Tag Archives: Tofu

French Vietnamese

The audio for my presentation with Fuchsia Dunlop at Asia House is June is up. Happily, it went well, with a lot of kind questions and comments from the audience, despite one of the menu items, lemongrass creme brûlée, having to be dropped at the last minute due to serving bowl supply issues.

Fuchsia was a very generous interviewer, and amongst my friends it was lovely to see Freya, who supported my project at Asia House last year, as well as my university tutor, Lara, and my editor at the F-word, Ania. It was also excellent to work with the very vital Betty Yao and Paul Bloomfield, an old friend of Yan Kit So’s, who donated his catering expertise on the night.

Since then I’ve been working on my book proposal, rooting and growing some of the herbs that I used at the event onto my new terrace, and planning another trip to Marseille at the end of August to visit some of my Vietnamese family (+ attending to life admin, of course).

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Vietnamese Bal, (Kinh giới) on the left, and Perilla ( Tía tô) on the right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about France since going to Vietnam last year. I spent 6 days in Paris in April, since a friend of a friend of a friend, Chloe, was kind enough to lend me and Luke her little student residence studio in Montreuil, while she was at home for the Easter holidays.

I’d never spent long in Paris, although my dad had told me stories of incredible Vietnamese restaurants he’d been taken to in Paris’ Chinatown by my mum’s taxi-driver brother, Gerard, tales of decadent feasts and the lightest shredded beef salads imaginable. We struggled to find Vietnamese restaurants that even served any Vegetarian dishes in Paris, which goes to show how much the French love their meat, more exclusively than the Vietnamese or the British.

We finally found a little place in Belleville called Cyclo that did a vegetarian version of Bun Cha Gio – spring rolls and fried tofu on a noodle salad bed. Although the spring rolls were a little bland, the tofu was soft and well coated in a thickened soy sauce, and the bowl was dressed with delicious shreds of soft, caramelised red onion. This was not the onion-free, vegan Buddhist cookery I encountered so often in Vietnam. The overall effect was richer, with deeper, more meat-like flavours and textures than in tofu you get in the UK and Vietnam, which tends to just be fried hard, not marinated and soft.

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On the dessert menu was further evidence of decadent style French/Vietnamese hybrid cooking: a luxuriant Mango Creme Brûlée. There was no mango flavour in the creme, it came simply as a piece of fresh mango grilled atop the sugar, and almost looked like a piece of caramelised Vietnamese style clapypot fish.

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The owner of Cyclo, hailing from the South of Vietnam, claimed his tofu dish was a regional speciality, a Cambodian hybrid. Since I’d eaten versions of this dish in parts of Northern Vietnam, I was quietly sceptical. Indeed, at another good Vietnamese restaurant we visited with Chloe in Paris – Au Vietnam going towards Chinatown – the owner also explained the origin of another innovative soft and fresh tofu dish, this one served in a light sauce with fresh mango and lychees. She explained why it was called ‘Imperial’ tofu: it was a family recipe, and her family had apparently been Vietnamese nobility, which is supposedly why I had never encountered it in Vietnam.

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It was interesting to hear these various origin myths, which Vietnamese restauranteurs in England don’t seem to be as bothered about sharing. I suppose French restaurant go-ers are more keen to hear romantic stories of their country’s colonial history. And it seems that French restaurant-goers also expect something a little more from their tofu, they expect it to be rendered, flavoured and textured as you would cook meat, which is a good lesson for any vegetarian gourmande.

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The Vegetarian Vietnamese: Food From The Jade Cave

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I’m excited to be building up to my presentation on 17th June at Asia House, where I will be interviewed by the renown Sichuanese Food writer, Fuchsia Dunlop, accompanied by lots of Luke’s beautiful photographs from Vietnam. I’ll be discussing the findings from my research into Vegetarian cuisine over there, via pagodas, vegan restaurants and the kitchens of many an excellent home chef, all with the help of Vietnamese friends and the Vietnamese embassy in the UK. We’ll then be serving everyone up a small platter of taster veggie Vietnamese food, recipes picked up along the trail, including ginger caramelised tofu, coconut and kohlrabi salad, mushroom spring rolls on a noodle salad bed and a lemongrass Creme Brûlée. Luke’s even preparing a soundtrack of all the field recordings he made in Vietnam. I’ve been testing the recipes myself and with Paul Bloomfield, who has kindly offered to sponsor the event, being a great friend of Yan Kit’s.

For more information and tickets see here, Asia House will also be launching the next 2014 Yan Kit So bursary for the next lucky aspiring Asian food writer to go travelling http://asiahouse.org/events/yan-kit-memorial-award/

On The Pagoda Trail

On Monday (9th Sept) Luke and I woke late, at 11:30, to an anxious looking Loi (Lily’s mum) holding the phone, with Mit on the other end asking us if we wanted to come down for lunch. Our jet lag was making us feel a bit embarrassed… It emerged that Lily’s mum had cooked for us the night before but our dinner plans changed when Mit and Bom took us to eat at their cousins’, and so now Loi wanted us to eat up everything on the table so that she didn’t have to heat it up twice. We had a good go at this:

Loi had made the classic dish of fried tofu in tomato sauce, morning glory and white mushroom soup, and a revelation for me – deep fried mock squid. I must learn how to make the batter for these little fritters, I think were I to do them myself, I’d replace the mock squid with potatoes or vegetables, but it was really delicious. One for the book, a simple crowd pleaser with potential to be really kick-ass.

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The whole time, whenever Loi and I couldn’t understand each other she phoned up Mit, even if it was something trivial like ‘what vegetable is this!’.

Mit kindly arranged to meet us later after work at the Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum, so that we could get a sense of what Pagoda life would be like. The night before, my friend Giang put me in touch with someone who might be able to get us to do a short stay in one of the pagodas around here, so that I can learn to cook under the supervision of the monks. We’ll see how it goes. I would also like to see if I can help out at one of the next feast days where they make special vegetarian food.

And so, hot, wearing our long sleeved shirts and trousers for the first time, we were driven to Ngu Xa pagoda with Lily’s mum and one of her friends. It was near West Lake, one of the plusher areas of Hanoi, and the ride there was beautiful, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and big, yellow colonial mansions. The pagoda itself looked stunning, and after shuffling cross-legged behind the prayer books in the back row, we knelt up and began joining in with the chant (which was actually led by Lily’s mum initially).The attendees were mostly women, and the male monk leading the chant had a very beautiful tenor voice that made the 108 repetitions of various mantras very moving. Mit later explained to us that the reason she believed there were so many female followers in the pagoda was that Vietnamese women often have hard times that they don’t feel they can share with anybody, not even with other women, and so going to the pagoda is a way of lifting these troubled spirits without vocalising the issues.

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During the service was when our Vietnamese lessons really came in handy. Although we couldn’t understand more than a couple of words, Luke and I had been taught our alphabet back in London by our brilliant tutor Tra, so we were able to chant the words out with everyone else. Luke had a bit of trouble with this though as the super glue holding his glasses together melted in the heat on our first day in Hanoi. He developed a bit of a migraine after a few minutes trying to squint at the pages, but kept going till the end anyway.

The ride back home took us past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and as I explained my cooking project further to Mit, she talked to me about Buddhism and the plans for Lily’s wedding. Mit, poised and kind, has ambitions to study in the UK, but various complications have stopped her from going so far.

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Mit and I on her electric scooter

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Loi with her bike – the only time she uses it is twice a week when going to the pagoda

We were very hungry and thirsty by the time we all got home, but before I even realised what had happened, Loi had cooked another lovely dinner of stir fried rice noodles with mushrooms and eggs, and more of my beloved squid doughnuts. I keep meaning to join in with her cooking but she seems to anticipate our movements and by the time we come into the kitchen she’s already finished.

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We chatted the evening away with Bom, Mit and Loi, eating yoghurt mixed with sweet ice coffee, ice green tea, and planning the months ahead, and arranged to meet at 7 in the morning for Loi to take us herb shopping in the market, and for me to get ingredients for my tofu curry for dinner.

8:30 am the next day and luke nudges me awake. My alarm doesn’t seem to go off and there’s a missed call from Mit – oops. I run downstairs in a panic but Loi is still there and in a good mood, she doesn’t seem annoyed that we’re late! So quickly we make our way to the market down the road.

We walked down the winding alleys, that we normally speed down through on mopeds, but took a left turn this time and suddenly a load of small stalls emerged (one right outside the house), each selling something different – various cuts of meat, freshly pressed blocks of medium-firm tofu, fruit everywhere: rambutans, jackfruit, papayas, guavas… all sorts of green beans, round purple aubergines and some tables purely dedicated to herbs. I’m familiar with the names of some of these from my research and food lessons, but most of them I’ve never tasted as I haven’t been able to find them in the UK.

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Fresh Tofu

Rau Ram

Rau Ram

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Hung

Hung

Perilla

Perilla

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The light was good. The sun was out. After a bit of a wander, I used my dictionary to indicate ‘buy’ (mua) to Loi, and my translated vocab list so that she helped me choose lots of herbs for my curry: La Chanh Thai / Kaffir Lime, Hung / Thai basil, Rau ram / Vietnamese coriander, Xa / Lemongrass, Nghe / Turmeric. Loi began to buy all different kinds – more than I would use in my curry – I think as an effort to introduce me to the herbs. We gradually ticked all my list off (although I first said coconut water instead of coconut milk, so we got both). Each time we went to a new stall lily’s mum seemed to gently, but persistently, haggle the price of every item down to about 5000 Vietnam dong (15p).

We went home and feasted on two sticky rice packages that Loi had picked up for us – one yellow with turmeric, the other white with what looked like black beans. These were delicious and nothing like the attempt I made a few weeks ago, which I blogged about here. The glutinous rice was much softer, which must be to do with the freshness of the produce here (although my cooking methods might be to blame, who knows).

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Loi also made us a huge and hearty tofu, mushroom and vermicelli spicy soup that I’m thinking of stealing for my book. Just need to learn how she makes that stock. Her son, Bom, reckons it’s meat. So maybe not really one for the book.

I explained to Loi that I wanted to cook dinner that night, and started prepping the marinade for my lemongrass curry – Loi corrected my peeling technique a few times (this happens whenever i cook with Vietnamese people, I have a lot to learn). To me the marinade didn’t taste that good compared to normal – Loi didnt say anything when I asked her to taste it – and the soy sauce here is different, a bit stronger than the thin brand I use at home. I hoped it wouldl still taste Ok though…

By then I was a zombie, after another sleepless night, and napped for 3 hours. After spending a few hours on the blog, it was soon 5:30 and I went down to finish the curry. Loi seemed to be praying for longer than normal upstairs, and the first person I saw was Bom, who was tired but still charming after a long day’s work. Then Mit showed up, excited to be trying my food, but Loi came down a little stressed and immediately started talking fast to Mit, raising her voice. I was worried something was going wrong, but Mit explained that Lily’s mum was just going out to visit a friend and would miss my dinner! She also translated Loi’s final comment – that she thought my tofu was too soft. She drove out quickly on her moped (she’s a good, fast driver – Luke can testify after the trip to the pagoda), but only after fetching me some fresh kaffir lime leaves from the tree on the rooftop balcony.

After attempting in vain to finish roasting the peanuts in time for my curry, we decided to just sit down to eat anyway. (I later got the blame for them being undercooked).

The reactions weren’t immediately positive… Mit suggested the pieces should be deep fried (mine is only lightly fried to seal in the marinade before being added to the curry), and that the curry should have more root vegetables. So more like a standard curry you’d get in a northern Vietnamese restaurant. Bom said he liked it a lot but it was a bit spicy for him (it wasn’t very spicy). I was feeling a bit stressed myself by now. Cooking for a family is hard. I can’t imagine cooking for 4 people like that twice a day, but over here it’s normal. I’m told everyone mostly eats dinner at home, the processed meals that I ate a lot as a teenager when my parents were working being unheard of.

At this point though, Lily’s dad spoke to me for the first time in days, saying that Mit (Phuong) only likes burnt pig meat anyway. Initially I thought he was saying my food was bad, but in hindsight I think it was a compliment? Hopefully it was…he took a generous second helping. Who knows…

When Lily’s mum came home she seemed more relaxed and she quickly ate the remaining curry, saying at first that she thought curry was an Indian food. This made me feel a bit anxious again, since yes, although curries came to Vietnam from India, they’ve been making them here for a long time, and I find a curry recipe in almost every ‘authentic’ Vietnamese cookbook I buy. I put this down again down to regional differences, where in the North, people eat less pungent and spicy food and less coconut milk. Curry is probably a Southern influenced dish, whereas Loi’s northern cooking, with her many stir fries and noodle dishes, is influenced more strongly by China. My sense from speaking to everyone up here is that they have quite specific expectations of what food should be like, and they generally dislike food that evokes different regions of Vietnam too strongly.

Loi did say she liked the curry though, and after a yoghurt mixed with a local, untranslatable fruit pickle, which she said would help us sleep, we had the best night’s rest yet of our stay here.

Silk Tofu

The tofu is soft. She has the high-fat content of silk, she is only a pudding. Some of her cousins were pressed into harder stuff than she ever was. Who chose that, she wondered? They’d all grown up together that year, a crop in the muddy field together, yellow black and brown, all round. Every year their brothers and sisters grew up in the mud under grey skies, were picked, plucked, boiled, ground, drowned and pressed. Some went on to be hard, destined for deep frying, destined to be textured with dimples and served to be as strong as meat, bursting with protein – pound for pound more than minced beef. These tofus faced a hard but honourable life.

Was it better, Silk Tofu wondered, to be treated and rendered gently? Drowned in rich milk, not chemically laced water? Pressed gently and smoothly, in a way that left her skin like silk; none of these acne pockmarks suffered by her harder, less fortunate sisters? They dressed her silk skin in fine, sweet syrups of ginger, or on less extravagant days, miso and spring onions. Sometimes all her fat was stirred up until she became a soft, soft pudding. Those days were the best and the worst, when all the richness of her beans overcame her solid protein structure and she became a quivering, curdling jelly. She was the biggest jelly curd in town.

Review of Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen

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Ever heard of tofu noodles? I hadn’t, since here in the UK we’re sadly not as well stocked on Asian ingredients as our cousins in the US. But if you’re a fan of Vietnamese home cooking, then you better have heard about Andrea Nguyen. Her blog, Viet World Kitchen, is an invaluable regular resource that provides great cooking advice from everyday meals to special holidays like the Tet festival. Her famous debut cookbook, Into The Vietnamese Kitchen, is one of my best Vietnamese cookbooks despite that it is very meaty, simply because Nguyen’s flavours are always excellent. Just swap, say, the chicken in her lemongrass and ginger curry for mock chicken, and the effect is still brilliant.

Nguyen has the great ability to impart detailed advice on basic to advanced cooking tips whilst keeping her writing extremely accessible to any home-cook. Even more rarely for cookery writers, she synthesises her ability to impart technical knowledge with fluent, original and fascinating writing about Vietnamese and Asian food culture and history. And so I was thrilled to see recently that she had published Asian Tofu, thinking how great it would be to read an Asian/Vietnamese cookbook with predominantly Vegetarian recipes for once!

Asian Tofu is an unusual gem of a book, combining vast amounts of information about Asia, food and cooking into a rich resource with unexpected levels of depth. You might think a cook book succinctly titled Asian Tofu would be a simple affair – I’ve read tofu books that certainly are. Indeed, tofu is an ingredient derived from the humble soy bean; a crop that Nguyen notes was cultivated in China largely because it simply gave a good yield in poor soil. But this book shows you how wrong you are if you think tofu, this staple Asian delicacy, is simple. Even I found the book challenged my preconceptions, despite that I’ve been cooking with tofu for years now. The book has so much new information that it bears reading more than once and trying out a couple of recipes before you really start breaking into it and becoming completely confident, but the results will drastically improve your cooking.

Not only does Nguyen provide simple but game-changing tofu cooking tips and detailed buying guides in her introduction that I have NEVER found in other cookbooks, she also traces the foodstuff’s history in Asia, detailing its spread from country to country from medieval Japan to 20C India. This journey is then mirrored in the following recipe chapters, each section opening with beautiful photographs and stories of a particular destination that Nguyen has researched in her book, such as a tiny local tofu making shop in the suburbs of Tokyo; a Sichuanese University professor’s impromptu home dinner party; a famous Taiwanese vegan restaurant serving briny mock eel. What is fascinating is that tofu is loved differently from place to place, with the Japanese and Koreans in particular preferring softer, silken forms of mouth-wateringly fresh tofu garnished simply, whereas further South in China, Vietnam and Thailand tofu is often enjoyed fried with a deliciously crispy and chewy outer layer and accompanied with vegetables and other ingredients.

Nguyen encourages the home-cook to explore all the different methods of cooking tofu, even mixing and matching different styles, with an interesting chapter opening on young second generation American Asians who are developing new ways to use tofu in Western or fusion styles, such as Eddie Huang’s ‘Tofu Hamburger’ with sweet chilli sauce. My personal favourite section was ‘Salads and Sides’, which has an abundance of highly flavoursome and fresh dishes such as ‘Spicy Lemongrass Tofu Salad’ and ‘Spicy Yuba Ribbons’.

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My attempt at Nguyen’s Vietnamese Lemongrass Fried Tofu (Dau Phu Xao Xa Ot). The tofu is deep fried and then fried again in curry spices and coconut milk so that the outer layer has fantastic flavour and texture.

So far I’ve been cooking up the Vietnamese recipes, such as ‘Lemongrass Fried Tofu’ and ‘Tofu and Tomato Soup’, and the results have been some of the best tofu I’ve ever eaten. Just blanching and draining the tofu, something I’ve never previously been taught to do properly, has had a huge impact on texture and flavour absorption. The next step is to follow the enticing looking guide to making fresh tofu from scratch at home, with the results apparently being akin to the difference between shop bought and home-made bread. And when that time comes I’ll be sure you update you here…

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(Photos of Lemongrass Fried Tofu by Luke Walker)

Vegetarian Summer Rolls (Gỏi cuốn)

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The mint leaves are rolled into the last layer of the wrappers, so that the green shines brightly through the translucent rice. Strips of carrots give the summer rolls a pink hue.

Last week I was lucky enough to help out at my first Grub Club pop up event, hosted by the brilliant and energetic Sharon and Eliza at Miss Manchu. Sharon is Malaysian Australian and an expert in Pan Asian cooking, and she designed a 6 course menu ranging from a starter of deep fried son-in-law eggs and Vietnamese prawn summer rolls to Chinese style pork buns and Thai pandan pancakes with lychee ice cream and bubble tea. We were catering for 40, and so as soon as I arrived at 1pm I was put to chopping 40 chilies, gutting 40 prawns (a slightly uncomfortable new for me) and rolling 40 summer rolls.

As soon as that was done I set about making as many green pandan pancakes, which took about an hour and a half because the pancakes needed to be cooked slowly on each side to avoid them from browning, and then needed to be rolled with a sweet coconut filling just like the summer rolls. We finished cooking that night past 11pm! And I left happy and satisfied with a tub of Sharon’s delicious home-made lychee ice cream in tow.

So as you can see I have summer rolls and rolling in general on the mind, having picked up a tip or two from both Sharon as well as Nhu – a lovely and skilful fellow sous-cheffer. Urged on by the late onset of spring, since then I’ve been making batches of summer rolls at home, and so here’s my recipe using tofu, mushrooms and peanuts:

Recipe (makes 8 rolls):

20g rice vermicelli, soaked in boiling water for 4 minutes then refreshed under cold water.
3 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes.
1 carrot, sliced into julienne strips
100g tofu
1/2 jicama (optional), julienne sliced and then fried gently for 3 minutes.
16 mint leaves plus extra for serving
8 Thai basil leaves
5g of coriander, coarsely chopped.
8 circular dried rice wrappers
Nuoc Cham Sauce (click here for recipe)

Slice the tofu into thin strips, about 1 cm thick and 5 cm long, and shallow fry them in a wok in hot oil until they begin to turn golden. Remove and place them on kitchen roll to absorb excess oil, then slice lengthways again to make them thinner. Set aside with other filling ingredients. Slice rehydrated mushrooms into thin strips, about 2 mm wide.

Soak a rice wrapper in a bowl hot water, turning the edges like a wheel so that the whole sheet becomes wet. As it starts to soften, place the wrapper carefully on a hard, moistened work surface. Then place 4 strips of tofu horizontally about 5cm away from the bottom edge. On top of this add two slices of mushrooms, about 5 batons of carrot, a couple of batons of jicama if using, a sprinkle of chopped peanuts, two mint leaves, a sprinkle of coriander and about half a tablespoon of vermicelli. The shape should be that of a small, horiztonal sausage.

Now, carefully roll up the bottom edge of the wrapper until it has covered the ingredients, and then do another half roll over the top. Then fold each side edge of the wrapper to the centre over the sides of the filling, trying to avoid any creases or folds. No carefully go back to rolling the filling towards the top of the remaining wrapper. Before the last roll of the filling, place a Thai basil leaf face down about 2 cm from the top edge of the wrapper, which will then be rolled in at the top of the summer roll as in the picture above.

Invite eaters to wrap the rolls in crispy lettuce to add a crunch to each bite, and dip in the nuoc cham sauce as they go.

(Photo by Luke Walker)

Tofu and Cashew Nut Curry

So, in celebration of the Yan Kit So award (see my last post), here’s a brand new recipe:

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The turmeric blends with the coconut milk and lemongrass to create a rich, subtly sweet sauce, that gradually absorbs into the tofu and cashews as they simmer gently. And the green Thai Basil and fresh red chillies contrast sharply with the mild flavours and the all consuming yellow…

This mild curry was inspired by the many delicious recipes for lemongrass tofu that you find in the South of Vietnam. Vietnamese curries are elegant – delicate but very fragrant, with abundant use of lemongrass, ginger and fresh chillies, as you will see… Although I’ve not often found tofu with cashew nuts together in Vietnamese cookery both are used individually and go very well together. Credit goes to my partner and colleague Luke for the idea to add cashews (coconut milk was my idea)! We’ve been working on different lemongrass tofu recipes for years, and this is a good one.

Recipe (serves 4):

450g block of firm tofu, chopped into 2cm cubes
3 stalks of lemongrass, chopped very finely or grated
2 chillies, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 inch piece of garlic, peeled and chopped very finely or grated
165ml coconut milk
80 ml water (or coconut milk for a richer sauce)
1 1/2 tsp turmeric, ground
100g cashews
1tsp lime juice
2 tbsp thin soy sauce
A handful of Thai Basil leaves, roughly chopped
1 1/2 – 2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
salt, to taste

Fry the garlic, chillies and ginger on a low medium heat for 3 minutes, then add the lemongrass and fry for another 2 minutes.

Add the tofu, coconut milk, water, nuts, lime juice, soy sauce and sugar, then cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring whilst being careful not to break up the tofu too much. Add the salt and pepper, then simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the sauce has reached your desired consistency. Take off the heat and leave for at least 30 minutes (the longer the better, it will taste better the day after). Reheat and stir through the Thai basil, and serve with fresh rice and a vegetable dish.

(Photo by Luke Walker)