Three years ago I took a trip to Vietnam through the Worlds of Flavor program. The trip was led by Mai Pham, a chef whose ability to demystify Vietnamese cuisine is outshined only by her superb cooking. In addition to managing her famed restaurant Lemongrass, Mai has devoted much of her life’s work to the research of Pho. As we traversed from one of end of her birth country to the next, tasting the variations in Pho was one constant we could expect in each town. While this brothy soup, rich with beef, rice noodles and aromatic herbs may be a traditional Vietnamese way to start the day, it did not take long for me to grow weary of having this every morning for breakfast.
To learn about the fascinating history and culture of the Vietnamese through their food was rich, to say the least. The confluence of Chinese, French, Thai and even Indian influences on their country has created a diverse tapestry of flavors in local food. In each region of the country I learned new things about the cuisine through sampling the specialties of street vendors, dining at upscale restaurants and sitting down to home cooked meals prepared by local families. Each meal served as a lesson in both Vietnamese history and contemporary life.
Interspersed throughout the trip were cooking classes, sometimes led by regional chefs, but often taught by Mai. These tutorials are memorable not only because they made Vietnamese cooking more accessible to me, but also because they are where I tasted some of the best food of the whole trip. By far the most surprising dish, flavor-wise, was one of Mai’s creations called “Lemongrass Tofu”. During the demonstration she showed us how to pan fry fresh tofu in a way that ensures you get a good sear on each side. At first I assumed that would be the most I would take away from the lesson, since I had very low expectations for a dish with tofu as its main ingredient. I took a sample to taste, just to be polite, and was instantaneously seduced by the flavors unraveling in my mouth.
The crispy cubes of tofu were laced with a warm breath of sweet curry, lively flecks of citrusy lemongrass and fiery dots of hot chili. The creamy center of each piece gave every bite a contrast in texture. Ribbons of peppery Thai basil and crushed bits of salted peanuts added their own dimension to the dish, and while I can’t identify it by name, it is undeniably part of the Vietnamese mystique. When I looked up this dish in Mai’s cookbook Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table I had to smile at her introduction to the recipe:
“I always love serving this to friends who think tofu dishes are bland.”
Clearly I was not the first person to underestimate the potential of tofu. If this recipe doesn’t change your mind it may at least open your eyes to the extraordinary palette of Vietnamese flavors which defy explanation. Fortunately, with Mai’s guidance, you don’t need to go to Vietnam to experience it.
Recipe Note: This dish is a good example of why it is essential to have your mise en place in order before the cooking phase of the recipe. There are a lot of ingredients that get added into the pan, in phases, while cooking over high heat. Having all of your ingredients chopped, measured and lined up by the pan ahead of time will help this recipe succeed in the end.
recipe courtesy of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham
2 lemongrass stalks, outer layers peeled, bottom white part thinly sliced and finely chopped
1 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp chopped Thai bird chilis
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes
1 tsp ground tumeric (I substituted sweet curry powder here)
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
12 ounces tofu, drained, patted dry and cut into 3/4 inch cubes
4 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion, cut into 1/8 inch slices
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tsp minced garlic
4 Tbsp chopped roasted peanuts
2/3 C loosely packed Asian basil leaves
Combine the lemongrass, soy sauce, chilies, chili flakes, tumeric, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add the tofu cubes and turn to coat them evenly. Marinate for 30 minutes. Heat half the oil in a nonstick skillet over moderately high heat. Add the onion, shallot, and garlic and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Wipe the pan clean and heat the remaining oil over moderate heat. Add the tofu mixture and, using chopsticks or wooden spoons, turn so it cooks evenly, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the onion mixture and cook, uncovered, for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add half the peanuts and all of the Asian basil. Remove from heat and move to a serving plate. Garnish with the remaining peanuts and serve immediately with steamed rice.