Bold, Authentic Flavors Transform Seared Tofu

Food and Travel, Ingredient, International Food, Recipes
on June 6, 2012
Mark Boughton Photography / styling: Teresa Blackburn

The question I get asked most frequently is: "What is your favorite food?"
Although I love everything (except raw tomatoes), I am passionate about authentic cuisine that hits me in the face in the most outspoken, vibrant way. It doesn't have to be fancy, just delicious and fresh.
Here's what I'm talking about:

I'm sitting at the table of one of my favorite ethnic restaurants, the kind that you wouldn't try unless someone you trust recommends it. In front of me is a huge pile of crisp romaine leaves, a stack of fragrant Thai holy basil leaves, spearmint leaves, pungent culantro stalks, fresh lime wedges and thinly sliced jalapeno peppers topped with a cup of impeccably fresh, glistening yellow bean sprouts.

Next to the platter is a crock of searing hot chili paste, a bottle of vinegar, some fish sauce and toasted garlic. The waiter brings a steaming bowl of pho, a traditional Vietnamese broth loaded with seasonal vegetables, rice noodles and tofu. I dump the fresh herbs into the hot broth, and the heat expands their aroma.

The air around my table almost pulsates after squeezing the lime, adding the jalapenos and scattering in the sprouts. Just as I am about to plunge the ladle into my pho, the waiter sets down a giant crispy rice pancake studded with wok-seared vegetables and tofu.

I pull pieces off the pancake, garnish them with fresh mint, basil and culantro and wrap them in fresh lettuce leaves. I'm overwhelmed with this wonderful task as I inhale these smells, roll lettuce leaves and select condiments.

This is real food, exploding with excitement, involvement and flavor. I could eat this every day without tiring. It's the kind of food that gets you involved. You can't have it placed in front of you and sit back.
There is no masking of pure flavor here. This cuisine relies upon absolutely fresh ingredients and you.

I order wok-seared tofu in lemon grass sauce and everyone at the table jumps at the platter with forks ready, because it smells so amazing. No one says,"Tofu. I don't eat tofu."

Rice noodles arrive steaming, loaded with broccoli, cabbage and zucchini. A pile of hot chili peppers glistens on the surface, and I sample them first. There is not one ingredient that my palate can ignore. This is what taste is about, food standing on its own merit. No tricks, no sauces, no fancy presentations. Just a bold but fabulous attack on the only five sensations our taste buds can enjoy — sour, sweet, spicy, salty and bitter — all at the same time in perfect balance.

Below is my version of such a recipe. I love it, and I hope you'll find it excites your senses.

—By Chef Steve Petusevsky

Related: Lemon Grass Tofu