Asian Meatballs with Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce

Can you tell that these meatballs are made from tofu and pork? Neither can your family and guests!
Can you tell that these meatballs are made from tofu and pork? I didn’t think so, and neither will your family and guests!

I’ve been on a meatball kick lately, which is a little strange since I’m not a huge meat-eater. Maybe it’s the cooler weather. Maybe it’s all the spaghetti and meatball recipes I keep seeing. Who knows?

That being said, I didn’t want my meatballs to be too stodgy so I decided to lighten them up.

Scouring the Web and my cookbooks, I found suggestions for using extra fillers (breadcrumbs, oats, rice), adding beans, hiding veggies in the meatballs, etc. Then it came to me: why not add tofu just like the Japanese hamburger recipe in my cookbook (pg. 153).

After experimenting with ingredients and proportions, I first tossed the resulting meatballs into my favorite tomato sauce with spaghetti. My husband and son gobbled dinner up none the wiser!

About a year ago, my friend Jill O’Oconnor interviewed me for an article she wrote for the San Diego Union Tribune about Asian ingredients. We had talked about various ways to use Asian ingredients in very American recipes and she developed a recipe for Asian Turkey Meatballs with Honey-Tamarind-Chili BBQ Sauce.

Inspired by Jill, I decided to tweak her sauce and came up with my own sweet, sour, and spicy version.


Asian Meatballs with Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce


These half-tofu-half-pork meatballs are awesome as party appetizers. I’d make several batches because they will go fast, especially when chased with a cocktail or beer. They’re that good. And your guests will never know they’re made with–gasp–tofu!

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 30 1-inch meatballs

7 ounces firm or medium-firm tofu
1 pound 4 ounces ground pork, turkey, or beef (not super-lean please!)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons chopped green onions (1 stalk)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Place the tofu in a non-terry dish towel or sturdy paper towel. Over the sink, wring out as much excess liquid as possible. Do this a few times until the tofu is dry and crumbly.

In a medium bowl, combine the tofu, ground pork, soy sauce, green onions, cilantro, sea salt, black pepper, and mix until smooth. Hint: use your hands! I like to microwave a little of the mixture and taste it to see if it needs any more seasoning.

Roll into 1-inch balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart.

Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the meatballs are golden and cooked through. Toss cooked meatballs with warm sauce and serve.


Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce

Makes about 3/4 cup of sauce

1/3 cup wet tamarind (about 3 ounces)
3/4 cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (About 1-inch chunk ginger, peeled and grated)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons sambal oelek (chili paste)

In a medium saucepan, combine the tamarind paste with water. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and stir until the paste softens into a thick puree. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste. Keep stirring to prevent the sauce from burning or sticking, until the sauce becomes thick and sticky, about 10 minutes. Press this mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl or deep dish to remove any solids. Gently toss the cooked meatballs in the warm sauce.

This sauce can also be made a few days ahead of serving and reheated when needed.


Of Fusion Cuisine and Fusion Babies

The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines fusion cuisine as: “food prepared by using the techniques and ingredients of two or more ethnic or regional cuisines”

Going by this definition, just about everything we cook or eat is fusion cuisine. Noodles came from China (yes, they did!), so technically, spaghetti is a fusion dish. The Seattle dining scene is heavily influenced by the Pacific Rim, and even if no one bats an eyelid at grassfed flank steak shellacked with Sriracha-hoisin glaze served with a side of parsnip puree, this dish screams fusion! And while it never occurred to me when I was growing up, I was raised on fusion food. Many traditional Singaporean favorites are an amalgamation of the cultures that simmer in that diverse melting pot of a society. As were the Indonesian dishes my mum put on the table day after day.

In the same way, you could say my son is a fusion baby: he was created through the union of two or more ethnic groups. I am Indonesian-Chinese and my husband, Pakistani-White American (forgive the generalization as my husband is adopted and unsure of his heritage).

Fusion baby or not, all toddler boys are programmed to love trains especially one named Thomas.

So it’s not surprising he was the inspiration for this fusion dish I created for #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck.

One weekday several months ago, I was exhausted after a whole day of Isaac-sitting and I didn’t really want to cook. I was fine eating leftovers but I didn’t think Isaac would appreciate the fiery Indian curry from several days ago so I rummaged around in the fridge and found leftover cooked pasta, frozen peas and tofu. Yay, I thought, my kid loves tofu and will eat it with anything. However, tofu and red sauce didn’t quite appeal so I decided to try an Asian-style pasta stirfry.

I cut the tofu into cubes and brushed them with oyster sauce before pan-frying them. Once they were done, I removed them from the pan then continued with the rest of the ingredients. When everything had been given a final toss in the pan, I was a little skeptical but once I tasted the dish, I was pleasantly surprised.

When I made the dish again, I wanted a crisper tofu so I tossed the cubes in olive oil and baked them. The result–light golden cubes with crusty edges that held up better in the pan. I also added some butter toward the end to give the dish richness and flavor, a tip I learned from a Vietnamese chef when I was gathering recipes for The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I thought, “why not?’ since Isaac’s pediatrician was always telling me to add olive oil and butter to his meals to fatten him up.

Tofu, pasta, and butter(!) may seem like an odd combo but this dish turned out very tasty and has been filed away in my “recipes to keep” folder.  Plus, Isaac LOVES it! There we are, fusion cuisine for a fusion baby.

Our very own #LetsLunch-er Grace Hwang Lynch of HapaMama wrote a BlogHer article, highlighting that one in ten married couples have partners of different races. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, mixed-race marriages have increased by 28% in the past decade nationwide. Not surprisingly, more mixed-race (fusion!) babies are being born, according to this Washington Post article.

In the next century, perhaps fusion cuisine will be an obsolete term, humankind will be entirely mixed-race, and if Joss Wheedon (sorry typo, thanks Mo!) is truly a soothsayer, we’ll all be space cowboys cursing in Cantonese on the frontier! (And if you didn’t get that “Firefly” reference, you really need to email me to fix that!)


Buttery Tofu, Pasta and Peas

This is an easy, no-fuss recipe perfect for a weeknight meal. You can bake the tofu the night before and refrigerate until needed, or utilize the baking time to cook the pasta and chop the garlic and onions. You’ll still have time to take a shower and feed the dogs! I like my tofu a little crisp but if you’re running short on time, pan-fry the tofu cubes for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side instead. You can also use store-bought fried tofu or baked tofu.

Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes active
Makes: 4 servings

14-ounce package firm or extra firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for cooking
Sea salt
8 ounces farfalle pasta, cooked according to package directions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1-1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup frozen peas
Freshly ground pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, toss the tofu cubes with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and salt to taste. Spread them evenly in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake until golden and crispy along the edges, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

While the tofu is baking, cook the pasta according to package directions.

Once the tofu is done, swirl in the remaining oil into a large pot and heat over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Cook the garlic and onion until the onion turns translucent. Add the pasta, followed by the oyster sauce and soy sauce. Mix well to coat the pasta.

Add the frozen peas and the butter and toss until the peas are heated through and the butter has completely melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with a glass of white wine or a sippy cup of milk (for you know who).


Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below. And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Anastasia‘s Miso Salmon with Mango Salsa at In Foodie Fashion

Cathy‘s Bacon-Studded Polenta With Tomato Gravy at ShowFood Chef

Charissa‘s Gluten-Free Azuki Bean Bundt Cake at Zest Bakery

Cheryl‘s Goan Pork Curry Tacos at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Eleanor‘s Wok Picadillo at Wok Star

Ellise‘s Salty Lime Sablés (Margarita Cookies) at Cowgirl Chef

Emma‘s Kimchi Bulgogi Nachos at Dreaming of Pots And Pans

Felicia‘s Mexican-Lebanese Hummus at Burnt-Out Baker

Grace‘s Taiwanese Fried Chicken at HapaMama

Jill‘s Southern Pimento-Stuffed Knishes at Eating My Words

Joe‘s Grilled KimCheese Sandwich at Joe Yonan

Juliana‘s Fusion Chicken Casserole at Food, Fun & Life

Karen‘s Ukrainian-German Cabbage Rolls at GeoFooding

Leigh‘s Venezuelan-Italian Cachapas Con Queso at Leigh Nannini

Linda‘s Project Runway Pelau: Rice & Beans Trinidad-Style at Spicebox Travels

Linda‘s Edible Salad Totes at Free Range Cookies

Lisa‘s Sunday Night Jewish-Chinese Brisket at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Coconut Rice Pudding with Mango at A Cook And Her Books

Maria‘s Spanish Shrimp with Bacon, Cheddar & Chive Grits at Maria’s Good Things

Nancie‘s Chili-Cheese Biscuits with Avocado Butter at Nancie McDermott

Patricia‘s Buttery Tofu, Pasta & Peas at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook

Patrick‘s Kimchi Jigae and British Mash at Patrick G. Lee

Rashda‘s Mango Cobbler at Hot Curries & Cold Beer

Renee‘s Asian-Spiced Quick Pickles at My Kitchen And I

Steff‘s Chicken Fried Steak at The Kitchen Trials

Vivian‘s Funky Fusion Linguini at Vivian Pei

Homemade: Tofu–No Fancy Equipment Necessary!

For the last three years, I had a pack of nigari and a wooden tofu press sitting in my kitchen cupboard. Unfortunately, the duo never saw any action as I didn’t get round to making tofu.

Now that we’ve moved across the country and most of our belongings—and 95 percent of my kitchen equipment!—are in storage, I found myself aching to make tofu. So on a cool, fallish Thursday morning with “Putting on the Ritz” blasting away (I just rediscovered my 80’s collection on the computer!), I set about making tofu for the first time, no nigari, no tofu press.

First things first, I surveyed my ingredients and my equipment.

I decided I didn’t want to make soymilk from scratch (read: my food processor is in storage). I ended up buying a half-gallon bottle of fresh soymilk from the Asian store. This was my choice because it was made by a local company and it contained only three ingredients: water, non-GMO soybeans and soy lecithin (now if only I could find a brand that uses organic soybeans). Compare this to the widely available brand, Silk, which has calcium carbonate, natural flavors, carageenan, etc., etc. I wanted as few additives as possible.

Part of my tofu-making arsenal

Nigari (a natural coagulant of magnesium chloride made by evaporating seawater) is the coagulant of choice in Japan, while the Chinese prefer gypsum (calcium sulfate). Both are sold specifically for making tofu and are available at specialty stores (here are some online sources). I went with what was more readily available. In the spirit of experimentation, I used three different coagulants: lemon juice, lime juice and Epsom salt.

As for equipment, I took out my stainless steel pot, a couple of wooden spoons, my recently-purchased cheesecloth (you can use a thin cotton non-terry dish towel or handkerchief), and I was ready to start tofu-making.

True to “no fancy equipment” form, I decided to convert an old plastic tofu container into a makeshift tofu press.I turned it upside down and started cutting into the nicks that were already molded into the plastic, making sure the slits were big enough to allow liquid to drain through. Clever, eh?

I made similar holes in all 4 corners of the tofu container for my makeshift tofu press

Just so you know, we food writers and recipe developers are not perfect, and we do make mistakes. The first time round, I used 4 cups of soymilk and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice diluted in ½ cup water as a coagulant. The first sign that something was amiss was that with every wring of the cheesecloth, still milky-white liquid oozed from the tiny holes. The liquid is supposed to be translucent. But I went ahead and pressed the curds into my “tofu press” anyway.

After my myriad tries to press out as much liquid as possible, my tofu was still soft and spongy.

I took a bite. It tasted like tofu, the texture wasn’t bad, plush and soft, kinda like marshmallow. But it refused to bind despite my best efforts so I had to raise the white flag. I decided I could use it in mabo tofu or to make tofu and minced pork balls.

Maybe I needed more lemon juice? Or maybe I should have continued stirring the mixture over the heat until it started separating more noticeably. Or … Whatever it was, I was determined to try again.

Then I recalled my paneer-making efforts. Perhaps I could follow the same method–the process is basically the same, separating the curds from the whey with a coagulant.

I followed the method almost to a “t,” using juice from 3 1/2 limes (about the equivalent in tablespoons), and lo and behold, I had firm, freshly-pressed tofu! I was overcome with so much jubilation—my first successful batch of tofu—I almost started tearing.

This time I pressed my tofu in a colander which formed an oddly-shaped disc of tofu. Nonetheless, I was excited to try a piece. Perhaps I should have waited and relished the tofu high a little longer. Once I popped a piece in my mouth, my elation crumbled like the disintegrating tofu in my mouth. I didn’t care for the powdery texture and the tartness that clung to the background like a wallflower, barely noticeable but still there.

Using a colander as a “press” results in an odd-shaped piece of tofu.

Not satisfied with my tofu-making efforts, I tried yet again, this time with Epsom salt as my coagulant. And as they say, the third time’s a charm!

The curds that formed were still smaller than I was expecting and I was skeptical. Somehow or another, the itty bitty curds bound into a perfect block of momen tofu (“momen” means “cotton” and describes a medium firm tofu). Unlike store-bought tofu which can sometimes taste bland, this tofu tasted mildly sweet, and not too beany. The texture was dense and looked crumbly but once in my mouth, it was cottony soft, just like its moniker.

Woot, my tofu was finally a total success!

I’m not sure if I’ll be making tofu regularly but I did come away from the experience with a few tofu tidbits. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend lemon or lime juice because they impart a tangy flavor that was a little odd in the resulting tofu. I think I’m going to try using nigari next to see if bigger tofu curds form, hopefully producing a smoother, less crumbly tofu.

And finally, for first-timers, buy Epsom salt. If you decide you don’t ever want to make tofu again, you can use the remainder for a relaxing soak in the bath after a busy day of standing in the kitchen!


Homemade Momen Tofu

I’ve tried making tofu several times now and the process never goes exactly the same. I’m always surprised–the resulting tofu may turn out a little firmer or a wee bit spongier. I really can’t tell you why but that’s ok since it always tastes good. I just mix it up, using the tofu in different recipes. Keep in mind, the quality of your soymilk plays a huge part in how your tofu will turn out. In other words, keep experimenting until you’re satisfied!

Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Makes: about 14 oz tofu

2 teaspoons Epsom salt
4 cups soymilk (storebought or homemade)

Stir the Epsom salt into ½ cup hot water until it completely dissolves.

In a large pot, bring the soymilk to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. When steam starts to appear and bubbles form around the edge of the pot, reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring often to ensure the soymilk doesn’t burn. Remove any film that forms on the surface.

Reduce the heat to low. Pour the Epsom salt mixture into the hot soymilk a little at a time, stirring after each pour. The curds will soon start separating from the whey. As soon as obvious curds have formed and the whey turns from a milky white to a yellowish, translucent liquid, stop pouring. You want to use as little coagulant as possible because it might impart a bitter taste to the tofu. I usually use up about ¼ to 1/3 cup of the Epsom salts mixture.

Take the pot off the heat and cover with a lid. Let it sit for about 15 minutes to allow the curds to separate even further. After 15 minutes, if the whey is still opaque, add more of the Epsom salts mixture, stirring after each pour. Don’t worry if the curds are no bigger than coarse breadcrumbs.

Set your “tofu press” over a colander in the sink. Line the press with the cheesecloth.

Pour the curds and whey into the “tofu press” in stages, waiting for the whey to drain into the sink. Wring as much liquid from the cheesecloth as possible.

Press the curds into the “tofu press,” filling out the corners. Or press into the bottom of a colander or sieve. Fold the cheesecloth neatly and place a folded towel on top to soak up excess liquid. Weigh down the tofu with two cans of food.

Allow the tofu to set for 15 to 20 minutes. Unwrap the cheesecloth and turn the tofu block out into a large bowl or plastic container. Fill with water, being careful not to hit the tofu directly with the stream of water, and rinse the tofu gently. Drain and the tofu is ready to be made into dinner.

To store, submerge the tofu in water in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, changing the water every day. Remember, this is fresh tofu and has no preservatives!


Resources I used to come up with my own tofu-making process:

Just Hungry: The blogosphere’s definitive site for Japanese food and cuisine

Brenda J Wiley: A detailed description of how to make tofu using a soymilk machine

LaFujiMama: Check out her easy-to-follow processes for making soymilk from scratch and quick one-hour tofu