Vietnamese Tofu and Tomato Sauce (Dau Sot Ca Chua)
Words by Lisa FarrellIllustration by Jordan Harrison
I take a bite and close my eyes. I’m back in Hanoi. Smog stings my eyes, the heat sears my skin and my ears ring with the blast of horns from scooters that pass within inches of my smog-blackened feet. I back away from the road and nearly collide with a procession of old ladies wearing conical hats. They don’t even notice; their heads bowed and backs hunched under the weight of shoulder poles bearing heavy loads of fresh fruit and vegetables. From every shop doorway, the cry of ‘you buy something!’ grates like a scratched vinyl.
I take another bite. I’m in a café, wafting away steam rising from the mound of rice that’s been placed in front of me. A scrawny dog jumps onto my lap; hastily shooed away by a surly waiter. The waiter slams a Saigon beer on the bamboo coaster next to the rice, before straightening watercolours depicting tranquil oriental gardens that hang skewwhiff on a faded yellow wall. A shrill command is hurled at him from the kitchen and he slopes off, returning a few minutes later with another steaming bowl which he places next to our rice along with two sets of chopsticks. He bows his head, smiling sweetly at us while rolling his eyes in the direction of the kitchen. My fingers fumble with chopsticks and I grit my teeth, fighting the urge to snap them and use my fingers instead.
Time travel? I’ve cracked it. A couple of bites are all it takes to transport me back to the place where I fell in love with a dish. Spanakopita? I’m on a Greek island in the late 90s, reeling from a chance encounter with a pie whose name I couldn’t pronounce. That encounter led to a Spanakopita obsession that’s endured throughout my adult life. Fiori di Zucchini Fritti? It’s 2005 in Mirano, Venice. I’m in a fancy restaurant and my brother and I are in hysterics following a pig impression that our mother had just made in response to her first taste of those crispy, magical flowers. They were that good. And Tofu and Tomato Sauce? It’s August 2011 in Hanoi, Vietnam. I’m in a tiny café on a chaotic city centre street, not only having one of the best meals of my entire life, but an epiphany that was to transform my outlook on travelling.
It was my first day in Vietnam, the second of eleven countries my partner and I visited during a six-month escape from reality. After a 12 hour journey to Hanoi involving tuk tuks, taxis, and an unsuccessful night’s sleep under the aggressive aircon of Bangkok’s airport, we landed in Hanoi only to be detained in a police station for two hours along with the driver taking us to our hostel. Our unusual welcome became a revelation into life for the Vietnamese as our driver explained that the police had singled him out, as they routinely do with many drivers, because they wanted to make money from him. In this case, it was a cool 1,000,000 VND which his boss had to stump up before we could be released. Welcome to Vietnam.
By the time we eventually arrived at our hostel, we were emotionally drained and starving. We hadn’t eaten for nearly 18 hours and we needed something to eat; anything, so we ditched our bags and went in search of food. Unfortunately, lunchtime had passed and most cafés had closed.
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.
I’ll never forget those first bites. I tasted the acidity of fresh tomatoes; deseeded, skinned and slowly simmered into a velvety red sauce. There were pungent notes of garlic; the sweet tang of spring onion; a sharp burst of salty fish sauce. Sliced greens of a spring onion added a crunch, whilst a sprinkle of white pepper added heat. A simple but rich myriad of flavours, this concoction clung to fried cubes of tofu; softened by the sauce but still retaining crisp, golden edges.
This was unlike any tofu I’d ever tasted before, a vessel for mind-altering flavours which rippled throughout my mouth in waves. Gentle at first, these waves swelled in intensity until they broke in a surge of sweet, spice, salt and tang. It was extraordinary.
That dish surprised me, just as our Vietnamese ‘welcome’ had surprised me. And that was the point. That dish reminded me that travelling isn’t just about planning itineraries meticulously, ticking sights off a bucket list or expecting perfection. That dish reminded me that the best travel experiences happen when you don’t plan them. When things go wrong. When your preconceptions are challenged.
Best of all, discovering that dish after a difficult first morning in Hanoi brought to life one of my favourite quotes. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I know, I know – it’s overused and a bit clichéd, but I love it because it articulates why I wanted to travel. It wasn’t to see postcards brought to life or taste ‘authentic’ versions of familiar dishes. I was travelling to try and really experience the world: the good and the bad. To learn something about other cultures. To see through new eyes. I hadn’t appreciated what that meant until that first morning in Vietnam. Hanoi was nothing like the rose-tinted experience I’d fantasised about when carving our itinerary. It was nothing like accounts I’d read in the magazines and blogs I’d poured over, or the tales my friends had returned with from their own travels. But it was real. It was my experience. And every time I eat Tofu and Tomato sauce, I’m reminded of that.
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.