Tofu Salad with Spiced Peanut Sauce + Midsummer Potluck for Peace

Yay, summer's here! Can you tell that this tropical sun worshipper is jumping for joy? Salads are usually in heavy rotation for us during the warmer months of the year here in California and when I want a taste from my sunny home of Southeast Asia, this tofu salad with a flavorsome spiced peanut sauce is what I make. 

This salad is inspired by a tofu street snack in Malaysia that goes by the name tauhu bakar (grilled tofu) or tauhu sumbat (fried tofu stuffed with vegetables). It is fried tofu filled with bean sprouts, and shredded cucumber and carrots. The fried tofu pieces are cut into squares or triangles, and pockets are made by cutting their midsection, which is where the vegetables go. The fried tofu may also be grilled to a crisp just before serving. 

For ease, I like mine on a plate, eaten like a salad with a fork. I suppose you can think of it as a convenient deconstructed version, in which the ingredients can be assembled on the plate just as hunger strikes and satisfaction is delivered in every bite of crispy freshness brought together by a thick, crunchy sauce. 

The sauce varies in Malaysia depending on who you buy it from. A rojak (Malaysian fruit salad) vendor will serve it with a rojak sauce. While Malay vendors often use a peanut sauce, it is not uncommon for it to come with a simple drizzle of a sweet chilli sauce. 

In my opinion, the peanut sauce, especially one that is so deliciously spiced, makes this high-protein tofu salad substantial enough to be a meal. I love salads as meals, especially for lunch on a warm afternoon, preferably in the outdoors, which is how I'm imagining the Virtual Midsummer Potluck for Peace we're having today with a talented host of food bloggers organised by Saghar of Lab Noon

I'm spreading good cheer with this hearty Malaysian salad I'm enjoying on a picnic in my sunny California backyard. I invite you to check out what everyone's bringing to the table from around the world at the bottom of this post. But first, let's make this salad...

Deep-fried tofu presents the tasty contrast of a crispy skin with a spongy soft interior that is very absorbent, which is why it is also referred to as tofu puffs. I find this effect difficult to achieve at home and since I rarely do any deep frying, I make the occasional purchase from the Asian grocery store. They can usually be found in the refrigerated section. To make this salad, I dip them in hot water for a little while to remove excess oil and then toast them in the oven until browned and crispy just before tossing them with the other ingredients. 

When I'm not in the mood for fried tofu, I make this salad with extra firm or firm tofu cut into cubes either straight from the packet or lightly pan-fried or grilled. And yes, I'm happy to report it works really well too!

Cucumber, carrot, and bean sprouts make a good trio for this salad but feel free to add or replace with other crunchy vegetables and fruits. Jicama and apples spring to mind immediately. Just be sure to slice them thinly like you would when making a shredded salad or a slaw.  

While the vegetables provide a thirst-quenching crunch, most of the flavor of this salad comes from the spiced peanut sauce, which is made with aromatic spices like shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, cumin, and turmeric. Coconut milk adds a creamy richness while tamarind paste balances it out with a tangy sweetness. This sauce freezes well and can be used with other salads and as a dipping sauce with summer rolls and even roast vegetables. 

Did you know that in addition to the health benefits for your body, spices can also help brighten your mood? Turmeric, for example, has been shown in studies to stimulate the release of serotonin, your body's natural mood enhancer. And there are studies linking cumin to stress reduction benefits. I mean, just the smell of all these spices cooking together... 

When we get together for a meal, we partake in something more than the mere act of eating. If I have to come up with a food analogy for this potluck for peace, it would be having all these diverse spices coming together to create something wonderful that delights not just the tastebuds but also nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. 

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Tofu Salad with Spiced Peanut Sauce
A high-protein salad inspired by a tofu street snack in Malaysia. Serves 3 to 4.

PEANUT SAUCE
3 shallots, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lemongrass, white part only, chopped
3 to 5 dried chillis, soaked in warm water for a few minutes, chopped
1/2-inch galangal, peeled and chopped (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup peanuts, roasted and coarsely ground
1 tablespoon tamarind paste* or lime juice
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup water, and more as needed
2 to 3 tablespoons coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

10 to 12 pieces fried tofu puffs*
2 cups carrots, shredded
2 cups cucumber, shredded
2 cups bean sprouts, blanched in hot water for a few minutes and drained
1/4 cup peanuts, roasted, for garnish

To make the sauce, start by making a spice paste. In a blender or food processor, add the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, dried chillis, galangal, ground coriander, ground cumin, and ground turmeric and blend until you get a smooth paste, scraping down the sides and adding a little water when necessary.

In a saucepan, heat up the oil over medium heat and stir-fry the spice paste for 3 to 5 minutes until fragrant. Add the ground peanuts, tamarind paste, dark soy sauce, coconut milk, and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with sugar and salt to taste. Add more water if the sauce gets too thick. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. 

To assemble the salad, in an individual serving plate, place 3 to 4 pieces of fried tofu puffs, 1/4 cup shredded carrots, 1/4 cup shredded cucumber, and 1/4 cup bean sprouts. (Use the amount suggested here as a guide and feel free to adjust as you please!) Top with the desired amount of peanut sauce and garnish with roasted whole peanuts to serve. 

*NOTES:
· For a step-by-step guide on how to make tamarind paste, click here.
· Prepare the store-bought deep-fried tofu puffs by briefly dipping them in hot water to remove excess oil and pat dry before toasting them in the oven until browned and crispy.
· Fried tofu can be substituted with extra firm or firm tofu cut into cubes either straight from the packet or lightly pan-fried or grilled.