The first time I tasted this dish, I was working on Pulau Galang, an Indochinese refugee camp in the Riau province in Indonesia. After it first appeared among the dishes in the staff dining hall, it became a standard that was served several times a week. Not only was it delicious, but it was cheap and popular with all the staff.
When my wife and I moved to Vietnam for a year in 1993, the family we lived with occasionally made this for me when they learned how much I loved it. One of the older aunts in the house was (is) a devout Buddhist who was strictly vegetarian, and she often had this. Although I am too weak of the spirit to give up eating the flesh, were I to become vegetarian, this would be my go to dish. In fact, even now I would choose this over a grilled hamburger any day of the week.
Although this is a simple dish, it does take some time to prepare, especially if you don't have some sort of food processor. Chopping lemongrass is a chore. Chopping it finely takes a great deal of time and effort. And this dish requires a great deal of lemongrass for just four cakes of tofu.
I had tried to make this many times before I finally learned how to do it. I had always assumed the lemongrass and the tofu were cooked together. No. When you do this you end up with burnt lemongrass, and that's not a good thing. When we returned to Vietnam the summer before last, I asked our friend Phuong, whose family we had lived with, to show me how to make it. Not only did she show me, but during the several weeks we stayed with them she cooked it for us about every other day. Heaven!
This is a dish I've never found on any Vietnamese menu. I never had it in Vietnam, except at the house where we lived. I did find a recipe for it in a cookbook I found in Vietnam, but that recipe added five-spice, which I feel detracts from the dish.
Try this along with some baby bok choy stir-fried with garlic and some jasmine rice. You won't miss the meat.
Dau Hu Chien Sa--Fried Tofu with Lemongrass
5 stalks of lemongrass, tough outer layers and green tops removed
2--3 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)
1 small red chili, seeded and finely minced (optional)
4 cakes of fresh tofu from an Asian market (if you buy tofu in plastic tubs, cut the loaves of tofu into slices a little more than 1-inch thick)
Heat about a half cup of oil in a nine-inch frying pan, preferably non-stick or well seasoned. Shallow fry tofu on both sides. Make four slices three-quarters of a way through, or make an X three-quarters of the way through each cake of tofu.
Finely chop the lemongrass. Pour off about half the oil. Add the lemongrass, garlic, and chili, and fry until golden and crisp. Add a slight sprinkling of salt to taste.
Stuff the fried lemongrass mixture between the "leaves" of tofu. Serve with steamed rice.
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