Like many Asian Moms, my Mom is an amazing cook and a terrible teacher. There is no use of measurements and even an ingredient list is considered optional as apparently she just uses whatever’s in the refrigerator! Even after I went to university and up through medical school I couldn’t cook any of the comfort foods that I ate growing up. Part of it is that Vietnamese cooking, unlike most other cuisines is incredibly regional. Phở in northern Vietnam has different vegetable garnishes in it than southern Vietnam and don’t get me started on the addition of hoisin sauce. Even more than that is the fact that unlike western cooking, Vietnam doesn’t really have codified culinary education–most cooking schools in Vietnam are for ex-pats or tourists. The phở we ate in my house, my family originally being from the north, tastes different than that of our neighbors and different than in the south. Which can be a bit disappointing when eating out at Vietnamese restaurants, when you think mac & cheese, the first thing that usually comes to mind is what you ate at home, not the chipotle bacon concoction your server brings to the table, not that that’s a bad combo. So what I mean is Vietnamese cooking is learning at the stove. My Mom and the generations before her learned in the kitchen at her mom’s side and then again later at her mother-in-law’s side (patriarchal Asian society likes the new bride to cater to her husband’s family’s tastes). Point in fact, many recipes for this dish include wood ear mushrooms in the pork mixture, my mother’s and father’s families didn’t eat it that way which may be a north-south thing or simply the pocket of Hà Nội they grew up in.
So after lots of whining and wheedling I cajoled my Mom into cooking at my side so I could pepper her with questions that she didn’t understand why I was asking cuz it’s just done that way. Obviously, even though I terrorized my 90 lb Mom into teaching me her way, I still strayed off the beaten path cuz I don’t ever remember being served cherry tomatoes at home or in a Vietnamese restaurant :). And really, I think that’s how it’s meant to be. Every generation creates its own tweaks while handing down to the next, incorporating new flavors as your palate and gustatory exposures change. The basic flavors of tangy tomato and savory sauce is still there. It’s all good. So if this morphs into a miso-soy-starfruit sauce well then, I want pictures. Oh, and this dish with all the intimidating accents literally means “stuffed tofu fried with tomato sauce.” Fancy, huh?
OMG, what’s with all the weird ingredients?
1) Fish sauce or nước mắm is pretty ubiquitous in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. It’s usually made of fermented anchovies, lots-o-salt, and water. I’ll admit that it smells pretty fishy but when used judiciously it really adds depth to a dish. Part of it is the briny salty flavor similar to how miso paste imparts a salty savoriness to Japanese dishes as well as all that umami goodness. 旨み or umami, literally means “good taste” and is also the word used for monosodium glutamate or MSG. It’s naturally found in many of our favorite foods like hard aged cheeses (eg Parmesan), soy sauce, and even cured meats.
2) Are all fish sauces the same? I guess this can be equated to the great cola debate. Most Vietnamese cooks tend to use the Three Crabs brand in their pantry and if you look at the fish sauce aisle in your local Asian market you may notice that the Three Crabs section usually has the least bottles. I personally find it to be a nice balance of savory without being overly fishy or harsh. It’s great for stir-frying or making dipping sauces (nước chấm). In fact, Three Crabs is so popular they don’t even have a website (that I can find) and have many knockoffs, Three Fish, Three Turtles,…you get the gist. For broths like in phở I like to use a fish sauce that’s briny-er like Squid brand as I want a stronger flavor when I’m diluting it out with water and broth.
3) Is there a way to make this vegetarian? Sort of? While there is such a beastie as vegetarian fish sauce, nước mắm chay, it really doesn’t taste like fish sauce which makes sense since fish sauce only has the three ingredients. That being said, you could simply omit the fish sauce and either substitute soy sauce or salt in a 1:1 ratio. You will still get a tangy-savory dish but it won’t have that briny-ness. As to what to stuff the tofu with, I’ll let your imagination run wild with whatever veggies suit your fancy.
4) Do I really need to use cherry tomatoes? Nope. This dish tastes great either way, I just have a ton of Sungolds and the sweet tang of the cherry tomatoes goes just as well as regular tomatoes with a dash of sugar in the sauce.
5) Look for tamari soy sauce with no wheat in the ingredients for a gluten-free option to this dish.
8 1×3 inch pieces fried (or medium-firm texture uncooked) tofu
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
2 green onions, white parts finely chopped
1 + 1 tsp (2 cloves) crushed garlic
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp mirin (you can substitute sweet sherry too)
2 tsp + 1 tbsp fish sauce (I like Three Crabs brand–man that looks terrible :D)
1 tbsp soy sauce (I prefer Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce in non-Japanese or Korean cooking)
2 c cherry tomatoes or 2-3 diced ripe tomatoes
2 tsp sugar if not using cherry tomatoes
1/4 c water
2 c steamed rice (I usually cook this while doing my prep work so it’s ready when dinner is done)
In a small bowl mix together ground pork, ground pepper, green onions, 1 tsp crushed garlic, 2 tsp fish sauce, and sugar with your hands. Set aside.
Make a slice through the long side of the tofu but not cutting through the short ends creating an open pocket to stuff the pork into. Stuff about 1-1 1/2 tbsp of the pork mixture into each piece of tofu.
In a large skillet heat vegetable oil on med-hi heat for 20-30 seconds. Place tofu pockets in skillet so that they’re not touching. Cover, lower heat to medium, and cook for 2 minutes. Flip tofu, I find that they’re so small that it’s easier to do with chopsticks or tongs than a spatula, cover, and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove tofu from skillet and set aside. Deglaze skillet with mirin then add tomatoes, 1 tsp crushed garlic, water, sugar (if not using cherry tomatoes), remaining 1 tbsp fish sauce and soy sauce. Cover and simmer for 3-4 minutes till cherry tomatoes have burst open or regular tomatoes are completely soft. Return tofu to the skillet and braise in sauce for 30-60 seconds per side so they can soak up some of the sauce. Serve in bowls over rice. Makes 4 servings.