Curry Laksa, and Cooking without Water

Yesterday I cooked without water. Well, not completely without water, but with trickles from the faucet. When the trickles eventually stopped, I used purified stuff from the water cooler in our living room. To rinse food, boil noodles, wash dishes, everything. Trickles.

See, Jacob and I live in a brand new apartment, so new that construction hasn't even stopped. Anyone who has visited Beijing (or China) in the past 10 years will know that the entire city (and country) is over-dosing on construction. In order to clean up the air for the Olympics, the government had mandated that all construction projects stop by June 1. Well, that deadlines has now been pushed back to July 1. And I'm annoyed not only because the air is still dusty, but also because we get periodic electricity and water outages, both announced an unannounced.

According to a notice in the "lobby", the water outage was supposed to occur between 10pm and 6am. Fine, I thought. We go out to a bar at night, come back late, and try not to use the bathroom 'til morning. Then the water stops in the middle of the afternoon. Not very convenient when you're making curry laksa. Laksa paste, bird's eye chilli seeds, and raw shrimp juice are not things you want to leave unwashed from your hands.

Thank goodness for the purified water, though I did feel a small amount of guilt.

There are many kinds of laksas, a noodle dish of Chinese-Malay origin, though the two most commonly known are curry laksa and assam laksa.  Today I was in the mood for a curry laksa, mostly because I had coconut milk on hand and not tamarind juice. (My dish was made with shrimp, but prawns are more common.) I was so happy slurping the noodles that I barely noticed the water coming back on, sputtering spurts, but who am I to complain? It meant that my laksa-infused dishes wouldn't be sitting in the sink until morning.


Curry Laksa

Serves 2

1 small bunch bean sprouts

2 tablespoons peanut oil

5 or 6 tofu puffs, sliced into thirds

1/4 lb of shrimp, cleaned (peeling optional)

1/2 pack rice vermicelli noodles

3/4 cup curry laksa paste

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

Salt to taste

2 bird's eye chillis, thinly sliced

2 lime wedges

In a small pot, blanch bean spouts and set aside. (Save water for cooking vermicelli.)

In a hot wok or large skillet, stir-fry tofu puffs in oil for 1 to 2 minutes. Add shrimp and lightly sauté until cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove tofu puffs and shrimp and set aside.

Add laksa paste and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add coconut milk, stir to combine, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 7 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring the pot of water to boil again. Cook rice vermicelli according to package instructions.

Salt laksa curry to taste. Return tofu and shrimp to the wok/pan, cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Divide vermicelli into individual bowls and top with laksa mixture. Garnish with bean sprouts and sliced chillis on top and lime wedge on the side.

Hunan-Style Braised Fried Tofu

When it comes to tofu, the choices that usually come to mind are soft, firm, or extra firm blocks. Of course, there are many other kinds of tofu, a product of curdled soy milk, just waiting to be eaten. Fermented tofu, fried tofu, frozen tofu, smoked tofu, tofu skin, and flavored tofu all have their own uses, which will be covered here in another time. Fried tofu, though, is what I've been experimenting with. My local markets carry a variety that includes triangles, tofu ends, and tofu puffs (more cubed shaped.)

This quick and fiery Hunan-style dish is made by braising pre-fried tofu puffs (豆泡 dòupào) in stock. Slicing the puffs in half or thirds, depending on the size, allow more sauce to be absorbed. I used 3 dried chillis in my version, but you can always tone down the spiciness.

Hunan-Style Braised Fried Tofu Adapted from Saveur

Serves 4

1 tablespoon peanut oil 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 1" piece ginger, peeled and minced 2 cups chicken stock 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce 1⁄2 lb. deep-fried tofu puffs, cut into 1⁄2-inch thick slices 2 to 3 dried chillis, stemmed and halved length-wise 7 Chinese chives scallions, green parts only, cut into 2-inch pieces 1 tsp. cornstarch mixed with 2 tsp. cold water

Heat oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Stir-fry garlic and ginger in the wok until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add chicken stock and bring to a boil, then add soy sauce, tofu, and chillis. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add chives, toss to mix, and cook another 30 seconds. Add cornstarch mixture and stir gently until sauce has thickened, about 1 minute. Transfer to a plate or large shallow bowl and serve immediately.