Detox: Sesame-Crusted Tofu with Nuoc Cham

tofu bite

When my paleo friends arrived at my doorstep carrying a Dean and Deluca bag, I suspected my fears about my non-paleo olives were for naught. And when they were as eager to open the bag as Ben and I, my suspicions were confirmed. With it still being pre-2013, we all had one last hurrah with the spoils, snacking on Vahlrona chocolate brownies and an assortment of cookies the size of frisbees for a good day and a half.

It was awesome, but when New Year’s Day arrived, I, as many of you can relate I am sure, was ready to detox. I made a grocery list. Wrote out some resolutions. Ate tofu. Watched Happy. Cried a lot. Wrote out a few more resolutions. Went to sleep, for the first time in a long time not feeling stuffed, early. And woke up, for the first time in a long time, feeling like a million bucks.

About this time of year every year, I go on a little tofu binge. I know, I know. I can hear you barking. There are lots of ways — moderation, namely — to eat healthy without taking extreme measures. But, and I’m not just saying this, I have two tofu recipes in my repertoire, one of which I’ve already shared with you and could genuinely eat nearly every day, both of which I would serve to company without apology.

This is my tofu recipe number two, which I like very much as well most especially because it means I can douse each bite in nuoc cham, the spicy, sweet, sour condiment ubiquitous at nearly every Vietnamese meal. While the crispy sesame-and-panko coated cubes of tofu are quite good on their own, this dish is all about the sauce. If you like nuoc cham, you’ll like this dish, but be warned: one bite of it might make you call up your local Vietnamese restaurant and order a few fresh spring rolls, some grilled grape leaves and a plate or two of bahn xeo, just, you know, to enjoy alongside your tofu. Fortunately, I have no such temptation nearby and thus happily drink my nuoc cham with my tofu. You know what I mean.

Happy detoxing Everyone.

sesame-crusted tofu

extra-firm tofu package

If you like Vietnamese food, chances are you like nuoc cham, the spicy, sweet, sour condiment served with nearly every Vietnamese dish from spring rolls to grilled meat to stir-fries. To me it is heaven. Here are the ingredients:
nuoc cham ingredients

nuoc cham

draining the tofu

tofu block — this gets cut into thirds

sliced tofu

coating the tofu

crisping the tofu

sesame-crusted tofu

Detox: Sesame-Crusted Tofu with Nuoc Cham

Tofu: Inspired by a recipe in The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook Serves 2
Nuoc Cham The Asian Grill Yield = 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. (about) extra-firm tofu*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt**
  • 3 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
  • canola oil for frying
  • scallions, sliced on the bias (optional — they’re just for garnish)
  • Sriracha (optional — I like adding a squirt into the nuoc cham or directly onto the tofu)

    *I do not make tofu enough to recommend a specific brand, but I bought a few varieties to experiment with and had the most success with the extra firm. I tried using one firm block of silken tofu that comes in those small waxed cardboard boxes — do you know which ones I mean? — and it was so delicate that it fell apart during the slicing. So, if possible, use extra-firm for this recipe.

    **I sort of feel the sauce is essential for this dish, but if you don’t feel like making the sauce, I would up the salt to 1/2 teaspoon. Nuoc cham is on the salty side, so I decreased the amount of salt in the tofu recipe by half.

    For the nuoc cham:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 to 3 garlic cloves, sliced or minced
  • 2 red Thai chilies, halved lengthwise, seeded or not, and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes*, optional

    *This was not in the original recipe, but I could not find Thai chilies, and the serrano pepper that I sliced and added was not hot enough, so I added dried chili flakes to compensate.

    Note: The original recipe calls for an additional tablespoon of sugar, so feel free to taste and adjust seasoning as you wish. Also, author Corinne Trang notes that you can make the sauce more mild or bold depending on how you treat the garlic and chilies: If you mince the garlic and chilies, the flavors will be stronger; if you slice, the flavors will be more mild.

Instructions

  1. Drain the tofu for as much time as possible — I would say for at least an hour if possible. This is how I drain it: place block of tofu in a colander. Place the package (or some other similar-sized vessel) on top of it and weigh it down with a can of tomatoes or some other relatively heavy canned good. Note: this also can be done ahead of time. I essentially leave mine out all day, but if leaving it out all day worries you, you could line a bowl with paper towels and stick the tofu on the paper towels, weigh it down as described and leave it in the fridge until you are ready to slice and cook it.
  2. Meanwhile make the nuoc cham: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the garlic and chilies and crushed red pepper flakes if you are using. Let stand for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust flavors if necessary. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week (or longer, I would guess.)
  3. In a small shallow vessel with sides (again, I use the container the tofu came in) beat the egg (I use a fork) with 1 teaspoon of water. In another small shallow vessel with sides, stir together the salt, panko and sesame seeds.
  4. Carefully cut the drained tofu into three slices. I stand the block up its long thin edge and slice through the block parallel to the largest face of the block, if that makes sense — refer to the photos if this is unclear. Working with one piece at a time, submerge the tofu into the egg, then coat it in the sesame-panko mix, then place it on a clean plate. Repeat with the remaining two slices.
  5. Heat a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add about 2 to 3 teaspoons of oil. Carefully lay each piece of tofu into the frying pan. Turn the heat down to medium if the slices appear to be browning too quickly. Crisp tofu slices for about 3 to 4 minutes a side, then transfer to a serving platter. I cut each slice in half and then arranged them on a platter, but feel free to present as you wish. Garnish with scallions. Serve with nuoc cham and Sriracha if you wish.
http://www.alexandracooks.com/2013/01/02/detox-sesame-crusted-tofu-with-nuoc-cham/

sesame-crusted tofu

Comments

    • says

      Alicia – I know, it sounds more Greek, right? Our favorite spot in Philadelphia was called Nam Phuong, and probably our favorite thing on the menu was the grilled grape leaves. They were stuffed with pork (maybe beef, too?) and I think garlic and shallots and probably some fish sauce, and they were served with all of those yummy herbs — thai basil, cilantro, etc — and pickled carrots and daikon — and noodles, and they also came with those rice paper wrappers that you dip in hot water to make rolls. They were heavenly dipped in the nuoc cham with mam nem (have you ever had mam nem? amazing). I miss that place. Happy 2013!!

    • says

      Alexandrea — Fish sauce is made from liquid extracted from fermented fish with sea salt. It smells like dirty socks, but it adds an incredible flavor when mixed with ingredients such as lime juice, sugar, rice vinegar, etc. A variety of fish sauces can be found at Asian markets, but most grocery stores carry it as well now, usually in the Asian aisle. Hope that helps! Definitely give it a try if you have never experimented with it.

  1. says

    This recipe looks great! I think that adding the seeds give the tofu much needed texture and the sauce is simple! I have all of those ingredients in my pantry. I am not usually a tofu fan, but I’ll give this recipe a try!

  2. Dorothea says

    Thanks for another great looking recipe! I love tofu and everything about Asian cooking so you made me happy. I already have tofu in the fridge (same brand!) so this is a no brainer..!
    But first we’re eating porkbelly tonight :-)
    Dorothea

  3. says

    This looks like it needs to be on my dinner table this week! Gorgeous, and I love the crisp, seedy treatment of the tofu. I’m so thrilled that you shared a nuoc cham recipe here, one of my very favorite elements of Vietnamese food! I’m definitely going to try this, and share :)

  4. Liz says

    How beautiful! I just went to may Asian market. I am always amazed at how fresh and inexpensive their produce is as are the spices. It’s worth traveling to another market if you can spare the time.

  5. says

    I can’t wait to try this recipe…looks delicious! And thank you for the photo of your method to weigh down the tofu. So this is how I should have doing it all these years!
    Susan

  6. Wendy says

    This recipe looks great. And since we have food allergies in the house, I will make slight changes. For the person who wants to avoid fish sauce: you could marinate the tofu before adding the sesame crust and make a slightly different sauce on the side. Tofu pairs well with soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar (Chinese black vinegar or Japanese seasoned vinegar), honey, pulverized garlic and ginger, and some rice wine (Chinese or Japanese). After pressing the tofu, marinate in something like this (with cilantro leaves, maybe) for an hour or two, then coat and fry. In addition to extra flavor, the marinade helps give the tofu more texture/crunch on the outside.

  7. says

    Detoxing with Tofu what a great idea! I just get urges to eat a crazy amount of green. I love tofu just cold with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil drizzled over the top with some congee.

  8. dalton says

    First of all. I need to thank you. I have always had the most difficult time preparing tofu. It always ends up mushy and bland. Never crisp. You have showed me the light- draining!! What a difference it makes.
    This dish is so awesome- and the sauce is so, so spicy and delicious. I can’t wait to make it again soon!! Thanks, as always, for sharing and inspiring!!

    • says

      Dalton — so happy to hear this! I love this sauce too. Draining is key, and I’m thinking about making another variation of this but draining and then maybe marinating, which might eliminate the need for the egg-coating step? Just a thought. Ill keep you posted! Hope all is well with you and the kiddos. Xoxo

  9. Marian says

    I recently discovered your blog via Pinterest. I’ve bookmarked a number of recipes, and this is the first one I’ve tried–loved it!! The Nuoc Cham–SO good. And now I’ve finally bought Sriracha–it’s been on my To Buy list forever.

    A note on draining the tofu–I always use sprouted tofu for dishes like this. I like the flavor, it’s supposed to be even better for you than regular tofu (sprouting helps absorb nutrients, especially protein, better, I think?), and I find it’s not as watery as regular. I always slice and salt it just a tiny bit to drain it. Doing it that way it takes just 20 minutes or so to drain thoroughly. I used Wildwood sprouted firm tofu here–it held up fine.

    Based on how great this was, I know I’ll use your blog as a resource/idea generator going forward, and I am looking forward to making the other recipes I’ve already saved (most are more chocolate than tofu!).

    • says

      Marian — thanks so much for this nice comment. SO happy to hear that you like the nuoc cham, that you have bought Sriracha, and that the first recipe you’ve tried was a success! I have actually never heard of sprouted tofu, so thank you for making me aware of such an ingredient. I will definitely look for it the next time I am at the market. Do you have to get this at a special market? My Wegmans might have it, but I doubt the other shops in my town do. Love your tip about salting — that is way faster than the way I have been doing it. Will try that next time. I am excited! Thank you. I am still on my tofu binge, so this new variety gives me something to look forward to!

  10. Marian says

    Alexandra,

    Love tipping others to new, good products! The sprouted tofu tastes a little bit nutty, which I like. I get the Wildwood @ Whole Foods here in NY, and I also like Trader Joe’s. Here’s the Wildwood site in case you don’t have a TJ’s near you–there’s a store locator. http://www.wildwoodfoods.com. Hope you can find it/like it. Also, I think next time I do this, I’m going to try marinating the tofu, as you and some of the commenters were discussing–soy, ginger, basil and garlic–am expecting yum!

    Marian

    • says

      Marian — awesome, thanks so much for the link to the website. It looks as though my Wegman’s doesn’t carry it, but I have been meaning to do a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s run sometime soon, so I will definitely pick some up. Fun! I really am excited to try it. It sounds scrumptious. And yes, I love the idea of marinating this too. My mother actually did that — she drained the tofu, then marinated in a soy, ginger, sherry mixture, then she coated the slices in sesame seeds — skipped the egg dip and the panko — and broiled them instead of frying them. She said it was delicious. I have been meaning to try it, and to post a follow-up, but I think now I’ll wait till I get my hands on some of this sprouted tofu. Thanks again!

    • says

      Joanne — I am so happy to hear this! It’s always nice when a first-time experience turns out well, especially with something like tofu — if it were to go wrong, you might not touch the stuff ever again. Love seeing your post about it, too. Thanks!

  11. says

    Made this for dinner tonight and am blown away by how flavorful it is. As a vegetarian, I felt like this really hit the spot for a chicken-nugget-like experience, with crunch and dipping sauce to boot! I was a little scared of the fish sauce, but that sauce is fantastic. I substituted the sugar for just one packet of truvia and cooked in sesame oil. Thanks for a great new regular dish!

    • says

      James — wonderful to hear this! I’m glad it was able to provide a satisfying experience for you. I know, fish sauce is pretty intimidating — if you put that stuff to your nose, you might never use it. So, did you sauté in sesame oil? The instructions in the Mayo Clinic cookbook said you could do this, but I am not accustomed to sautéing with sesame oil. Does it add a nice flavor? I bet it does. I’m going to try that next time.

  12. Brittani says

    I just had to comment. I just recently ventured into tofu and honestly haven’t been too impressed. This converted me to a tofu lover! I made it for myself and actually convinced my husband to have some and he liked it as well. My youngest loved it, my in-laws loved it! I actually went to the store the next day to get more tofu to go with the nuoc cham :).

    • says

      Brittani — so wonderful to hear this. I know, there are only a handful of tofu recipes that I genuinely like. And nuoc cham makes everything better :) I’ve been wanting to revisit this recipe using a broiling versus pan-searing method, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ll be sure to report back!

  13. says

    Made this a couple of days ago – and loved it! Same with my other half (the meat eater). Nice crunchy crust and a drizzle of nuoc cham on top finishes it off nicely.
    The nuoc cham was a bit on the fishy side when tried on its own but worked really well with the tofu.
    We had it with stir-fried pak choi, seasoned with garlic, ginger & sesame oil.

  14. jennifer says

    This looks soooo good, but it wouldn’t actually be part of a “detox” because of the panko. Detoxing excludes gluten or wheat products. Any ideas on what could be used instead?

    • says

      Hmm, let’s see, I wonder if you could pulse almonds or cashews in the food processor? Now you’re making me want to experiment :) I’m worried a ground nut might not stick. You also could just omit the panko and use sesame seeds exclusively. I would suggest broiling the tofu versus pan searing if you do this. Hope that helps! Let me know if you make any discoveries.

  15. Anshuman Jain says

    Thanks Alexandra for this amazing recipe. The lucid text with generous amounts of pictures made it very easy to follow and cook it. I am complete vegetarian so I made two changes..instead of eggs used yogurt for binding and instead of fish sauce used soy sauce.
    The results were incredible and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Thanks again.

  16. Tez says

    Hey… Just an FYI…. This isn’t really vegetarian as most people would consider the fish in the nuoc cham as a meat…. I kinda had my hope up until I saw that….

  17. Sophie says

    This is amazing! I tweaked it a bit and added some spices (paprika, chilli flakes & coriander) in my sesame crumb and used brown rice flour as I can’t have gluten. Also added some black tahini to my egg mix to add some more sesame flavour! So so tasty! Thanks for sharing. Xx

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