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August 31, 2004

Recipe: Tofu stir-fried with basil (Tao Hoo Pad Bai Kaprao)

In my last column on tofu, I promised a tofu recipe. As I was wondering which of the many tofu recipes I should write, the plight of one of my friends came to mind. There she is, a vegetarian student in New York, trying to squeeze in some quick food between studying and working. She implored me to give her veggie recipes that don't need hours to make. So this one's for her.

While much of the hard work in making Asian food is in the preparation, tofu is fortunately easy to cut. Nevertheless, it's essential to have a sharp knife handy as it reduces the chances of cutting yourself. Get a Wusthof or Global chef's knife if you can afford it.

Now, back to the recipe. Today, we're making a Thai favourite - a stir-fry of tofu with chillies, garlic, and basil. I absolutely love Thai basil (pad kaprao) stir-fries and half the week, I have it in one form or the other. This is my adaptation of the meat version of the dish.

Here's what the finished dish looks like (made with firm tofu):

Tofu stir-fried with basil

(The red and yellow peppers aren't terribly authentic, but I like them, hence their appearance.)

On with the recipe, shall we?

What you need

Firm tofu or deep-fried tofu - 100 gm (about 3.5 oz for you Americans)
(Asian groceries will sell you deep-fried tofu if you can't make your own)

Garlic - 3 cloves

Hot green chillies (preferably Thai bird chillies) -  4-6 (adjust this to your taste please; I like mine hot)

Shallots - 1 tbsp

Salt - 1/4 tsp

Light soy sauce - 1 tbsp

Dark soy sauce - 1 tbsp

Stock or water - 1/4 cup (about 4 tbsp)

Sugar - 1 tsp

Peanut oil - about 1 tbsp (adjust as required)

White pepper - 2 pinches

Holy basil leaves - large handful

How to make it

Mince the garlic cloves and chop the chillies fine. Cut the tofu into bite-sized chunks.

If you have the time, pound the garlic, chillies, shallots, and salt together into a paste. This makes the flavours blend better. If you're in a hurry, let it be.

Heat a wok until hot. Add the peanut oil.

When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the pounded paste. If you haven't pounded them together, add the chillies, garlic, shallots, and salt to the oil. Stir-fry on medium heat for about 10-15 seconds, taking care to make sure that the garlic doesn't burn.

Add the cut tofu and stir-fry again for another minute. Then add the light and dark soy sauces, the sugar, white pepper, and stock or water.

Stir-fry for one more minute to allow the sauce to thicken a bit and coat the tofu. Then tear the basil leaves with your hands and add them to the wok.

Stir it around till the basil wilts. Check quickly for any adjustments to seasoning. If it's all good, take it off the heat.

There, your dish is ready. Preparation time is about 3-5 minutes and cooking time is about 3 minutes. Serve this dish with white steamed rice or noodles or fried rice or anything else that's not too assertive.


If you can't find holy basil, you can use sweet basil or Italian basil. If you do, just add another 1/4 tsp of white pepper in the cooking stage.

Deep-fried tofu really does taste good in this dish

This dish is supposed to be fairly hot. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Just kidding! Adjust the chillies to your taste but don't eliminate them because that would rob the dish of its flavour.

If you're serving this with steamed rice, make sure it's a little extra spicy and salty so that it will taste just right with the neutral flavour of the rice.

This dish tastes delicious with chicken or beef. Mince the chicken or beef by hand or chop into very small pieces and use it instead of the tofu. Increase the cooking time by another 2 minutes or so to account for the meat. Use chicken stock instead of water, and if you like, add oyster sauce instead of the dark soy sauce.

If you prefer regular veggies instead of tofu, that too will work. Pick robust veggies like cauliflower, baby corn, mushrooms, squash, etc. and stir-fry those. Once again, cook them for a few minutes longer so they're done. You may have to add a bit more stock or water too so it doesn't dry up.

Don't skimp on the basil leaves. Remember that they wilt in the pan, so that large handful in your hand won't be so much when it's done.

Here's a picture of the pork version - Pork stir-fried with basil (Moo Pad Bai Kaprao)

There is hardly anything in this recipe that can be called an "exotic" ingredient, so give it a try today. Don't wait for the weekend. This dish only needs about 10 minutes.