One of the advantages of being the youngest in the family was that I was doted on by all manner of aunties, uncles and cousins.
One of the biggest drawbacks, though, was that by the time I was born, all but one of my grand-parents had already passed away.
My mother’s mother was still alive when I was a toddler. But by that time, she was quite advanced in age, bed-ridden, and being cared for by another of her daughters. Worse, my grandmother spoke no English. And I spoke no Cantonese.
I would run into her bedroom to say hello, as best I could. She would respond in Chinese, as she lay in bed. If my Mom or aunt were not present to translate, I would have no idea what she had just said. I’d smile meekly, and just nod, not knowing what else to do.
So, when I hear folks talk nostalgically about the wonderful food their grandmother cooked for them when they were growing up, I get wistful, because I never had that magical experience.
Which is why “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook (Sasquatch Book) touches my heart so. It was written by my friend, Patricia Tanumihardja, who grew up in Singapore and now lives on the Monterey Peninsula.
Pat interviewed and cooked with Asian grandmothers, mothers and aunts to create this book of 130 recipes for home-style dishes that might otherwise have never been written down and might have faded away from memory.
Dishes such as this super simple, “Deep-Fried Tofu Simmered with Tomatoes,” that’s perfect on a harried weeknight.
You take deep-fried tofu, which you can buy ready-to-use at Asian markets, and layer the rectangles in a skillet with wedges of fresh tomato. Pour a mixture of fish sauce and sugar over it all. Sprinkle on some chopped green onions. Then, let it cook on the stovetop for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes start to break down. That’s it.
What you get is a protein-packed, nourishing dish that’s sweet, tangy and salty, in no time at all.
Feel free to improvise with the dish, too. You can add meat, if you like. I added some fresh asparagus spears because I had some on hand. While the recipe calls for deep-fried tofu, I actually experimented with fried tofu pouches instead, which I bought at a Japanese market. They’re typically used to make inari-zushi, those little fried tofu pockets stuffed with rice that’s been seasoned with rice wine vinegar. While deep-fried tofu is crispy on the outside, and dense and creamy inside, the tofu pouches are much thinner, and almost all crispy, spongy exterior.
I don’t know if either of my grandmothers ever a dish like this. But I’m glad someone’s grandmother did, so that we can all savor it now.
Deep-Fried Tofu Simmered with Tomatoes
(Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multi-course, family-style meal)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 (12-ounce) package deep-fried tofu (try to find a package with eighteen 1- by 2-inch rectangular pieces) OR 16-18 fried tofu pouches
1 1/2 pounds (about 4 medium) tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges
1 bunch asparagus, tough ends trimmed off, and stalks cut into 3-inch lengths (optional)
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 green onions, green parts only, chopped
Coat bottom of a large nonstick skillet with oil. Arrange tofu pieces side-by-side in a single layer. Wedge tomatoes in wherever you can around the tofu. If you have to pile the tomatoes on top of the tofu to form a second layer, that’s OK, too. Scatter asparagus over the top, if using.
In a small bowl, mix fish sauce and sugar together. Pour over tofu and tomatoes in the skillet. Sprinkle green onions over the top. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until tomatoes soften and their juices are released, 10 to 15 minutes. The skins also will start to peel away from the flesh. Serve hot with freshly steamed rice.
Adapted from a recipe by Lan Tran, published in “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook”