Last week I mentioned my visit to the Asian market, an excursion I’d been wanting to make for months. So I’m stretching out the visit to write about the dish I made that night when we returned with Thai basil, an herb I’ve never found anywhere but an Asian supermarket.
One of my favorite flavors in Thai cooking is fiery chili basil sauce. I’ve tried more than one pre-made chili garlic sauce from Asian markets, the jars adorned with what I imagine is Thai writing and a photograph that looks like a dish from a Thai restaurant. But they never taste anything like Thai restaurant chili basil. There’s some kind of off high note, a twinge of plech.
So I prefer to hazard my own version which is healthier and tastier, and an okay home version of the restaurant incarnation. The recipe is pretty quick and easy (the extra words and steps below are mostly tips) and you can throw in whatever veggies you have on hand. The key is the flavors of chili peppers (I use chili garlic sauce available at our regular grocery store), garlic, fish sauce or soy sauce (see notes below), and Thai basil.
Thai Basil. The only exotic ingredient (by which I mean, the only ingredient truly requiring a trip to the Asian market) in this dish is Thai basil (sometimes called Chinese basil or holy basil) which has purple stems and some varieties have purple leaves. It has a pungent, unique flavor, like basil mixed with maybe anise and mint. We have to drive over an hour to get to our closest Asian market, so I rinse and freeze the leftover leaves. It’s not as pretty out of the freezer, but tastes fine. You can substitute regular basil and make a tasty dish, but the Thai basil makes a big difference.
Fish Sauce. A popular ingredient in Thai cooking which has a pungent, salty and (surprise) fishy flavor, fish sauce is often available in the “Asian Food” section of major supermarkets. If you are cooking strictly vegetarian or dislike fishy flavors, you can substitute light soy sauce (or tamari) for the fish sauce. It won’t taste the same, of course, but it will still taste good. You might try sprinkling gomasio, a Japanese condiment consisting of sea salt, seaweed, and sesame seeds, onto your dish to give a little fish-like accent. (I usually find gomasio in the health food section of local grocery stores, rather than in the Asian food or spices sections, where one might expect it.)
Side note for strict vegetarian/vegan friends: fish sauce is the reason that much of Thai food is not vegan, or actually, vegetarian, unless specified on a menu or you have requested no fish sauce. This sauce, made of fermented (you guessed it) fishes, is very popular in Thai cooking and shows up in many of the stir fry sauces such as chili basil as well as in the curry sauces.
Thai Chili Basil Tofu Stir Fry
- 1 TBS or more chili garlic paste
- 3 TBS fish sauce or light soy sauce or tamari
- 1 TBS soy sauce or tamari
- 1 tsp agave nectar or sugar
- a few handfuls of fresh Thai Basil leaves (Or regular basil. You can also add a few leaves of mint with the Italian basil to approximate the flavor of Thai basil)Veggie Suggestions
- 1/2 or full block of extra firm tofu (squeeze the excess water out and marinate in sauces for a few minutes)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- broccoli–florets and stems
- bok choy
- green onions
- mung bean sprouts
- peapods or sugar snap peas
- mushrooms (black, shitake, straw, or white)
- bamboo shoots or water chestnuts (if canned, rinse well to get rid of can flavor)
- zucchini or yellow squash
- bell peppers of any color
- Mix together the sauce.
- Squeeze tofu, cut up and marinate in sauce.
- Cut up all the veggies. Work for a harmonious combination of shapes–like cutting all the veggies into small sticks
- Put all your veggies into separate bowls and arrange them in order of longest to cook (broccoli, carrots) to shortest cooking time (bean sprouts, bok choy leaves, peapods, green onion tops). Separate veggie parts that cook at different rates, like green onion tops from whites, bok choy stems from leaves.
- Heat oil in your wok or frying pan. I use an electric wok (one of the many excellent wedding presents we received, in case you have a wedding to attend, by the way). The electric wok gets quite hot so I monitor the temp and use peanut oil, a relatively healthy high temperature cooking oil.
- Toss in your first veggie (for me, broccoli) and allow it to get to the crisp-cooked stage. Keep the veggies moving.
- I add the garlic after the first veggie so there’s enough volume in the wok to keep it from burning.
- Next I add the medium cooking veggies and anything that’s not too particular about how long it hangs out in the wok, like bamboo shoots.
- Continue to add veggies and stirring in the order you think they’ll cook, putting the tofu in late enough that it doesn’t turn to mush from all that moving around. Add the sauce to the wok at the same time.
- Add any bean sprouts leafy greens, green onion tops, snap peas within minutes of turning off the heat and serving–you want them to maintain their crispness.