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Easy no-cook Vietnamese tofu bún bowls

Tonight, G Daniela Galarza will be making bún with tofu from Andrea Nguyen’s ‘Vietnamese Food’ and you should too

Thursday 01 September 2022 07:00 BST
Bún is a salad that’s full of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours
Bún is a salad that’s full of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours (Rey Lopez/The Washington Post)

When someone visits my apartment for the first time, the first thing they say is, “Wow, you have a lot of cookbooks.”

I’ve moved around a lot since I was a kid, and while furniture and knickknacks have been sold or donated along the way, I’ve never left my cookbooks behind. I’ve been collecting them since I was 10 or 12, so they feel a little like family. On a day-to-day basis, they form a foundation for my work life: they’re reference material, guidance and inspiration. When I’m lacking ideas for new recipes, want to learn about a new-to-me dish or am looking for a weekend project, I turn to my bookshelves.

While I love them all, a few of my books have made it onto what I call the “keeper” shelf. It’s where my most-loved books live, the ones I turn to again and again. The ones I can’t imagine being without. Today’s recipe is from one of those books, a relatively recent addition to the keeper shelf: Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors by Andrea Nguyen.

I’ve learned so much from Nguyen over the years – she’s been writing cookbooks since 2006 – but for the past few years, I keep returning to Vietnamese Food Any Day because the recipes and photographs (by Aubrie Pick) draw me in, making me imagine flavour combinations I didn’t grow up with but feel an immediate kinship toward.

Tonight, I think we might make a version of Nguyen’s bún, a bowl of rice noodles and salad that’s full of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours. “Often categorised at restaurants as rice vermicelli bowls or bún (the name of the noodles), they’re built on this blueprint: a large bowl filled with ribbons of lettuce and a thin, crunchy vegetable for texture; fresh herbs for pungency; and slippery rice noodles to convey flavors,” Nguyen writes. “You get to choose the toppings, which are inevitably garnished with roasted peanuts. A fancy bowl often has pickled radish and carrot for colour and crunch, plus fried shallots for extra richness.” Nguyen uses canned fried onions as a “lazy-day sub” – and I do too.

And there’s no cooking required.

Here, we’re going to marinate cubes of firm tofu in a garlicky mixture scented with Chinese five-spice powder. You can buy nuoc cham, but it’s so easy to make. It’s just lime juice, sugar, water and fish sauce, plus some sliced chillies for heat. You’ll want to spend a few minutes cutting carrots, cucumbers and baby lettuce leaves into tidy bite-size pieces. These will form the bulk of the toppings, aside from the tofu.

Finally, we’re going to use the thinnest angel hair rice vermicelli, so instead of boiling it, we’ll soak it in very hot tap water while we prepare the rest of the dish. By serving time, the noodles will be tender. When it’s time to eat, pile the noodles in bowls, add all of your toppings, and then dress the bowl with a splash of sweet-and-funky nuoc cham, toss it with chopsticks (or a fork) and spoon, and dinner is served.

Bún with tofu

Total time: 45 minutes

Serves: 4

In her book, Nguyen suggests marinating beef, pork or chicken before threading it onto skewers and grilling it. If you go the meaty route, use marbled beef or pork, cut across the grain into thin, roughly 7½-by-2½cm pieces. Marinate meat for 30 minutes or overnight before threading it onto skewers and grilling over medium-high heat until each piece is lightly charred.

To make this dish vegan, use soy sauce, tamari or a vegan fish sauce instead of the fish sauce.

The lettuce, carrots and cucumbers add a good amount of crunch, but feel free to sub in raw, sliced courgette, halved cherry tomatoes or baby bok choy.

The Chinese five-spice powder gives the marinade an almost smoky scent. You can make your own. Or, use a pinch each of ground cinnamon, fennel and/or anise, cloves, and ground black pepper or Sichuan pepper.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.

Where to buy: Vietnamese rice noodles and Chinese five-spice powder can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, Asian grocers and online.

Make ahead: The noodles and tofu may be soaked and marinated up to 1 day in advance.


One (225g) package vermicelli rice noodles

For the tofu:

1½ tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp granulated sugar or maple syrup

1 tsp peanut oil or vegetable oil

1 tsp soy sauce, preferably low-sodium

¼ tsp Chinese five-spice powder

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

½ small yellow onion or shallot (60-90g), sliced

3 cloves garlic, smashed

One (400g) package firm tofu, pressed and cut into cubes (see notes, below)

For the nuoc cham:

2 tbsp granulated sugar or 3 tbsp maple syrup, plus more as needed

3 tbsp fresh lime juice, plus more as needed

120ml warm water, plus more as needed

3 tbsp fish sauce, plus more as needed

1 Thai or serrano chilli pepper, thinly sliced or 2 tsp sambal oelek (optional)

For the toppings:

85g baby lettuce leaves (such as butter or Boston), cut into ribbons if large

80g unsalted roasted peanuts or cashews, coarsely chopped

45g fried onions or shallots (optional)

10g hand-torn fresh coriander leaves and tender sprigs

10g hand-torn mint leaves

1 Persian cucumber, sliced thinly on a bias

1 small carrot, scrubbed and cut into thin matchsticks (optional)


In a large bowl, break the noodles just enough so that they don’t extend over the edge of the bowl. Add warm-to-hot water to cover the noodles by 2½cm and soak for at least 15 and up to 45 minutes, or until softened.

Make the tofu: in a medium bowl, whisk together the fish sauce, sugar, oil, soy sauce, five-spice powder and black pepper until the sugar dissolves, about 1 minute. Stir in the onion and garlic. Add the tofu and gently toss to coat with the marinade. Marinate the tofu for at least 15 minutes and up to overnight (see notes, below).

Make the nuoc cham: in a small bowl, whisk together the sugar or maple syrup and lime juice until a slurry forms. Add the water, and whisk until the sugar dissolves completely. Stir in the fish sauce, then taste, adjusting the sweetness, acidity and salinity by adding more sugar, lime juice and/or fish sauce, as desired. Stir in the sliced chillies or sambal oelek, if using.

To serve, drain the noodles and divide them among four bowls. Divide the tofu, lettuce, peanuts or cashews, fried onions or shallots, if using, coriander, mint, cucumber and carrot among the bowls. Serve with nuoc cham for drizzling and dipping.

Notes: To press tofu: drain it and wrap it in a clean tea towel. Place on a plate, cover with a small tray or plate, and a weight such as a stack of books or a heavy can. Press until most of the moisture puddles on the plate, about 10 minutes. (Microwaving tofu, wrapped in a clean towel, achieves a similar effect: microwave drained and wrapped tofu in 1-minute increments until it shrinks and turns slightly creamy in color.)

After marinating the tofu, you may wish to sear it in a pan: in a cast-iron or nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil until it shimmers. Drain the tofu, onions and garlic from the marinade and add to the pan, separating the cubes so they sear instead of steam. Turn the pieces as they brown. Drain on a clean tea towel or plate before serving.

Nutrition information per serving | calories: 482; total fat: 18g; saturated fat: 3g; cholesterol: 0mg; sodium: 953mg; carbohydrates: 64g; dietary fibre: 5g; sugar: 7g; protein: 18g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

© The Washington Post

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