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Hot Tofu-Basil Action
by Liza Daly

October 1, 2000

Bostonians don't call the Chinatown Eatery (Beach St. & Harrison Ave.) "Bladerunner Cafe" for nothing, although the effect's been diminished somewhat since the city disallowed smoking in small restaurants. Still, the Eatery retains its charm: the dilapidated Asian food stands, the communal tables, the giant rotating fans blowing stale air laden with the odors of fish bits and grease fires. With separately-run food counters opening onto a communal dining space, it's like the low-rent but tastier equivalent of a mall food court, with fishtanks.

There has always been another constant at work in the Eatery: all the white people go to Rod Thai. Rod Thai is usually known as "the Thai place," which is enough to distinguish it from other Eatery residents like "that Chinese place," or, "the other Chinese place," or, "the place on the end that sells the weird green bean milkshakes." Rod Thai is the one with the five dollar phad thai, the free hot tea and the counter girls who look like live-action anime characters.

Most important, Rod Thai is the one with Tofu Hot Basil.

Tofu Hot Basil is the end product of a hundred thousand years of food preparation. When Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau opened the first restaurant in 1766, he would've served Tofu Hot Basil if not for those damned Burmese. It is estimated that over one third of death row inmates choose Tofu Hot Basil as their last meal. Tofu Hot Basil has been known, on occasion, to save the lives of puppies and blind orphans.

The near-complete domination of the culinary world by Tofu Hot Basil has, in recent times, been challenged by a relative newcomer to the Eatery. Replacing "that boarded-up Chinese place" a few months ago, Papaya specializes in Laotian cuisine. Papaya is easily recognizable by the large basket on the counter overflowing with--you guessed it--ripe mangoes.

I tried Papaya one day because Rod Thai was especially overrun with white people. I like spicy food, so I picked an item with a lot of little peppers on the menu, and I'm mostly vegetarian, so I picked an item without meat. The intersection of these two criteria was Kee Mao, more easily remembered as "Laotian noodles." To my surprise, it was good. Really good. Like, Tofu Hot Basil good.

Time passed and I abandoned my Tofu Hot Basil ways, in favor of the newfangled newcomer, which enticed me with its vast quantity of noodles, its dramatically-cut tofu bits, its significantly shorter line. Also, they deliver, and in a Boston winter, that's nothing to sneer at, even if your office is only three blocks from the Eatery.

Recently, I'd been plagued with self-doubt. Had I done right in abandoning my ways? Was I missing the culinary experience of a generation? There was only so much Tofu Hot Basil I could consume in my lifetime, and every time I dove my chopsticks into Laotian Noodles, another delicious, chile-encrusted Tofu Hot Basil morsel was left neglected. A call went out across the land for a face-off between these Southeast Asian delights.

Fukui-san, I have a list of the ingredients in today's "Battle Chile":

Tofu Hot Basil

Laotian Noodles

Fried tofu squares
Star-shaped carrot slices
Fresh white mushrooms
Basil leaves (generous)
Sautéed onions
Green peppers
White rice

Fried tofu triangles
Carrot pieces
Baby corn
Basil leaves (generous)
Sautéed onions
Green peppers
Stir-fried flat rice noodles

Not, in effect, terribly different. At least, not in ingredients.

Laotian Noodles are, without a doubt, mighty tasty. Low on the fish sauce, it would seem, high on the fresh veggies. I'm also fond of the flavor of the chile sauce itself. But there's a residual unpleasantness to the texture of slimy noodle after slimy noodle, and the inevitable heat build-up with no chile-free food alongside.

Tofu Hot Basil, on the other hand, has the quintessential balance of dry and wet, spicy and bland -- solely a function of its use of rice versus noodles, but a critical difference nonetheless. Also, as much as I like a zucchini, the fresh mushrooms add a meaty flavor which perfectly compliments the chile sauce. And while we're on the subject, in a steel-cage-match-knock-down-match, Tofu Hot Basil chile sauce just kicks the ass of its Laotian counterpart. It's hotter, without overwhelming its complexity. It's more abundant in the dish, interacting imaginatively with the other food items. It is quite simply the most sublime flavor imaginable.

I'll have plenty of time to imagine it as I dutifully wait in line.

TOFU HOT BASIL(tâo-hûu bai kà-phrao)
Serves 2

Make this once and your house will smell like the Eatery for days, but is that so bad?

1 tbsp peanut oil (plus a bit more)
2 tbsp garlic, minced
1/2 lb firm tofu, cut into 1/2" chunks
1 green pepper, diced
1/2 medium white onion, cut into small triangles
1/4 lb white mushrooms, sliced thin
2 carrots, sliced thin on the diagonal


1 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
1-2 tsp sambal oelek (Indonesian chile sauce; I like Rooster brand)

1/4 cup holy or Thai basil leaves

Mix the sauce ingredients (not including the basil) in a bowl. Heat a heavy skillet (well-seasoned cast iron is good, as is All-Clad) over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the tofu and stir-fry for two minutes or until slightly browned and heated through. Remove the tofu to a heated plate.

Add a bit more oil to the skillet. Add the garlic and stir-fry ten seconds, then add the veggies. Stir-fry two to three minutes until slightly softened and pepper skin is blistered. Take the skillet off the heat and stir in the sauce and basil leaves. Serve immediately over jasmine rice. Feel free to vary the veggie proportions to taste. [HOME]

Liza Daly, perl gerl extraordinaire, is the former drummer for Sadie Hawkins.

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