Saturday, October 31, 2009

Deep-Fried Tofu

In modern Vietnam, tofu (đậu phụ>) production is something of a cottage industry, a hereditary skill handed down through generations. Its origins in Vietnam, however, are unclear. We know that tofu originated in ancient China; it was most likely introduced to Vietnam by monks, in association with the development of Buddhism. At first, tofu was an exotic food – people would have had to have gone to the temples to eat it. Later, it was popularized, and today is considered an inexpensive and nutritious staple.

In its early years, tofu served religious, medicinal, and dietary purposes. The rules of the Imperial Court required that vegetarian dishes be placed before the altar whenever the emperor prayed to heaven; tofu's culinary flexibility meant it could easily be included in imperial dishes fit for the gods. As for its medicinal value, early Chinese and Vietnamese doctors ascribed to tofu many health-promoting properties that have largely been corroborated by modern science. Tofu's protein and amino acids undoubtedly helped farmers – accustomed to a rice-centered, high-starch diet – maintain the strength needed to work the fields.

Economically, soybeans have long been an important Vietnamese commodity. The ease with which soybeans are cultivated meant that early farmers could plant them in crop rotations, enabling human survival before the rice harvest or in years when rice production was low. Soybeans can be eaten fresh off the vine or dried and stored, fermented, pickled, sprouted, and of course, made into tofu, which in turn can be dried, fermented, and so on. This means that soybeans, in one form or another, provide year-round sustenance. The economic value of soybeans is evidenced by the fact that in Hanoi's Old Quarter, among its original 36 guild streets, stands Hàng Đậu – "Bean Street" – where soy in all its forms was sold for many years.

Vietnamese tofu tends to be soft, with a pliable, rubbery skin and a custardy, curd-like interior. It frankly lacks the firmness I prefer in certain Japanese tofu varieties. But deep-fried, and served with bún (white noodles), it is one of my favorite street foods.

Bún Đậu Phụ is usually found in makeshift street-corner kitchens or ported by conical-hatted women off the ends of wooden yokes. The soft tofu expands slightly in the oil, developing an almost-crispy exterior and a light, airy core. The vendor cuts the tofu into bite-sized pieces and places it beside a mountain of fresh herbs. The bún served alongside is unlike the normal bún you'd find, for example, with bún chả. The bún served with bún đậu phụ is sticky, like leftover spaghetti, and cut into squares. This consistency enables diners to pop it into their mouths without dealing with the normal noodle stringiness.

Customers have a choice of two sauces, one of which is as ghastly as the other is sublime. The ghastly sauce, mắm tôm, is made of fermented shrimp paste and has a decidedly fecal pungence. Thankfully, the alternative is a standard light, sweet nước chấm, made of watered-down fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and possibly a few chilis. In combination with the basil, mint, tía tô, and other herbs, bún đậu phụ makes for a nice breakfast or late-morning snack.


  1. you have to eat the mam tom sauce. It goes very well with deep fried tofu .

  2. I HAVE eaten the man tom - my comments are based on personal experience. It's ghastly, absolutely ghastly... ;-)

  3. For me, the best way to describe mam tom is "sh...t in a can". I used to run out of the house when it was served. Since leaving Saigon, I have eaten some pretty unusual and gross things all over the world, but so far mam tom still tops my list of things to avoid at all cost.

  4. "mam" is an acquired taste - you're not a fair dinkum Vietnamese unless you know how to eat mam.

  5. =)) i cant help laughing at the above post about sh.t in a can =)) Even some Vietnamese can't eat mam tom, so i'm not surprised :D I can eat it but need to brush teeth after eating =))
    nice post btw, I love bun da^.u... the tofu is just so much better than American tofu :D