Is hating on tofu passé yet? Surely by now every American with a halfway adventurous palate has tasted at least one preparation of tofu that’s both flavorful and appealingly textured, be it fried bean curd with black bean sauce from a Chinese restaurant, inari sushi from a sushi joint, or green tofu curry from a Thai takeout place. Asking whether tofu can be good seems as unfashionable as asking whether country music can be good. The answer to both questions is an obvious yes.
On the other hand, whether you can cook tofu at home that’s as good as what’s served at your favorite Asian restaurant is an unresolved question for many. Supermarket tofu emerges from the package a far cry from the meaty, savory restaurant dishes listed above. (I’m talking about so-called “regular” tofu, the kind found packed in water in the refrigerator case; aseptically packaged, shelf-stable silken tofu is a subject for another day.) Home cooks unfamiliar with tofu will likely throw up their hands after trying to bake or fry it—even extra-firm tofu has a tendency to fall apart, to stick to the pan, and to end up mushy and bland.
One easy step will remedy most of your tofu-related tribulations: As soon as you get home from the grocery store, drain your tofu and stick it in the freezer. (You can slice the tofu before freezing if you want it to thaw faster.) Freezing changes the texture of tofu drastically and almost magically: When ice crystals form, they create small holes in the tofu, making it far spongier, firmer, and chewier than it was before. No amount of draining, patting dry, or pressing tofu can minimize sogginess as much as freezing does.
Once your tofu is thawed, the world is your oyster. And at the top of your tofu to-do list should be bánh mì, the French-Vietnamese baguette sandwich that, when properly executed, is a strong contender for the title of best sandwich in the world.
Most tofu bánh mì recipes I’ve seen call for marinating the tofu in some combination of soy sauce, lemongrass, and garlic and then pan-frying it. This is not a terrible approach, but it results in one-dimensionally salty tofu, whereas the tofu in the best Vietnamese sandwiches I’ve had is both savory and a touch sweet. The solution—and one of the best ways to cook tofu, period—is a Vietnamese technique I learned from a recipe Mark Bittman published in the New York Times a few years back: Simmer the tofu (and some sliced onion) in soy-caramel sauce enhanced with lots of black pepper. The results are incredible: the soy sauce and browned sugar meld into a uniquely dark and delicious new flavor, while the pepper contributes just a touch of heat. (Fish sauce can be used instead of soy sauce for a more pungent result.) Plus, you get the added benefit of honest-to-God caramelized onion accompanying the tofu.
Bánh mì is a Vietnamese phrase for bread, a linguistic fact that suggests one can stuff anything in a baguette and still rightly employ the name. This is mistaken, though. Along with the tofu, you need four specific accoutrements: cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, and lightly pickled grated carrots. You also need some added fat. I opt for softened butter, but mayonnaise, more common on bánh mì, is another acceptable choice.
Tofu Bánh Mì
Yield: 2 or 3 servings
Time: About 1 hour, plus time to freeze and thaw the tofu
One 14-ounce package extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon plus ⅓ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, at room temperature, or mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
⅓ cup soy sauce or fish sauce
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons black pepper
One 18-inch baguette
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
½ small cucumber, cut into ½- by 2-inch strips
2 medium fresh jalapeños, seeded and cut into thin lengthwise strips
1. At least one day before you plan to make the sandwiches, cut the tofu into ½- to ¾-inch slices and cut each slice into 1- to 2-inch triangles or rectangles. Freeze the tofu overnight, then thaw it in the refrigerator.
2. Combine the carrot, 2 tablespoons of the vinegar, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and a large pinch of salt in a medium bowl; cover and refrigerate while you prepare the other ingredients. Whisk together the butter or mayonnaise and the Sriracha in a small bowl.
3. Put the remaining ⅓ cup sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook, shaking and swirling the pan occasionally (but not stirring), until the sugar is mostly melted and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Slowly drizzle in the soy sauce or fish sauce, then add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thawed tofu and the black pepper and cook, turning the tofu occasionally, until it has absorbed most of the sauce, about 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon rice vinegar and remove from the heat.
4. Drain the carrot mixture. Split the baguette horizontally with a bread knife. Remove and discard some of the soft inner part of the bread to make more room for the fillings. Spread the butter or mayonnaise mixture on the bottom half of the baguette, and top with the tofu mixture, the carrot mixture, the cilantro, the cucumber, and the jalapeños. Close the sandwich with the top half of the baguette, cut it into 2 or 3 equal lengths, and serve immediately.