked simple Mediterranean dishes and that gave me a really good start with my own cooking. I started cooking around the age of ten, and then more regularly when I moved away when I was 16. It was back then that I fell in love with everything about food, especially healthy food. My diet then consisted of lots of vegetables and fruits, lean meat, fish and conventional grains. Later I discovered all the amazing grains, seeds, legumes and superfoods which opened my eyes to a completely different and magical world of abundance I didn’t know of.
What first turned you on to a healthier diet?
I can’t say what first got me into healthy eating. Like I said, I have always been into it, maybe partially thanks to my very sensitive stomach, but I could say that the turning point was cutting meat, dairy and all refined foods out my diet during my pregnancy. I was very careful with food during my pregnancy, and tried to only eat the food that was good for me and my baby. Unfortunately I suffered from Hyperemesis, which is basically a terrible never ending morning sickness that lasted three whole months. I lost a lot of weight and later I found I just couldn’t tolerate meat, dairy or any other refined food until the end of my pregnancy, even after the birth. That’s when I discovered the Macrobiotic way of eating, which helped me solve my problems with nausea and indigestion. I do have a very emotional relationship with food. It makes me happy creating and eating delicious, healthy and nourishing food.
It took you a while to start an Instagram account. Were you surprised by how popular your page has become?
Yes, very! I’m still surprised and amazed by the positivity surrounding me. And I’m grateful for all the kindness and interaction I get from my followers and foodie friends. Never in a million years would I have believed it if someone had told me that it would be like this. When I started, reaching a few thousand followers seemed like something I might get to in a few years, or never.
Your blog is full of gorgeous, tasty recipes. What inspires you when creating them?
In creating recipes I’m inspired in many ways. I mostly kind of decide to use certain ingredients or one key ingredient and work around it. Like today, when I wanted to make something with tortillas: I had some spicy lentil pâté that I spread on warmed tortillas, then I caramelized some onions and zucchini, added some fresh avocado, cherry tomatoes, shredded lettuce and seasoned the whole thing with extra virgin olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. It was really delicious. And many times I’m inspired by gorgeous creations made by my foodie friends and Instagram.
Are there any chefs or cooks in particular who inspire your cooking?
I admire so many people on Instagram for different reasons. Some of their recipes are stunning, but also some of their photography is inspiring. Definitely the amazing Taline Gabriel of Hippie Lane (@talinegabriel), and also my wonderful friends, fellow successful bloggers and all round amazing girls: @missmarzipancom, @rebelrecipes, @amylecreations, @chocolatecoveredkatie and @nutriholist to name a few.
Do you have a favourite recipe you’ve created?
That’s a tough one! Maybe my Hazelnut Carrot Cake or the Chia one I created today, with coconut almond milk, coconut yoghurt and cherries.
Any kitchen disasters?
Whenever I try to make vegan pancakes or crêpes. All of it just sticks to the pan and falls apart! It’s honestly, the only thing in the kitchen I simply can not make.
If you could give three tips to someone looking to try eating more plant based, what would those be?
Go slowly into the change, adding the new foods you like and cutting down gradually on the unhealthy foods. You need to adjust to the different textures and new flavours and your body to all the extra fibre and nutrients it will start getting. It’s important that you don’t feel deprived or unhappy. It is important to learn the basics in cooking/preparing this “new” food, especially how to cook grains, legumes and vegetables properly, and in a tasty creative way.
What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to go plant based?
Most people don’t know what to do with the ingredients they buy and end up throwing them away after the expiration day passes. Maybe the biggest mistake is to expect to substitute meat and dairy with vegan varieties like seitan or tofu and eat vegan bacon, sausages, burgers. It just doesn’t work. I think you should embrace plant food for what it is and enjoy it because it’s so full of amazing flavour and deliciousness. The real key is to not feel like you’re settling for less, but to make it your first choice.
If someone is looking to boost energy levels, what foods would you suggest?
I would always recommend to start the day with healthy nourishing breakfast, enriched with superfoods like maca, baobab, açai and spirulina powder. The easiest way to pack these in is with a nourishing smoothie. Cut out refined foods, especially bad carbs and sugar because they give you that big high, and you come crashing down soon after. I recommend eating slow carbs and proteins in form of whole grains and legumes that will stabilize blood sugar and give a long stable energy.
What key ingredients do you like to cook with?
Aside from vegetables, shoyu (naturally fermented soy sauce), ume su (Umeboshi seasoning), extra virgin olive oil, quinoa and rice for savory dishes and chia seeds for breakfasts.
What do you hope to achieve by 2017?
I would like to reach even more people with a message that plant based eating is delicious, creative and accessible, to teach, motivate and empower them to try it themselves, through Instagram, blogging and of course my workshops. Our first one was a real hit, and just goes to show how good food can bring people together. I’d also love to write a cookbook. Watch this space!
Maja’s Top Recipes
Nicecream is the latest trend taking over from dairy ice cream. And what’s in it? Just bananas! And it’s so easy to turn into other delicious flavours, like this superfood raspberry acai and spirulina nice cream. And what is the secret to perfect ice cream? Ripe bananas! The spottier the better. Just pop them with a few little fork holes and throw them in the freezer and you can make nana nicecream whenever you like!
2. Firstly mix bananas with a handful of frozen raspberries, 2 capsules of Acai powder (I used Organic Burst) and then added a small piece of organic lemon with rind and then blend.
3. Now add 1 tsp of Spirulina powder with bananas and blend until perfectly smooth.
A great warming dish, with lots of healthy fats, vitamins and fibre. Make it extra filling when served over quinoa or some brown rice.
You will need
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp red curry paste
3 cups cubed pumpkin
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup leaks chopped sideways
2 spring onions
Spices: curry, chili, ground coriander
1 tbsp Tamari or Shoyu soy sauce
small bunch of parsley
bunch of swiss chard
mung bean or rice noodles
lemon juice, or lime juice
What to do
1. Fry curry paste, pumpkin and 1 cup chickpeas on olive oil, season with 1 pinch of salt
2. When pumpkin is slightly browned, add water and coconut milk to cover the vegetables, two pinches of curry, one pinch chili and coriander.
3. Cook until pumpkin is tender. It should take around 20 minutes. Then add soy sauce, chopped leeks and spring onions. Cook for another 5 minutes. Taste if it’s seasoned enough. Add more spices and salt if needed.
4. In the mean time, cook the swisss chard, al dente. Let it boil for around 4 minutes. It has to be fairly soft but still keep the bright green color.
5. Cook the noodled according to instructions on the package. Mung bean noodles that I used here only need to be soaked in boiled water for 3 minutes.
6. Toast another cup of chickpeas that were seasoned with olive oil, salt and as much curry and chili you can tolerate.
7. Transfer 2/3 of curry into a blender, add parsley leaves and blend it until smooth. Mix two parts together. Add lemon juice to taste.
8. Now we’re ready to assemble the bowls
9. Put 2 ladles of curry into each bowl, divide swiss chard, noodles, toasted spiced chickpeas, more parsley and coconut milk between them.
3 tbsp oats
1 cup homemade walnut milk (use any plant milk)
juice of half of lemon
agave or maple syrup to taste
Optional toppings: fresh berries, seeds, nuts, coconut chips, quinoa pops…
5. Now you’re set and can layer the parfait: sauce at the bottom, then chia oats, sauce again and yoghurt on top. Use the toppings you like. Any homemade granola and fruits would be great, seeds and nuts too.
It’s perfect for the autumn season, but in the summer, you can substitute frozen squash or better yet, a summer squash if available.
You will need:
3 cups cubed pumpkin
1 large onion
a knob of ginger, minced
1 cup carrots
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 tsp Himalayan salt
spices: curry, chili, turmeric
1 tbsp Tamari (soy sauce, liquid aminos)
2 spring onions
toasted silvered almonds, optional
1 tsp barley miso paste, optional
soy or oat cream
What to do:
1. Sauté pumpkin cubes on olive oil2. Add minced onions, fresh minced ginger and keep sauteeing
3. Then add carrot, cooked chickpeas, seasonings and spices: salt, turmeric, chili, curry and enough water to cover the veggies
4. Simmer for about 15 minutes until veggies are soft
5. Then add soy sauce, spring onions and leeks (reserve green part of spring onions to add at the end)
6. Cook for another 5 minutes and then blended 1/3 of soup (you can add here 1 tsp olive oil and 1 tsp miso paste)
7. Mix it back in and add more seasonings as needed, minced parsley leaves and spring onions. Keep it covered for the onions to wilt. Add more water if it’s too thick.
You can serve it with some cream, garnished with almonds and spring onions.
1 cup rice flour
1 cup roasted hazelnuts (ground)
1/2 cup spelt flour (sifted to get rid of the skin)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp Himalayan salt
1 tsp vanilla powder
Zest of one lemon
pinch of ginger
1,5 cup plant milk (I used hazelnut)
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 cup agave syrup
1/2 cup coconut oil (melted)
2 tbsp golden flax seed
1,5 cup grated carrot
1 cup cashew nuts
1/2 tsp vanilla powder
pinch of cinnamon
2/3 cup of water
pinch of salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
2-3 tbsp maple syrup
What to do:
2. Roast hazelnuts in the oven on 150° 7 to 10 minutes, until the skins start to crack and the nuts get slightly browned. Easiest way to skin them is to put them in a clean cloth and rub until they fall off.
3. Turn on the oven 180°.
6. Ground the flaxseeds and mix them with twice as much water. You will see that what you get will look a lot like a beaten egg.
7. Mix oil, agave syrup and lemon juice.
9. Mix flax and oil mixture with a spoon into dry ingredients, then add milk and mix again. Do it gently, do not over mix it because if you do it too harsh the cake could turn out chewy.
10. Mix in the carrot. The batter should be fairly thick but still pourable.
11. Pour it into the lined pan and bake for 30-40 minutes.
12. Test the cake with the tooth pick. When the cake is done it should come out clean.
13. Prepare the frosting: blend all the ingredients in a high speed blender until very smooth. Refrigerate to cool.
14. When the cake is cooled down and frosting has firmed up, you can assemble the cake.