Christmas is over. O.V.E.R. Sleeping in until 10am? Bucks Fizz for breakfast? Party food buffets? Not cool anymore. January, you’re a cruel mistress.
But, dare I say it, I’m ready for a change. As much as I adore the excesses of the festive season, I do reach the point when I crave food that isn’t 90% fat and smothered in breadcrumbs. But – and here’s where most January ‘detoxes’ are doomed – this food still needs to taste good. It also needs to fill me up, warm me up, and, most importantly, cheer me up, as I plunge back into reality.
And I’ve got just the thing. Vietnamese Tofu and Tomato Sauce. You know that kind of meal that makes your mouth water just thinking about it? Yeah, that. Think crispy tofu, coated in a sauce of velvety fresh tomatoes flecked with garlic and spring onion, and finished with a spicy burst of white pepper. Simple, cheap and oh so tasty, it has the added bonus of transporting me to the other side of the planet, far away from the cold, dark nights of England and into the hot, golden days of Vietnam.
I first discovered this dish in 2011, when I spent two weeks in Vietnam during a six month round-the-world trip. It was my first day in Vietnam, and it hadn’t been the most welcoming of arrivals, thanks to a three hour interlude at a police station while we waited for our driver’s boss to pay a bribe. Yeah. A bleak introduction, by the time we eventually arrived at our hostel we were shattered, emotionally drained and starving. Unfortunately, lunchtime had passed and most nearby cafés seemed to be shutting for a siesta. Except one.
This café didn’t instil us with confidence. It was the only café on a street of hardware shops, and it was empty. The waiter that greeted us, if you could call it that, didn’t seem happy to see us. He showed us to a table, flung two burgundy leather-bound menus in front of us and slumped back onto a mahogany stool next to the bar, head in hands. We scanned through the menu’s many pages, and I picked out the first vegetarian dish with an English translation. ‘Tofu and Tomato Sauce’. It wasn’t the exotic introduction to Vietnamese cuisine I’d had in mind, but that could wait. We ordered and within about ten minutes, the waiter returned with our dishes. And that was it.
Those first bites instantly earned Tofu and Tomato Sauce a place in my favourite dishes in the entire world. It’s that good. I cook it nearly every week, savouring its power to transport me straight back to Vietnam, and I recently shared my memories of that first introduction on Food&, as part of its Food Memories series. In case you’ve not visited before, Food& is a beautiful online food journal packed full of amazing food writing and photography, and I was absolutely thrilled to have my first of what I hope will be many features on the site.
RECIPE: Vietnamese Tofu and Tomato Sauce (Dau Sot Ca Chua)
1 box of firm tofu (around 400g drained) from your local oriental supermarket
6 large vine tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
5 spring onions
2-3 tbsp fish sauce (or vegetarian alternative)
A pinch of white pepper (to serve)
- Drain the tofu, pat dry with kitchen roll and cut into cubes.
- Shallow fry the tofu cubes in about 1cm of sunflower oil until golden and crisp on each side. For a healthy alternative, you can roast the tofu – I toss it in sunflower oil, salt and pepper before roasting on a pizza tray for about 40 minutes (the holes in the tray help the tofu to crisp up.) Keep turning the tofu regularly to ensure crisping on all sides.
- While the tofu is cooking, make your sauce. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 1 minute, before removing and placing in ice cold water. Peel and deseed, then chop into small chunks.
- Crush the garlic and finely slice the whites and greens of the spring onions. Keep the greens of the spring onions to one side, and add the garlic and whites of the spring onions to 1 tbsp of sunflower oil. Fry on a medium-high heat for 30 seconds (or just before the garlic browns), before adding the tomatoes.
- Lower the heat to medium, and fry until the tomatoes have reduced into a sauce. You want the sauce to be thick but velvety, so add a little hot water if necessary (but not so much that the sauce becomes watery).
- Add the fish sauce. This is a personal preference – I add about 2-3 tbsps, but you can add more or less to taste. If you’re a stricter vegetarian than I am, source a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce from your local oriental supermarket.
- Check the tofu. If it’s golden and crispy, remove from oven and add to the sauce. If it’s not, take the sauce off the heat and wait until the tofu is ready.
- Reduce the heat to a low-medium, and simmer for 10 minutes, ensuring all of the tofu is covered.
- Remove from heat and serve with steamed white rice, a sprinkle of white pepper and the finely sliced greens of the spring onion.
Over to you! What recipes will be cheering you up this January?