My social life has taken a bit of a hit recently. Being insistent on getting home for 8/8.30pm to watch every episode of Masterchef as and when it’s broadcast can have that effect. I’m not ashamed to say it: I am addicted to this show. There’s tension, there’s drama, there’s more sexy-looking food than you can shake a ginger tuile at, and above all there’s hilarious slow motion walks designed to show the contestants ‘mean business’ at the start of every episode. Watching this show has elevated me from my assumed status as a passionate foodie into an amateur critic, despairing when a contestant refuses to take John’s advice and TIDY UP THEIR DAMN PRESENTATION.
My annoyance at the contestant’s shortcomings eventually led to me realising my own, because the fact is that I am not good at creating a good looking plate of food. I deal in big portions, generally slapped hastily onto a bowl or plate as quickly as possible due to my irrational fear of food going cold after it’s been off the heat for more than ten seconds. As a general rule I’m all about the taste, but it’s a simple truth that we judge based on initial appearances, and food is no exception. John was of course right, and I needed to tidy up my own damn presentation.
So this week I’ve been working on creating dishes that look as good as they taste, and my Vietnamese Tofu Pho (I hope you’ll agree) is one of my biggest success stories so far. A few years ago I spent two weeks in Vietnam, travelling from Hanoi down to Ho Chi Minh city, and I fell in love with the country. Whenever anyone so much as casually mentions they’re thinking of going there I immediately cut in with ‘it’s the best place I’ve ever visited, go, go now, go today, I’ll book your flight for you’. When asked what’s so great about it, I start off talking about the beautiful scenery, the culture, the mix of vibrant cities and stunning coastlines, and then I eventually move onto what will always be the biggest seller for me: the food. Vietnamese cuisine is of course already incredibly popular over here, and you can get some really authentic, tasty dishes at many restaurants. But they will never compare to a steaming bowl of pho, bought for the equivalent of £1 and enjoyed sitting on the world’s smallest stool inside a street cafe.
Pho is a big bowl of noodle soup loveliness, generally made with beef or chicken, it is wonderfully clean, refreshing, and packed with aromatic flavour. As it’s a fairly simple dish, the meat tends to be the star of the show, meaning a veggie version could potentially be rather difficult. When I first made this dish I was expecting some of the flavour to be lost with the absence of meat, but found that the tofu fried with rich soy sauce is a tasty substitution that also adds an interesting new texture to the dish. Tofu can be a scary ingredient to cook with if you never have before, as it needs a bit of prior treatment before it hits the pan. I’ve detailed in the recipe below how I cook and prepare tofu, and you can find more advice on cooking with it here.
Another big difference in cooking a vegetarian pho is the stock. Generally it would be a meaty stock, but of course that doesn’t work for this dish. For my stock I cheated slightly and used a Pho stock cube (pictured below), I found these in a specialist food shop, but they’re also common in Chinese supermarkets. If you can’t find them though simply use a good quality veg stock cube and simmer with a cinnamon stick, a couple of cardamon pods, cloves, and star anise – remembering to drain the stock through a thin sieve before serving.
Vietnamese Tofu Pho
Preparation Time: 30 minutes Cooking Time: 10 minutes
For the noodle soup:
1 Pho stock cube + 500ml boiled water
1 Pack firm tofu
Splash of sesame oil
2 Tsps dark soy sauce
300g Wide rice noodles
2 Handfuls beansprouts
4 Spring onions
10 Coriander leaves
5 Sprigs Asian basil
1 Birdseye chili
Splash of light soy sauce (optional)
- First prepare your tofu. To do this open the packet and drain the excess liquid, then cut into five slices width-ways, about 2cm thick. Wrap each piece of tofu in a couple of sheets of kitchen roll, place the tofu pieces next to each other and put two heavy books on top. Leave for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare your garnishes. Finely chop the coriander and Asian basil. Slice the spring onion and chili into thin disks, and cut the lime into four slices. I then placed all my garnishes in their separate sections onto a plate, to make it easier when serving.
- When the tofu is about five minutes from being ready, put your noodles onto boil.
- Cut the tofu into square chunks, as big or small as you like depending on your preference.
- Put your stock onto simmer.
- Heat the sesame oil in a wide frying pan or wok, when it is hot drop the tofu pieces into the pan. When they are fried on all sides, add the dark soy sauce to the pan. Cook in the soy sauce until the tofu takes on a rich brown colour.
- To serve, drain the noodles and place in the middle of a wide bowl. Place a handful of bean sprouts carefully on top and ladle in the stock. Carefully spoon the tofu pieces on top of the beansprouts in the middle of the dish, scatter over the garnishes as you like, and place two lime wedges on the side of both bowls.