Large blocks of tofu sitting in a dish of red liquid were the only edible looking choice in my latest takeaway visit to Café 91. All I needed to do was email my friend Anthony a picture of my latest meal and within an hour I had its Vietnamese name, Đậu hủ dồn thịt sốt cà, along with a brief description of the ingredients. In the order of the words, “tofu put meat tomato sauce” is the literal translation. With a little tweaking we arrive at a much more appetizing “tofu stuffed with meat and covered with tomato sauce” that only cost me a buck for a large chunk of it along with all the sides.
So why does a tiny two syllable word send shudders through so many Americans? Has tofu’s association with the tree hugging crowd given this simple food such a bad rap that the rest of us have to enjoy it in secret? I am not quite a tofuholic but I rather like it. I’ve peeled back many a plastic cover on those little white containers holding that largely bland chunk of bean curd back in the States, and over here I am glad it makes a bold appearance in many dishes. Vietnamese street markets are ripe with fresh versions resting in large tubs, and I wonder if this street tofu is actually what I am consuming in restaurants. Most likely yes.
I see the wheels spinning in your head. I know you’ve eaten this mushy protein with probably some mixed reviews afterwards. Now you are wondering what the hell tofu actually is. It’s actually a simple food with Chinese origins. Whether firm, silken, Japanese or Vietnamese, tofu all starts in the same pot…a boiling pot of soymilk to be exact. Yes, all of us health nuts consuming soymilk are just a salt or acid such as lemon juice away from drinking tofu. Adding either to boiling soymilk coagulates the suspended proteins and oil, and just as with cheesemaking, curds rise to the top. These floaters are then pressed to form tofu. And I promise this is pretty much it for today’s science behind the food lesson.
“I swear it’s a super easy meal to make,” was the opening line of Anthony’s email. I can happily report it’s a super easy meal to eat as well. The meat inside this dish is very similar to the cà nhồi thịt we visited during our twentieth meal. Anthony explained this super easy dish just requires minced pork, onions, garlic, pepper, salt, sugar, MSG, and fish sauce. MSG? Oh man. Is nothing sacred in this country when it comes to health? I stopped reading the email right there and got to thinking how much of that salty powder I must be unknowingly consuming over here. Faced with something bad, do you ever attempt to justify it away? It’s like drinking a bottle of red wine and raising each glass to toast cardiovascular health. I told myself at least over here the food is homemade fresh and the chemicals and crap in American processed foods surely are worse than a dash of MSG here and there in a tofu dish.
Each large piece of tofu is stuffed with a meat patty and then it’s all fried up until cooked. The sauce is simply seeded tomatoes, sugar, fish sauce, and salt cooked up in oil and then thickened with some flour and water. Tofu is a bit bland on its own but try it in a dish like this one whose other elements dress it up. The taste and texture are much like a lightly peppered mom’s meatloaf paired with a sweet broth. The tofu with its oil toughened skin and spongy inside adds a hint of sour to each bite.
Đậu hủ dồn thịt sốt cà has everything we look for in comfort food…sodium from the fish sauce, god knows what from the MSG, and artery cloggers from the oil. Throw some caution to the wind, justify the grease and pork fat away, and you might just enjoy the this one. I know I have enough to eat it three times already.