The Hmong farmers have returned to our weekly farmer’s market with a wealth of Asian produce. Last Saturday, they had gorgeous Thai basil and I swooped down upon a couple of bunches. Basil discolors quickly, its shelf life under refrigeration is just a few days. I wasn’t about to let it go to waste and thought of Thai chicken and basil, a simple stir-fry.
The thing is, I didn’t want to make the dish with all chicken so I worked in some tofu. I substituted 10 ounces (300 grams) of extra-firm tofu for 8 ounces (240 grams) of the chicken in the original recipe, which called for a pound. That’s one of several strategy for using tofu for low-meat dishes.
The keys to this dish include (1) washing and drying the basil leaves (keep them whole) and (2) seasoning and panfrying the tofu.
To seal in the moisture in the chicken, I lightly coat it with cornstarch and soy sauce; it’s typically added to the wok as is, only to be embellished by flavors during the cooking process. Dark soy sauce adds color but the black soy sauce is semi sweet. With so little used, I suppose you could use kecap manis, if you want.
You can make this dish with mint or Italian basil but for the real deal, Thai basil’s warm spice note is magnificent. If flowers are present on the sprigs, use them!
The original recipe came from Kasma Loha-Unchit’s It Rains Fishes, a lovingly produced Thai cookbook from 1995 that’s sadly out of print. I bought a signed copy from Kasma but saw that you can get it for a relatively good deal (much much less than what I paid). If you collect Asian cookbooks or are interested in Thai cooking, get a copy of the book.
Spicy Basil Chicken and Tofu
Serves: 4 with other dishes
- 10 ounces (300 g) extra-firm tofu
- 8 ounces (240 g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons dark or black soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 or 4 tablespoons fragrant peanut oil or canola oil
- 4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
- 2 or 3 Fresno or jalapeno chiles, quartered lengthwise and cut on the diagonal into slivers
- 2 tender kaffir (makrud) lime leaves, very finely slivered (optional)
- 1 cup lightly packed Thai basil, holy basil, mint or a combination
- White pepper
- Cut the tofu into small, bite-size pieces. Put on a double layer of paper towel and sprinkle a bit of salt over the pieces. Set aside to season the tofu and to let it drain, about 15 minutes.
- Cut the chicken in bites-size pieces a little smaller than the tofu. Transfer to a bowl and coat with the cornstarch and 1 teaspoon of soy sauce.
- In a small bowl, stir together the remaining 1 teaspoon of soy sauce with the sugar, water, and fish sauce. Set aside near the stove.
- Blot excess moisture from the tofu. Heat a large wok or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl in 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the tofu and panfry for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping midway, until golden brown and slightly crisp on two sides. Transfer to a plate.
- Reheat the wok or skillet over high heat. When nearly smoking hot, swirl in 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the garlic, let it sizzle for a few seconds, then add the shallot. Stir until aromatic, 15 to 20 seconds, then add the chicken, spreading it out into 1 layer. Let the chicken sear for about a minute, then use a spatula to flip it and cook the other side. When the chicken is nearly cooked through, add the tofu. Stir to combine and cook for a minute to heat through.
- Add the chiles and kaffir lime leaf, then sprinkle on the soy and fish sauce mixture. Stir-fry for a minute to combine the flavors and allow the tofu to absorb the seasonings. Then add the basil. When the leaves wilt, about 15 seconds, take the pan off the heat. Sprinkle with white pepper, give things a turn, then transfer to a serving dish. Enjoy Thai style, over rice on plates with fork and spoon.
- How to Use Tofu for Low-Meat Dishes
- Burmese Pork Belly, Pickled Mustard Greens and Tofu
- Chicken, Tofu, and Shiitake Lettuce Cups