The Thai Recipe That Could Sell You On Tofu
SHAYN PRAPAISILP calls himself a boomerang kid. He grew up in St. Louis, left for college and grad school, then returned to be chief operating officer in the family business. "They did the slow sell," he says. "I helped them with consulting on certain projects, and one day I woke up and realized I was doing this full time—and I actually liked the work."
That work? In 1980, Prapaisilp's parents, Suchin and Sue, essentially introduced Thai food to St. Louis' dining scene when they opened King and I. Today the Prapaisilps own four restaurants and two grocery stores. At their newest eatery, Chao Baan ("of the people" in Thai), Prapaisilp wanted the menu to reflect his family's story. "It's a marriage of two really distinct culinary regions," he explains, the south (Pak Tai) and northeast (Esaan).
One of his favorite dishes is laap, an herby ground meat or tofu salad from Esaan and neighboring Laos that's traditionally scooped with rice or lettuce. Since Thai transliterations aren't standardized, you might know it as larb—or larp, lap, lahb or laab. Whatever the spelling, the Prapaisilps' light, bright and spicy version is a keeper.
Step One: Fry
Drain a 16-ounce block of extra-firm tofu and press well with a towel to absorb excess liquid. Cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil over medium-high. Add tofu. Let it cook without stirring until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Toss and continue cooking, tossing occasionally, until golden on most sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Tofu is clingy, so do yourself a favor with a nonstick (or well-seasoned cast-iron) skillet—and be patient about not stirring it too soon.
Tofu first-timer? This flavor-packed, crispy-edged dish could sell you.
Step Two: Finish
If pan is dry, add a dash more oil, then add 1/4 cup chopped green onions, 1/4 cup sliced red onion and 4 sliced garlic cloves. Cook over medium until fragrant, but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Return tofu to the pan, along with 2 tablespoons each fish sauce, lime juice and toasted rice powder. Mix well to heat through. Remove from heat; stir in 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint, 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro and a pinch of Thai chili powder or cayenne to taste. Serve warm, topped with extra herbs and sliced fresh jalapeños, if desired. Pair the laap alone with hot sticky rice, or fill butter lettuce leaves for wraps, adding more herbs and a squeeze of lime.
Toasted rice powder (top left in photo) adds nutty crunch and flavor and helps the sauce thicken and bind to the tofu. It's as easy to make as toasted nuts: In a small skillet, cook 1/4 cup uncooked jasmine rice over medium-low until aromatic and golden brown, tossing frequently, 6 to 10 minutes. Let cool, then grind in a small food processor or spice grinder, or with a mortar and pestle.
Fish sauce adds a hit of fermented umami anywhere you shake it. Prapaisilp likes the Vietnamese brand Red Boat. Or look for Squid, a Thai brand.
"Don't under-herb!" Prapaisilp says. "It's not a garnish." Try mint, cilantro, Thai or sweet basil, chives, or dill (a family fave).
Get to Know: Shayn Prapaisilp
Big time St. Louis Cardinals and Blues fan. Worked at the family grocery store as a teen. Prefers his laap with just jasmine rice.