If you’ve traveled as a vegan in Thailand you may already know Thai fried tofu, or tao hoo tod, is almost always a safe street food bet. It’s a filling and comforting snack of firm cubes (or triangles) of tofu deep fried until golden and crispy, served with a sweet, sour, and salty chilli peanut sauce. It's hard to bypass anyone selling this moreish snack without stopping for a nibble.
From a menu of mixed items back in London my partner inevitably chooses the dish he recognises, one which will offer no surprises. I can be merciless with my eye rolls. To me it makes little sense to abstain from an opportunity to try something new when presented with unheard-of options. To him it's only reasonable to pick what he already knows he likes, to select predictable comfort over something that might disappoint.
Much as I am prone to condescend to his choices (regrettably I can be a right snob sometimes), when in Thailand I'm repentent of my at-home culinary sanctimoniousness on the grounds that I struggle to choose another thing when tao hoo tod is within sight. I've lost count of how many times, surrounded by literally hundreds of vegan food options during the Thailand Vegetarian Festival, I choose Thai deep fried tofu over anything else from that colossal selection of items to pack into my gob.
There's no such thing as Thai peanut noodles
Contrary to the conjecture of nearly all bloggers and food writers who touch upon the topic, there is no such universal ingredient as Thai peanut sauce in Thailand. Peanuts are a widely used ingredient and are present in various dipping sauces and dressings, but do not resemble the peanut sauce everyone outside Thailand dumps on their meals for a so-called Thai inspired flavour. Any presence of peanut sauce slathered noodles in Thailand is to placate expectational tourists.
I'm not knocking peanut sauce (I'm not that much of a monster and anyway it's tasty).
A few examples of Thai sauces with peanuts include salad kaek (a Muslim Thai salad not dissimilar to gado gado), khao tang na tang (fried rice crackers with a coconut based sauce that contains ground peanuts), the sauce for dipping satay (which is probably the closest thing to what people mean when they talk about Thai peanut sauce). And, of course, the sauce for dipping fried tofu featured in this post includes peanuts.
In all of the above sauces the peanuts are ground to the desired consistency, not made into a paste. In this way the peanuts bestow texture. Thus you would be correct in your assumption that peanut butter is not a Thai ingredient.
Thai deep fried tofu (เต้าหู้ทอด) with sweet and sour chilli peanut sauce
- 300 grams extra firm tofu (approximately) See notes
- 500 millilitres water
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ¼-½ teaspoon MSG optional, but recommended
- vegetable oil for deep frying
The easy sauce / Nam jim 1
- 60 millilitres white vinegar ¼ cup
- 45 grams white sugar 3 tablespoons
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½-1 long red chilli any mild variety will be fine, finely chopped
- Pinch MSG optional
- 3 tablespoons ground roasted peanuts
- Chopped fresh coriander optional
The more complex sauce / Nam jim 2
- 60 grams white granulated sugar ¼ cup
- 65 grams soft palm sugar ¼ cup
- ¾ teaspoons salt
- Pinch MSG optional
- 40 millilitres white vinegar 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons
- 30 millilitres tamarind liquid 2 tablespoons
- 30 millilitres water 2 tablespoons
- 1 long red chilli finely chopped
- 2-3 tablespoons ground roasted peanuts
Make the dipping sauce
- To make the easy sauce: mix vinegar, sugar, salt, chilli, and MSG (if using) together in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and cook until the sugar has dissolved and the consistency is more syrupy than water. When you’re ready to serve, add the peanuts and optional coriander.
- To make the more complex sauce: combine the sugars, salt, MSG (if using), vinegar, tamarind liquid, water, and chilli in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer until the sugars have dissolved and the consistency is syrupy. When ready to serve, add the peanuts.
Prepare the tofu
- Choose your tofu shape (cubes or triangles). For cubes cut the tofu into 2 ½-3 centimetre blocks. For triangles, cut the block of tofu in half lengthways to make two long rectangles. Cut each of these pieces into three square (ish) shapes. Slice each of the squares diagonally into rectangles.
- If you don’t plan to use the salt brine method, skip to the next step. Add the water, salt, and MSG to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the tofu and turn the heat down to a low simmer for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, drain the tofu and place the pieces on kitchen roll or a tea towel for a further 15 minutes. Blot any excess moisture from the surface (there should be none or very little).
- Pour enough oil into a wok to be around 3 inches deep. Heat to 180-190 degrees Celsius. Add the tofu and fry for a fe minutes, until the surface is evenly golden and the edges are crispy. Remove from the hot fat with a mesh strainer or spider spoon and shake away excess oil. Serve immediately.