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When a tofu-based vegetarian dish can make a bloodthirsty carnivore whimper with anticipation, it has my attention. Perhaps you know this type of guy, to whom bread is a vegetable and health food is a fast food burger with a side of cigarette. The kind of person who gets almost as much pleasure offending a vegan as chewing on part of a dead animal. One such person, whom I will call Bloody Brad, was my unlikely guide. Brad is from Houston, and when I showed up in his hometown for a few days, I hit him up for restaurant recommendations. I expected him to steer me to a big Texas rib joint or steakhouse, or a hidden Creole place for a succulent plate of shrimp and grits.
What I got instead was a recommendation for the Van Loc Vietnamese restaurant, now shuttered after 28 years. Vietnamese cuisine can be heavy on red meat, and Van Loc offered an eight-course beef meal. But Bloody Brad had one specific recommendation: Clay Pot Tofu. “I’m in so love with it, with mushrooms in a peppery broth, that’s all I ever order,” he sighed. So I went to Van Loc and ordered Clay Pot Tofu. When it arrived, boiling at my table, I could see black pepper coating large pieces of celery, whole shitake mushrooms, and golden chunks of deep-fried tofu, which stayed crispy in the peppery broth. As I took a few tiny sips of Bloody Brad’s beloved broth, that black pepper jumped out. I don’t see too many spicy dishes powered by black pepper alone, with no backup from chile.
But then, Vietnam produces and exports more black pepper than any other nation, so why not? While the pepper was strong, the overall effect was still subtle somehow, perhaps thanks to celery taking a rare post at center stage. The tofu absorbed the flavor around it but held its own. It’s a solid, intriguing, and satisfying dish. The Van Loc crew appeared confused when I asked them how to make this amazing recipe. I left with a full belly, and a hunger for that recipe that would not quit.
When I told Brad that I’d replicated his beloved tofu dish, his response, true to form, was “Great. Now, can you make that with pork?” The short answer is yes. It may strike some as counterintuitive, because it’s common to conflate tofu-eaters with vegetarians, but bacon and tofu is a great combination that’s popular in many Asian dishes. A shorter answer would be: fry the tofu in bacon grease, or with ground pork, and then proceed. But honestly, you might want to save your bacon. I’m not sure this dish can get any better.
Peppery Celery Tofu
The inspiration for this recipe arrived at my table in a sputtering clay pot, but it’s fine on a stove top like a normal pot of soup.
Serves 2 as a main course
12-ounces firm tofu, cut into 2 x 2-inch slabs, about a half-inch deep; pressed, drained or patted dry
Heat-tolerant oil, enough for deep-frying
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced into rings
10 shiitake mushrooms (if using dried shiitakes, rehydrate them first)
2 celery stalks, sliced lengthwise and then cut into 1-inch slices
¼ cup soy sauce (have more on hand to season)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon white pepper (if you can’t find white pepper add a second teaspoon of black)
2 teaspoons fish sauce (vegetarians can omit).
Before you do anything, slice the tofu Heat fry oil in a wok or deep skillet to 365 degrees F., and deep-fry the tofu until it turns golden-brown and crisp-about 5-to- 10 minutes.
Alternatively, pan-fry the tofu slabs in less oil on medium, flipping the slabs to get both sides crispy-about 25 minutes.
Remove the tofu and drain on a plate covered with paper towels. Then move the fried tofu far, far away, so you won’t be tempted to eat it all before you serve the soup. In your clay pot, saucepan or other vessel, heat 3 tablespoons of oil on medium heat and briefly saute the garlic.
When it starts to brown and the smell peaks (about 1 minute), add the onion, mushrooms, and celery. Add the soy sauce, lime juice, and black and white pepper, and four cups of water. Stir it together and season with soy sauce, black pepper, lime and fish sauce.
Add the crispy tofu chunks, so that they are half-submerged in the saucy stirfry. Cover and cook 10 minutes on medium heat.
Serve immediately by placing the simmering vessel on a hot pad on the table, and let that piercing broth do its peppery magic.