According to Thai culinary philosophy, every Thai dish should be a perfect balance of savoury, sweet, sour and hot – and if any single flavour dominates, then the dish is all wrong. Well, actually I’m putting it simplistically. Thai gourmets would judge each dish in terms of the first flavour that hits the tastebuds, the second flavour and the third flavour – and how harmoniously all three work together. So I guess you’d need to know what a traditional dish is supposed to taste like in the first place before you could judge. You’d also need a finely tuned, razor sharp, educated palate – and, if you don’t already have it, the good news is that it can be developed.
All this goes to show how complex a language food is: learning to cook a few dishes from a country is akin to knowing just a few words of a foreign language, and it is only by immersing yourself in a country’s culinary heritage with an open mind and a spirit of adventure that you will learn the full vocabulary. Be respectful of different cuisines, become curious, ask questions, read up, and prepare to experiment with new ingredients, flavour palettes, and cooking techniques. Cookery is, in other words, a journey rather than a destination – and like all good journeys, along the way you will learn a lot about yourself.
This lovely, summery recipe has bland, meaty tofu pieces taking on the sweetness of palm sugar along with the savouriness of soy sauce, sharpened by a background of chilli heat, refreshed by the sour, tangy, fruity overtones of lime, lemongrass and pineapple. Cashewnuts provide the necessary crunch, and the entire dish is perked up by the effusive liveliness of fresh green herbs.
Serve these light flavour bombs as appetiser or snack, or hand them around to your guests while they’re building up their appetites before a barbecue. Serves 4.
1 iceberg lettuce with unblemished leaves
12 oz/ 300g firm tofu
4 oz/ 100g cashewnuts
4 pink shallots, trimmed, peeled and halved
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 large stalk lemongrass, trimmed
1 or 2 fresh red birdseye chillies
2 tablespoons groundnut oil
4 fl oz/ 100 ml light Thai beer or mild vegetable stock
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon palm sugar or light brown sugar
4 oz/ 100g fresh pineapple, diced small
Large handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint leaves
2 limes, quartered
1. Carefully remove the whole outer leaves of an iceberg lettuce, taking care not to break them. Cut off coarse stems and scrape off any tough ribs. Wash the leaves thoroughly to remove grit, and leave in a colander to dry for several hours, or as long as possible.
2. Drain the tofu between several sheets of kitchen paper, and cut into small pieces.
3. Dry roast the cashewnuts in a small frying pan until lightly browned. Remove from the heat, and leave to cool a little.
4. In a small mixer, coarsely chop the nuts – some pieces should still be visible as they will provide texture. Remove and set aside.
5. Place the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and chillies in the mixer bowl and finely mince into a paste.
6. Heat a wok on medium heat. Pour in the oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the shallot paste. Turn the heat to low, and fry for about 5 minutes until the aromatics turn a light golden colour and perfume your kitchen.
7. Add the tofu, and stir-fry for another 2 or 3 minutes.
8. Add the beer or vegetable stock, soy sauce, sugar, and a little salt if needed. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat to very low. Simmer without the lid until the liquid has completely evaporated, stirring occasionally.
9. Add the pineapple pieces and stir-fry until they’re evenly coated.
10. Remove from the heat, and mix in the chopped cashewnuts. Let the mixture cool a little.
11. Now make sure that the lettuce leaves are completely dry – wipe them with a kitchen cloth if necessary. (Wet leaves will make the dish soggy, so I’m emphasising this point). Spoon the tofu and pineapple mixture into the centre of a lettuce leaf. Top with a few coriander and mint leaves. Squeeze over a little bit of lime juice. Wrap the lettuce leaf tightly to make a parcel. Repeat until you have used up all of the tofu mixture.
12. Serve immediately with extra lime wedges and, if you like, some Thai chilli sauce.