The Secret to Making Restaurant-Quality Golden Tofu

Photo: Cameron Stauch

Vegetarian Viet Nam Cookbook
Photo: W.W. Norton

When Cameron Stauch, a Canadian chef (whose clientele includes *the* royals, NBD) and the author of Vegetarian Viet Nam first moved to Hanoi, he was met with a unique challenge. It was difficult to find information about the meat and seafood sold in marketplaces, including how it was raised and farmed. The ambiguity led Stauch to opt for a vegetarian lifestyle, using his expertise in the kitchen to adapt his own flavor-rich, plant-based versions of local cuisine.

"When I moved to Vietnam I'd just come from a job where one of my responsibilities was to prepare meals for guests with dietary restrictions," Stauch explains. "So I was already in a frame of mind of looking at how I could prepare meat or seafood-based dishes to meet these requirements."

It was this up-for-anything mindset that enabled Stauch to begin adapting his own recipes, one of which was based on his first-ever meal in Hanoi. His turmeric tofu with fresh dill and rice-noodles is his take on a traditional dish in Vietnam. Stauch swapped fish for tofu in the main dish and created a vegetarian take on the fish sauce traditionally used to blend and balance the distinct, fresh flavors in Vietnamese cuisine.

"When the scallions and dill hit the heat of the pan, a wonderful sweet anise flavor perfumes your kitchen."

"I've always enjoyed cooking with fresh herbs. That's one of the reasons why I love this dish so much. When the scallions and dill hit the heat of the pan a wonderful sweet anise flavor perfumes your kitchen," says Stauch.

Stauch really plays up the tofu in this dish by focusing on the texture, along with the namesake turmeric seasoning. Rather than deep-frying it—like most restaurants do—to get that crispy golden crunch, he uses a shallow-fry technique. "Don't be worried about the amount of oil used for frying, " He says. "There is very little oil used in the recipes in the book. The very thin layer of oil on the outside of the tofu helps carry the flavor of the tofu itself and of the dish it's prepared in. I most regularly shallow-fry tofu in a wok."

Finally, if you're stumped scanning the supermarket shelves for fermented tofu and Thai basil is nowhere to be seen in the produce aisles, Stauch says you can omit the fermented tofu from the everyday table sauce and opt for classic Italian basil instead. Ready to make your tofu like a seasoned pro? Keep reading for a delish way to try it out.

Keep reading for the turmeric tofu with rice noodles recipe.

Turmeric tofu with rice noodles

Serves 4

For the everyday table sauce
3 Tbsp sugar
1/4 cup water
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp fresh lime juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 fresh red Thai bird chile, finely chopped or thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped

For the turmeric tofu and rice noodles
1 small head Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
3/4 cup Thai basil leaves
3/4 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 lb dried rice vermicelli noodles
1 to 1 1/2  lb firm tofu
1/2 cup rice flour
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 cups scallions (2 bunches) 1-inch lengths
2 cups (large bunch) roughly chopped stemmed fresh dill
1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped
Soy sauce (optional)

For the everyday table sauce:
1. Put the sugar, water, rice vinegar, soy sauce, lime juice, and salt into a bowl. Stir until the sugar is fully dissolved. Add and mix in the chile and garlic. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Let the sauce sit for ten minutes before serving to allow the flavors to intermingle.

2. Serve in one medium bowl with a spoon so guests can drizzle some extra sauce into their spring rolls following their initial bite. Or double the recipe and serve in small individual bowls.

For the turmeric tofu with rice noodles:
1. Prepare the everyday table sauce and put in a small bowl or two. Mix the lettuce, basil, and cilantro together in a serving bowl or on a large plate.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop in the noodles and use chopsticks or tongs to untangle and loosen. Boil until tender, three to five minutes, then drain and immediately flush with cold water. Gently squeeze four to five times to get rid of any excess water. Set aside on two medium plates, loosely covered with a clean kitchen towel.

3. Cut the block of tofu into half-inch-thick rectangles. Then cut each block into smaller rectangles about one-and-a-half inches by two inches. Mix the rice flour, turmeric, and salt in a large bowl. Add the tofu, toss to coat lightly, and transfer to a plate.

4. Heat the oil in a wok or ten inch skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place some tofu in the oil and fry until each side is crispy and golden, three to four minutes per side. You may need to cook the tofu in two batches. Transfer briefly to a paper-towel-lined plate and arrange on a serving platter. Carefully pour out most of the oil, leaving one tablespoon. Reheat the oil over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the scallions for about one minute before tossing in the dill. Stir-fry for another 30 seconds and arrange nicely over the tofu. Sprinkle the peanuts on top.

5. To eat, each diner puts some noodles in a bowl and some dill tofu on top. They can add some of the lettuce and herbs and then a good drizzle of the table sauce. Toss together before eating. Add a splash of soy sauce for extra seasoning, if desired.

Recipe and photograph from Vegetarian Viet Nam by Cameron Stauch. Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Stauch. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more out-of-the box cooking inspo, look to Korea's healthy cooking traditions. While you're at it, consider giving your pantry an organization overhaul—here's how to do it. 

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