A taste of home: Đậu hũ chiên sốt cà – Fried tofu and tomato sauce

The assignment: extract a recipe and food story from our family and cultural heritage.

I had a lot of options when it came time to start thinking about what I wanted to make for our final Green Media project. My family is fully Vietnamese on both sides of my family and my mom cooked Vietnamese meals. At some point in my childhood, however, I got picky with my food. Anything involving seafood and many varieties of greens were unappetizing to me; cheeseburgers, pizza, and pasta were more my speed. I’ve had several people in and outside my family comment on my food preferences and how my distaste for some traditional Asian ingredients and flavors somehow made me less Vietnamese. That pissed me off. Who were they to tell me that I wasn’t attuned to my heritage simply because my palate was different from their own? I was born and raised in America; it’s perfectly reasonable that my tastes aligned with the norms of the culture I grew up in. Western foods may be what I like to eat, but Vietnamese food is still what comes to my mind when I think of my home, my family, and dinner on the table. When I explained the assignment to my mom and asked her what she thought I should make, she immediately said, “Đậu hũ sốt cà,” or fried tofu and tomato sauce. She knew it was my favorite and I knew I could handle making it. My mind was made up.

Unlike Mother, Unlike Daughter

My mom (second from left) and a few of her siblings in the early 1960s. She was about 5. I’m on the right, also about 5 in the mid 1990s, wearing traditional Vietnamese dress.

My mom and I grew up in completely different political, social, economic, and geographical environments. As an only child growing up in a nice house in a nice city in the Land of the Free, I sometimes forget that the person who created my life was one of nine siblings and grew up in impoverished, war-stricken Vietnam. Sometimes she’ll tell stories about being hungry and afraid of what was going on out there, but she’ll tell them so casually that it takes me awhile to realize that I can’t even imagine witnessing the situations she’s described, let alone experiencing them firsthand. I can’t imagine being excited about splitting a single orange with eight brothers and sisters. I’ll finish one orange slice in about two bites and think nothing of it; to them, however, it was a rare treat to be consumed and enjoyed slowly. I can’t imagine feeling responsible for multiple younger siblings and working to help support my family. I can’t even fathom being my grandparents struggling to try to feed their family. They made do with what was available; when you’re trying to feed 11 mouths in Vietnam, you look for what’s filling, yet affordable. Tofu, tomatoes, and rice were easy to come by, so that dish was served pretty frequently.

It’s funny that one of my favorite comfort foods was originally a dish that was cheap and easy to cook. I remember having it at least once every week or every other week when I was growing up. I didn’t get to have it as much once I got to college, but nearly every time I went home to visit my mom would make it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen fried tofu and sautéed tomatoes on a restaurant menu—a peasant food tofu dish doesn’t exactly scream am exotic and exciting dining experience—but nearly everyone in my extended family, on both my mom and dad’s sides, knows what it is and how to make it. It was a family staple then and it continues to be one now. It’s right that I learn to make it for myself now even though chances are it’ll never live up to how mom makes it. This isn’t some sort of rite of passage or established tradition I’m learning; this is me learning how to cook something that I love to eat.

Recipe-less in America

I’ve never spent this much time thinking about tofu before. It’s easy to understand why people have a love/hate relationship with it—tofu is healthy and vegetarian, but in its unedited state, it’s a mouthful of bland, watery, and spongy…blah (in my opinion, anyway). Even if you’ve got some tasty toppings to go with the tofu, you still need a certain proportion of topping to tofu before you’re back to the bland, watery, and spongy blah. Even though I’ve never had fried tofu and sautéed tomato at a restaurant before, but I have had in other dishes and they have always paled in comparison to my mom’s. Everyone else’s suffers from BWSB syndrome. Mom’s tofu tastes different. It tastes better.

When my mom was growing up, her mother sautéed the tomatoes with onions and then added salt and water before putting the tofu in. The main difference between what she had then and what she makes now is chicken broth. “Now that we’re in America and we can afford it, chicken broth makes it taste better and heartier.” She explained that what my grandmother cooked was quick and had good flavor, but not enough to satisfy her. She figured that if she replaced the water with chicken broth and upped the cook time, it would taste better. She was right. By letting the tofu sit in the tomato and chicken broth mixture on low heat, the liquid would be reduced and the tofu would have more time to absorb the flavors. It’s strange to me to consider something as simple and typical as chicken broth as a luxury cooking ingredient. Now that I think about it, I do remember one time when my mom made this dish with water instead of chicken broth and the taste was definitely different (it was during Lent and meat and meat products were forbidden on Fridays). My mom also hates onions, so she omitted those. But she said that onions were supposed to be a part of the dish for color. “You get the red from the tomato, yellow from the fried tofu, and green from the onions. We may have been poor, but when you put all of those colors on rice in a white bowl, it’s prettier to look at and enjoy eating.” (Sound familiar? See Kelly’s post.)

In the early 80s, my mom and her youngest brother fled Vietnam and literally risked everything in the hopes of creating better futures for themselves. They were fortunate to find a caring American family, the Weisshahns, who welcomed them into their homes and helped them acculturate to their new surroundings. It was with them that my mom learned to speak English and eat pizza and all sorts of other “American” foods. (I won’t even go into detail about the mystery that was dairy products.) Despite all of this, my mom continued to cook the Vietnamese meals that she learned from her mother—no written recipes, just tastes and memory. With all the new ingredients now available to her, she tweaked some of the dishes here and there until she got the flavors she wanted.

To this day she still doesn’t have any of her recipes written down, yet she’s able to replicate the same tastes nearly every time. This is so impressive to me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: My mom and I have vastly different approaches to cooking. I’m a baker at heart and the thought of not having exact measurements for ingredients freaks me out. I’m slowly starting to learn that some things will come easier once you’ve done it enough times, sort of like muscle memory but with your senses of smell and taste. I’m also learning that you can change or improvise flavors if they’re not to your liking. (That is unless you’ve gone too salty, in which case you’re screwed, but maybe I just haven’t leveled up to that yet.)

After enough pestering, I finally got my mom to write down the recipe for me on some stationary we keep by the phone. Being the awesome mom that she is, she knew of my penchant for exact measurements and tried to the best of her ability to give me some estimates. Close enough. My translation is below. It’s as word-for-word as I could so you could see how simple and concise it is.

The recipe my mom wrote for me on some stationary

“fried tofu and tomato sauce

  • 1 piece large white tofu cut into small pieces to fry until golden
  • 1 tomato sliced
  • 1 serving spoonful oil for frying
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 6 ounces chicken or beef broth

1 teaspoon oil, sliced tomato into pan sauté for color, after that pour chicken broth, fish sauce, tofu already fried, boil, after that reduce heat and it’s good when liquid is reduced. Remember to turn the tofu over evenly so that it will absorb the fish sauce to be good.”

Making Tofu and Tomatoes for Green Media

As I mentioned before, tofu, tomatoes, and rice were affordable options in Vietnam. As it turns out, they’re affordable options in America as well! Here’s the cost breakdown for my three main ingredients:

My main ingredients: tofu, tomato, and chicken broth

As you can see from this, chicken broth is indeed the “luxury” ingredient. I picked up the tomatoes from New Lien Hing Supermarket on Clement and the tofu and tomatoes from Hiep Thanh Food Market Co. in Little Saigon. I already had rice, oil for frying, and soy sauce (in lieu of fish sauce) at home, so I was good to go.

I sliced the pieces of tofu into four each and fried them in a large pan in just enough oil for the outsides to become a golden yellow. Unfortunately, I’m not well-versed in the art of tofu-pan-frying, so I overcooked them slightly (the outsides are a bit tough and chewy now; whoops) and my USF t-shirt that I’ve had since the first day of freshman year is now covered in oil splatters. Note for next time: Wear an apron. My mom told me that the reason the tofu needs to be fried is so they can retain their shape; once the rest of the ingredients are stirred in, un-fried tofu would fall apart. After removing the tofu from the pan, I cut the tomatoes into thin slices and cooked them over medium heat with a little bit of oil until they were soft and had all but liquefied. (Since my mom doesn’t use onions, I didn’t either. Her tastes are what I’m used to.) I then added the chicken broth, some soy sauce to taste, and the tofu. After bringing the liquid to a boil, I put the heat on simmer and turned the tofu pieces over every once in awhile until the chicken broth was reduced. I cooked some rice to go with it and it was done! With the exception of the overdone tofu, I think I got pretty close to my mom’s flavor-wise. I think she’d be proud.

The finished product

It’s cool that I’ll get to bring this to class for 14 people to try; it’s a close parallel to the 11 from my mom’s family. It’s amazing that $2.55 and some ordinary ingredients I already had at home can feed the entire class (even though it’s only a few bites per person). I’m happy that I completed this particular project now, especially as we’re approaching Mother’s Day. It gave me a chance to truly reflect on my culture and what my mom experienced before me. I didn’t just learn how to cook my favorite Vietnamese dish; I gained valuable insight in to the life of a person so close to me but so different from my own. For that, I’m grateful.

*To see more photos, check out my Heritage project set on Flickr.