Lately I’ve been craving Toronto like nobody’s business – obviously I miss my family and friends, but I’m also craving the places, the routines, the general vibe… and of course the food. I want to grab some Vietnamese with my sister, and feast on delicious and super cheap sushi, and demolish a veggie poutine, and have a heavenly brunch in Leslieville, and stuff my face with Greek food on the Danforth (duh), and grab lunch with my mom after a morning of shopping, and … and …
The list goes on and on. It’s only 10 am here as I’m writing this but I could sit down for all of the above right now! But one of the things I’ve been craving the most lately is the food at my old favourite Thai diner – which, sadly, is no longer with us. I’ve posted about this place before in my Thai mango salad noodles post, and I’m posting about it again today, because it truly was an establishment in my life for 10+ years.
This is my super easy recipe for a vegetarian cashew nut tofu. Even without the oyster sauce and the deep fryer I think it does a good job of hitting those comforting, savoury, saucy delicious flavours that I remember so well from the diner’s own version.
I had a funny memory pop into my head the other day: of my mom picking me up from high school in the middle of the day and taking me out for lunch at the Thai diner, and then on occasion not making me go back.* A true and cherished gift! Full disclosure: I had transferred to a new (arts) school for grade 9 (aged 13-14). I knew nobody there, was switching from the French to the English school system, and was pursuing a major in dance, which I was very serious about at the time. But the school just wasn’t a good fit for me, and at the risk of sounding like a Negative Nancy… I pretty much hated it.**
*I hope I’m not incriminating you! hehe.
**I mean obviously I liked parts of it, but for drama’s sake I’ll go with hate.
I feel like 13-14 is an awkward age already. So add in a whole new environment and social pool, a predisposition for insecurity and self-deprecation, early puberty and denial about proper sizing (if you know what I mean), and hours spent in a leotard with other girls who were (and I say this completely honestly and neutrally) naturally better dancers and better built for it… and you can see where you might struggle! I’d always been pretty good at academics, but at this school the emphasis was naturally on the arts side of things, so basically I felt like I had no way of redeeming myself 😛
Once we were putting on a dance show, and I was extremely stoked because I had been partnered with one of the four guys in the group to do a lift. From what I’d observed, only the best dancers got to do lifts, so I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself. Then, on the morning of the dress rehearsal, as I perched unsteadily above this poor guy’s head, arms splayed in some victorious position, and we spun slowly in a circle… and as I looked over at the other girls, so beautiful and effortless atop their own perches… the dance instructor barked something along the lines of, ‘Josh (dance partner lifting me), stop shaking and frowning so much – you look like you’re going into labour!’
Weirdly I remember this as a funny story (self-preservation instinct?), but I can only assume I was shattered at the time!
So ANYWAY! All of that to say that when my mom would take me out for lunch at the Thai diner, which was in fact quite close to the school but felt like a million miles away, it was just the best possible treat. We would always start with a hot & sour soup (need to recreate that next, it was SO GOOD) and a veggie spring roll, and often we’d throw in a mango salad as well. And then we’d order two mains and share them, and it was always just so good, and in a way so debaucherous, like we were partners in crime, and it was the highlight of my day.
I’ve been to lots of other Thai restaurants in my time, but that place still remains my favourite. And it’s out of business. Which means that I have a craving for this food and this feeling that are impossible to get back! This is the stuff that great novels are written about, surely.
I decided to omit the oyster sauce in my take on this dish because of the whole ‘are they or aren’t they vegetarian/vegan’ oyster debate, and because I wanted to keep it accessible and easy to whip up without scouring the markets for perhaps ‘unusual’ ingredients. Thus, the sauce consists only of soya sauce and honey (which could easily be substituted to make this vegan). And in spite of its simplicity, I absolutely love the way that this dish comes together, and it really does take me right back to the diner. Actually, if you follow me on Snapchat you might have seen me try this out for the first time a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t get over how much the smell alone was taking me back – just garlic and onion and bell pepper sizzling away in my rickety old wok. Who knew that was the essence of this dish?!
A small note before I leave you with the recipe: I learned a new-to-me technique for this dish, which is dry-roasting tofu in a non-stick pan. If you have such a thing, I highly recommend doing this, as it firms up the tofu better than pressing it does, and lets the sauce coat it in a really lovely way. If you don’t have such a pan though, I recommend simply frying the tofu off separately first, and then simply following the rest of the recipe as is.