It is very easy to make assumptions about people. We "think" we know them by the little snippets of their lives which they share online. When I first discovered A Food Lover's Journey some years ago, I was immediately struck by the calm and lyrical compositions and light sculpting of Anh Nguyen's photography. To view her images is to enter a world of peace and order. That her writing sometimes alludes to a certain playful charm and wistfulness encourages you to visit her site as if a retreat. And then I met her....
The one-woman dynamo swept through New York City last year on her very first visit with a vitality of spirit that was infectious and inspiring. A native of Vietnam who relocated to Australia for higher learning, Anh's Melbourne life is a whir of doctoral studies and professional finance, as well as a creative hub where she holds court in her accomplished kitchen with her camera and recently adopted (and adored) cat. Beyond the demands of business, school, and family, Anh is also a monthly contributor to Đẹp Magazine and has written for SBS Food. Although she claims that walking about Melbourne with a hot espresso is her favorite start to the day, I do believe Anh carries her own caffeine inside of her.
I am delighted to feature her cooking, writing, and photography on The Well-Seasoned Cook in celebration of My Legume Love Affair - Kicking Off Year 4. Thank you very much, Anh!
The following writing, recipes, and photography are owned by Anh Nguyen and protected by copyright. All Rights Reserved. 2011. All materials appear here by permission and courtesy.
Susan’s invitation to write for “My Legume Love Affair” sent me to a deep, long reflection of my past life in Vietnam. It was first the question of what dish I should make for MLLA, then, memories keep returning and I admit feeling a rather homesick.
Vietnamese cuisine is not known for its use of legume. Well, that’s true. We don’t really feature beans as a main ingredient (like curry or soup for example). Often, they form part of an ingredient list for a dish. For examples, mung bean is a much loved ingredient. We Vietnamese love our sticky rice cooked with mung beans for breakfast together with a nut-sesame mixture called muối vừng. Most of our traditional savoury “cake” and sweet desserts have mung beans as the filling. That’s how I grew up, not caring so much about beans!
But then there is tofu, something we eat on a daily basis. A lot of people say that tofu is bland. Well, that’s because they haven’t tasted the real thing yet. I am talking about the freshest tofu available from Asian wet market, the tofu which was just set and still hot in my hands. My father loves this, and he would sometimes come over to the tofu shop at a specified hour just to get it. No cooking required if he was lucky. We would just enjoy fresh tofu with a simple dip of salt, crushed white pepper and lime juice.
Deep-fried crunchy tofu is also a favourite of mine. I love bún đậu mắm tôm, which literally means deep-fried tofu served with string rice noodles, fermented shrimp sauce and a lot of fresh herbs. Shrimp sauce is an acquired taste, but I love its combination with the crunchy, hot, smooth tofu pieces. We used to have to eat this in secret when my father was not around since he couldn’t stand the smell of shrimp sauce!
It only fits if I share with you today my favourite way of cooking tofu, a dish from my mother. Here, the tofu is pan-fried until golden brown, and then braised gently in a sauce made of fresh tomatoes, a bit of garlic and fish sauce. My mother sometimes added a bit of meat or peeled prawns, but I don’t like the addition much. I like how the tofu soaks in the gentle sweet-sour flavours of the fresh tomatoes. The fish sauce adds that Unami depth, but you can always substitute it with light soy and a pinch of sugar. And no, canned tomato stuff won’t work here since their flavours are a bit too concentrated.
My Mother's Tofu in Fresh Tomato Sauce (đậu sốt cà chua)
Enough for 2-3 people as a shared dish with rice. Add a dish of stir-fry greens, and you will have a nice, simple meal. The measurement here should only be a guide. Different fish sauce brands vary in their saltiness, so adjust accordingly to your taste.
About tofu – you would want to get the Chinese tofu for this dish (not the silken or or firm type – it’s somewhere in between).
1 box of Chinese tofu (see note above)
Oil – to pan-fry
3 big red tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
1 garlic cloves, crushed
2 spring onions, cleaned and chopped
2-3 tablespoons fish sauce (adjust to taste)
Drain the tofu well between pieces of paper towel. Then, cut them into rectangular pieces of 3x4cm.
In a large pan, heat some oil and pan-fry the tofu pieces until golden brown. Remove and keep warm.
In the same pan, remove the tofu bits, add a good measure of extra oil and gently fry the tomatoes (you can brown some meat pieces here for a more substantial dish). Add 1-2 tablespoons of water if the mixture is a bit dry and let it simmer until the tomatoes are really soft and you have sauce somewhat. Now return the tofu pieces to the pan. Add seasoning (fish sauce) and gently braise for about 5-10 minutes.
Just before serving, sprinkle with spring onions and white pepper.