Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tofu and Tomato


The word was a bit of a joke when I grew up. I first heard it on an episode of MacGyver. After saving the day with no more than a piece of chewing gum and some spare ricin, our hero retired to his boathouse for a nice tofu casserole he'd made (no doubt with a knife fashioned from re-purposed steel from downed b-52's, or similar) before all the action began. His friend, Pete, refused an invite, and I wondered why tofu was funny.

Once I moved to Asia, where tofu is not a joke, I discovered its silken charms.

In Korea, I was often presented with a square of soft tofu drizzled with sesame oil, sesame seeds, chili powder, and minced green onions as one of the many side dishes (or panchan) required to make a Korean meal complete. It was a nice filler, something to distract from the other fiery dishes, and its custardy rich texture made it stand out from the other dishes at the table for its subtlety. Our friend Buffalo Dan campaigned strongly every time we went out for lunch for us to try sundubu, a molten hot stew topped with soft tofu. I could have been persuaded, but my husband is avowedly ambivalent about tofu, and thus we always ended up looking for more grilled meat.

My love affair with tofu began when I moved to Vietnam and was presented with a dish that is truly more than the sum of its parts. Tofu and tomato, simply titled and simply made, appears on the menus of most Hanoi traveller's cafes. Because it was so obviously there to pander to all the vegetarian-hippy types that beset Southeast Asia, I dismissed it as beneath my notice for a full year before trying it.

I was a fool.

It appeared in front of me at one of those big communal dinners, where dozens of dishes are ordered, and where the vegetarians start to fret because all of the dishes are coming out of the kitchen with meat on them, oh my god. The sort of situation that used to make me crazy and cranky, because as an omnivore I never had a shot at the french fries with butter that also make a brief appearance before the vegetarians, casting pious glances at the meat-eaters, would edge the fry plate closer to them and say, "Well, I can't have any of that meat dish.." The tofu and tomato was slopped unceremoniously in front of me, and, as it escaped the notice of the herbivores, I decided to have my revenge. They ate my fries, well, damn them, I'd eat their tofu.


The fried texture of the tofu was comforting, like really good paneer or cottage cheese, and the oiliness had bled out in cooking to make the surrounding tomato sauce faintly rich and thick. The tomatoes themselves were scented with ginger and garlic, and specked here and there with thinly sliced green onion. I went on a mission to order it whenever I could. Of all the places I ate it in Vietnam, the best was in a small cafe in Hoi An. It's their version that I set out to replicate. My friend and coworker Angela advised me to approach it as I would making an Italian tomato sauce, but with Vietnamese flavours, and to use the best tomatoes I could find. I followed her advice, and am quite happy with my version.

My husband remains ambivalent about tofu, and I only make this for myself, when I'm eating alone. Since I mostly cook to make others happy, tofu and tomato seems like a selfish luxury - cooking something only I will eat; a hug to myself.

In such a simple dish, the quality of ingredients really matters. If you don't have fine fresh tomatoes, use canned tomatoes from Italy, preferably from San Marzano. Since the dish is about the flavour of good tomato, using a bad tomato will only yield a disappointing dish. The tofu should be fresh, and of good quality as well. The best place to find fried tofu is in an Asian market - when its fried, it'll be puffy and golden looking on the outside. Using canned tomatoes and pre-fried tofu makes this dish quick enough to prepare in the time that you steam your rice.

You'll need:

1 small can of good tomatoes (13 oz can) or an equivalent amount of chopped fresh tomatoes.
1 package or 6 to 8 1-inch cubes of pre-fried tofu.
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
3 green onions, finely chopped
1-inch knob of ginger, finely chopped (or more, to taste)
2 cloves of garlic (or more, to taste)
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a hot pan. Add the chopped green onion, garlic, and ginger, and saute briefly, enough for the lovely smell of ginger and garlic to come out, but not so much that it turns brown and starts to burn. I find I have to keep the flame low, and toss it all about vigorously in the
pan to avoid this fate. If it does burn, toss it all out and start again. When the aromatics are nicely aromatic, add the tomatoes and tomato paste, and cook together for about five minutes. Then add the tofu, shake it all about to coat the pieces in tomato sauce, and cover it. Let it cook for at least another five to ten minutes, until you see the tomatoes start to turn slightly orange from the oil that the tofu has let out. Taste it, and adjust the salt. Sometimes I cheat and add a little sugar, if the tomatoes warrant it. Serve with steamed rice while watching a re-run of MacGyver.

Bento Remake:
Not a remake, really, just poured into a thermal container for the next day, topped with Biggie's patented rice lid method. It held up really well, and made for a filling lunch.


Canadian Bento said...

I was reading this and Ron was looking over my shoulder, and he was all, oooooh that looks good. And I was all, you won't like it. And he was all no, it looks wonderful, meat in sauce and awesome. Then I scrolled up to the top and he made his sad face. He is not a fan of Tomatoes. Though he does enjoy the odd chunk o tofu, so maybe he'll give this a go one day, cause I want to eat it right now!

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I have had this dish twice in the week I have been back in Hanoi. And will not be stopping anytime soon! Your website makes me want to learn how to cook. Yummy stuff Erin:0


nakji said...

Yeah, Hanoi isn't really conducive to learning to cook, is it? God, I miss Stop Cafe :(

Klary Koopmans said...

Hi, I made this and it was great... I had to substitute red onion for green onion because I did not have any green onions, I added some coriander too.. I hope you don't mind but even if it wasn't 'right', it was delicious! you can see the pic here on my blog! I´ll make it with green onions soon!