Interview with Sanda Vungi
This week, I’m excited to feature Sandra Vungi, cookbook author and blogger!
In this Why I Cook column, I’ll ask some of the food bloggers I adore questions about why they cook! This allows me and you to get know these talented bloggers better!
I was first drawn to Sandra’s blog in 2013, when I saw this gorgeous photo of hers, which made me wants to tune in to see what kind of things she would do next. I loved the warm, homestyle feeling of her comfort food, and obvious love of her craft that shined through. Her YouTube videos are so fun, and I love her sweet spirit that always shines. And she lives in a log cabin in Estonia, which sounds like heaven to me. To be surrounded by snow, cooking up warm food and being away from the hustle and bustle of crowded spots is kind of my dream. So I’m super happy to have the opportunity to interview Sandra here!
Before we dive into the food, I had some burning questions about her background, and so glad that she kindly shared more!
You live in a log cabin in Estonia with your boyfriend, which you both built. I’d love to hear more about that … it sounds like a dream life to me!
We were a young couple and really wanted our own living space. We didn’t have much money, so we found the cheapest land in the neighbouring county during the recession. My boyfriend was all the brains and hard work behind this project. I just helped when needed. The land itself was pretty small and cleared of forest. It was actually really easily accessible and the road was in great shape. Our lot was surrounded with forest and we loved it. It was perfect for us, since we need our privacy. But otherwise it was just an empty lot with tree stumps. So even the well had to be dug by my boyfriend. We also made the whole stone foundation ourselves. And he cut the trees, we peeled the logs and then he chiseled them by hand with an axe and started to build the walls. After that, the roof , floors, door and windows were made. Then a rocket stove was built and now he works on our new kitchen. It looks beautiful already. We love our tiny log cabin and the countryside. We love the nature and silence and the no rush lifestyle. I like to visit the cities from time to time, but I’m definitely a country girl.
So usually when we wake up, I make ourselves a breakfast. It’s almost always an oatmeal or buckwheat flake porridge and sometimes chickpea omelette. Then there are chores like cutting the firewood, heating our rocket stove and bringing water to the house. We also like to take long walks near our cabin or in the nearby pine forest. Then we work on our projects (we have a pretty good internet connection) and after that we just relax, eat and enjoy some entertainment like playing video games or watching movies and shows on Netflix.
You are a drummer in a metal band called Neoandertals. How did you learn drums?
I was sixteen and it was a really hot summer evening. I was pretty bored and my boyfriend asked if I would like to learn some drums. He was already playing in Neoandertals and I had been a metalhead for a few years by that time. I was interested, because I had actually wanted to learn drums my whole life. He showed no mercy and started to teach a song by a death metal band named Suffocation. Pretty soon I started to learn blast beats and double bass. Now I’ve played drums for 12 years and recorded two albums with Neoandertals. The new album will come out in 2018. I can’t wait. Music has been such a savior for me for so many times in my life and when everything else fails, music is always there. Plus it’s a nice change from cooking sometimes. I also love the energy I experience during a live show. It’s indescribable. It’s like a massive release. After that I’m always exhausted and happy.
You are a self-professed lover of video games—what are some of your favorites and what draws you in?
When it comes to video games, I was eleven when I started to play The Sims. I was hooked and still am. I just played The Sims 2 today and I have all The Sims series games in my computer. I love the endless possibilities in this virtual doll house. Just let your imagination fly and forget yourself into a virtual world. So much fun. My other video game loves are the Fallout, Mass Effect and Civilization series. Fallout has had the strongest impact on me. When I was in high school, I used to play Fallout 3 for eight hours after the school. I even dreamed of it all the time. That post-apocalyptic and post-industrial vibe is what really dazzled me. I used to play Fallout 1 and 2 also, so seeing everything in 3D in Fallout 3 was just breathtaking. Also, Mass Effect has an amazing sci-fi world with memorable characters, great story and ultra fun gameplay. I especially loved Mass Effect 2. And Civilization 5 I have played for so many hours! I’m pretty good at it too, haha! What’s not to love about making and expanding your very own civilization and learning a lot of real history in the process. It’s also beautifully designed. So role-playing and simulation games are my favorites. My boyfriend is more into shooters.
Are there similarities between how you approach video games/drums and the process of vegan cooking?
I’m guessing both playing drums and creating new recipes needs discipline. So they are similar in that way. To create something from start to finish and release it is very hard work but also often rewarding.
Now, onto questions about Sandra’s food!
When did you start to cook and what about the process itself kept you interested in it?
First I want to say that it’s an absolute honor to be interviewed by you. I love your blog and your beautiful photos. Thank you for having me! [ed. note: so sweet of you to say, thank you! xo]
I started to cook really early. I was about four or five years old. I was so amazed when I watched my mom making food for me, my two sisters and our dad. It instantly got my interest and soon I started with my own experiments. First I just mixed sugar with ground cinnamon and called it a dessert. Everyone had to eat my masterpiece. Then I made pan-fried potatoes. They turned pretty black, but I was so proud of myself. I constantly asked my mom what dish she was cooking and how is it made. Then when I went to my grandparents’ house, I watched how my grandma cooked. I don’t really know why it was so interesting for me. Maybe because I really loved eating, too. It was a sacred moment for me. Still is. I remember the food I ate when I was eight years old and came home from school. My mother had made a macaroni soup where she had added a bit of ketchup. It was so good! I have so many food memories like this. Thousands. And they are triggered by different smells or feelings. So food is definitely really important for me.
Describe your process of recipe development. How do you come up with fresh and new ideas on a regular basis?
Inspiration might come from a simple conversation. Someone mentions the food they loved as a kid or cooked just yesterday. Or some memories from my childhood come up. Also movies and cookbooks. Or I spot an ingredient I crave and want to cook it in a new way. Or an old recipe of mine gives a base for a new recipe. Or when I’m just hungry and let my stomach decide what it wants to eat. When I have an idea, I write it down on my phone or into my black notebook. Then I’ll think over the whole process, gather the ingredients and start to experiment. I love to nail a recipe on a first try, but sometimes I have to make it twice or more before publishing. I always have to measure the ingredients both in the metric and imperial system, because I also run a food blog in Estonian (www.taimetoit.ee). Then I taste it and give my boyfriend a taste. When he loves it, it goes. After that, I photograph it, work on the photos, write the recipe and a description, hit publish and promote it.
I just recently deleted all of my Facebook, including my pages. I just got so sick of it after all these years and I love a Facebook-free life. I don’t want to be constantly available and also the new Facebook algorithms didn’t justify the promotional part anymore. So now I promote my recipes on Pinterest and also all my e-mail subscribers get a notification every time I publish a new recipe. I also have a YouTube channel where I cook my favorite recipes.
Sometimes the inspiration is not there and I feel completely burned out. But an interesting thing I’ve discovered is that the more I cook, the more inspiration I get. But from time to time I really need a break to get my joy of cooking back. Especially after writing a cookbook. I have written five cookbooks in five years. One of them is in English and named Vegan Dinner Party. My latest cookbook was just published in Estonia and it’s about gluten-free vegan kitchen. Two of my Estonian cookbooks are reprinted and that makes me really happy. My Estonian cookbooks are available here.
What influenced your love of cooking?
First of course the outcome. That I could eat all that delicious stuff after. Also when I saw how thankful and happy were people when they were served great food. It’s a form of entertaining. And it’s just pure fun to play with the ingredients and get wonderful new results. It’s a never ending journey of discovering new tastes and techniques.
Define your own style of cooking.
Definitely comforting and homestyle and often with a hint of Eastern European kitchen. I also love to veganize old classics. A lot of cream (my favorite is cashew and sunflower cream), burger patties, cozy chunky soups, casseroles, gravies and decadent desserts. No crazy and long ingredient lists. I love to keep it as simple and affordable as possible. But proper flavoring is number one for me. Many dishes can be instantly improved by just adding more salt.
Describe the best dish you’ve ever made.
My seitan steaks. They are just perfection when made properly. Crispy on the outside, juicy in the inside and packed with flavor. My boyfriend can’t get enough of them and all of my family loves it, especially during the holidays. Even the biggest meat eaters dig them. It’s also one of my most popular recipes, right after easy vegetable and dumpling soup and chickpea omelette.
If your current self could give your past self one piece of sage cooking advice, what would it be?
Quit that veggie stock powder. There’s no need for it. Often simple salt is enough. Also no excess soy sauce! There are other seasonings too.
Do you have any culinary heroes?
I love the Estonian cookbook author Anni Arro. When I discovered her books many years ago, it was a breakthrough for me. It was the first time when I noticed that every recipe could also have a personal story and a cookbook is not merely practical but also entertaining and gives a little peek into the author’s life.
I also love Isa Chandra Moskowitz for obvious reasons. Her recipes are wonderful and the descriptions and stories are masterpieces.
And I can’t move on from this question without mentioning Ina Garten. Her voice alone is so comforting and the way she cooks is really enjoyable to watch.
If you could choose anyone to cook with in the kitchen, who would it be?
My late grandmother. She was one of my first biggest inspirations for cooking. Her dishes were to die for. She mastered every food she made and they were always so perfect, packed with flavor and comforting. Sometimes she also experimented with different recipes she had found in the old books. I still remember that ultra moist chocolate cake. Absolutely decadent. When I was a little girl, I introduced her to instant noodles as they were my favorite quick snack after a school day. An old-school lady like she was, she was really impressed by them and started to add them to soups. So I would really like to show her all the new amazing recipes I’ve created and all these new beautiful ingredients to work with. She passed when I hadn’t even properly begun my vegan cooking journey.
If you could throw a party for anyone, who would be there and what would the menu look like?
I’m such a fangirl when it comes to music and video games. So I’d love to host Hayley Williams from the pop-rock band Paramore, Ihsahn from the black metal band Emperor, Todd Howard from Bethesda Game Studios and Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization series. I would make them my seitan steaks, potato casserole, creamy curried chickpea and avocado salad and my fluffy vegan cinnamon rolls.
Name one ingredient and a kitchen gadget you can’t live without.
Onions. I use loads of them. And I mean loads! Just even the smell of the cooking onions is mouthwatering. And I couldn’t imagine my kitchen without my high-speed blender anymore. No more soaking the nuts! I just throw the cashews straight into the blender and then I’ll have an instant creamy goodness. And I do love my cream. I use it to make cashew mayo (potato salad!), gravies and casseroles.