Fish (Sauce) Story
Back in my glamor days as a highly-paid professional food writer in St. Louis, Missouri, Gateway To The West, my beat included the thousand little ethnic dives that any restaurant critic’s flesh is heir to: the Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese joints lining the humbler streets of town. Readers of Midwestern newsweeklies, it turned out, are rabid to know where they can get a three-course dinner for 79 cents.
I stuffed my craw at so many of these joints that I eventually got nam pla poisoning and had to resign my post. For a period of several years following my overdose, even a passing whiff of nam pla sent me into violent convulsions. If somebody started reciting a poem about nam pla, I had to leave the room. If they named their cat Nam Pla, I could not be their friend. If someone gave me a bottle of nam pla as a joke, I would not think it was funny. It was that bad.
But after I’d been back in Austin for a few years — I had to come back to treat a chronic and debilitating taco deficiency — I began to pine for the good old Shu Fengs and Pho Grands of my youth. Crispy Tofu Suey Deluxe à la Zilker eventually emerged as an homage to the lot.
If I were writing a review of Crispy Tofu Suey Deluxe à la Zilker, I would certainly mock it, for it is just the sort of blasphemy I can’t stand from other cooks. The dish rashly Twistifies every take-out Asian culinary cliché there is: sprouts, cilantro, soy sauce, oyster sauce, peanuts, cornstarch, hoisin, sesame oil, chile peppers — you name it; if I can’t read the label, I throw it in the wok (even nam pla, although my hand still twitches when I touch the bottle). Thus the dish exhibits the phenotype of Chinese take-out (skipping the genre’s signature grease) but leans more toward Vietnamese on the flav-o-meter, only with vicious red Thai peppers. Also, it’s vegan, so no fluorescent pink pork, gamey broth, or monkey nuts, but it shatters the whole vegan belief system by being edible.
One ingredient you will never see in Cristpy Tofu Suey Deluxe à la Zilker are those flaccid little albino corn-cobs that come in cans. Man, are those things rank.
By the way, the raw leafy green vegetation scattered over the example pictured above is my new fave rave: sunflower sprouts. They’re sort of like alfalfa sprouts, only they’re 83 times bigger and don’t taste like hay, and they’re sort of like mung bean sprouts, only they don’t resemble parasitic worms. They actually taste good, and, like all sprouts, allow you to feel sanctimonious for having treated your body like a temple for five minutes.
I was moved to whip up this healthful batch of Crispy Tofu Suey Deluxe à la Zilker after reading in the National Enquirer that saturated fat is bad for you. It’s a good thing the Enquirer is on top of that breaking story!