I am a strong believer in the idea that food has the power to help heal you. Some meals have the ability to transform your mood, to move you towards a happier place, and/or to create a small change inside you. For me, most recently the dish that has done the most healing for me has been tofu pad thai.
If you follow me on instagram, you may’ve noticed that I’ve made references a couple times to my PTSD and the healing that I’ve been working through. I can’t discuss the details of my recent trauma here but suffice it to say that something very painful happened and turned my world completely upside down. I try to keep things real in this space and I allow myself to be vulnerable here and speak honestly about my mental illness and emotional struggles in hopes that it will allow others who struggle to know they are not alone. Those of you who’ve had or have PTSD know the sudden bursts of fear, anxiety, and hyper-vigilance, the inability to concentrate and the constant forgetfulness, the nightmares, the racing heart, and the sudden inability to do even just everyday acts of survival like sleeping and eating.
After the Event, I completely lost my appetite. The morning after it occurred, my friends took me out to breakfast and I ordered something I normally would’ve loved. But just one bite in, I felt like vomiting. In those first couple weeks, I was lucky if I got down a couple pieces of toast or a bowl of cheerios in one day. I slowly started adding in more bland foods (the only thing I could stomach) here and there, and eventually, I was able to work up to one big, solid meal a day, but I lost over 10 pounds in a month.
One night, after about 8 weeks, my friends and I were going to hang out and they suggested picking up some thai food from a vegan thai place nearby. I went along with it because in all honesty, I didn’t think I was going to be able to eat anything. I ordered the pad thai thinking that I would likely be bringing the mostly uneaten box home to store in my fridge until it went bad. Little did I know that that carton of tofu pad thai was going to turn my life around.
Now, let me just say that there have been many elements to my healing process. I’ve found an incredible therapist and a great weekly support group, I’ve reconnected to journaling, I’ve started meditating, I’ve added weekly yoga back in to my life, and most importantly, I’ve surrounded myself with a group of strong, fierce, and loving friends (and family) who hold me up when I am unable to. Healing is an ongoing process and I’ve made it an almost full-time job these last few months. But this bowl of take-out tofu pad thai awakened my appetite from the 2 month hibernation it had slipped into. The saucy, sticky noodles, perfectly braised tofu, and the topping of crumbled peanuts reminded my tongue of how delicious food can be and it reminded my stomach of how good it felt to be filled. I went home that night with something stirring inside me. My body had become so accustomed to fueling itself with the blandest bare minimum that it took me awhile to realize what that stirring was. It was the beginning of a craving.
Thai take-out became a staple, be it from our favorite Vegan Thai place in Santa Monica or from the little shop closest to my office in the valley. I was eating tofu pad thai at least once (but usually twice) a week. It soon became clear that if I was going to keep this habit up, I needed to start making it at home for myself. So the recipe testing began.
And that, my friend, is how we’ve found ourselves here, chatting over the most magnificent bowl of pad thai to come out of my (and now your) kitchen. The sauce is tart and tangy with a subtle sweetness to balance it out. The noodles are sticky but obnoxiously so. I like to use packaged, pre-baked tofu, slice it thinly and cook it in the airfryer for 10 minutes prior to adding it to the pan with the veggies. This gives it a crispiness that I really like but since it’s already cooked, you can skip that step and add it to the pan along with the carrots. I also like to slice the red bell pepper into thin strips using a mandoline so that you don’t have to bite into big chunks of bell pepper, but if you’re into that, cut the bell pepper into big chunks. I also prefer, instead of cooking the pasta the traditional way in a pot of boiling water, to fill a bowl with hot water and add the noodles to the bowl (spreading out the strands so you don’t have large clumps of pasta stuck together) and let them soak for 10 to 15 minutes, until it’s time to add them to the pot. The noodles continue to cook when you add them to the pot with the veggies, tofu, and sauce, so it’s best to not overcook them beforehand. You can, of course, cook the pasta the traditional way, but just be careful not to overcook it. The result is a succulent bowl of tofu pad thai that will leave you craving more.
- 1 tablespoon tamarind paste
- 1 8-ounce package pad thai rice noodles
- 1 6-ounce package baked tofu, sliced into thin strips
- coconut or canola oil spray, optional
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 5-inch stalks lemongrass, thinly sliced
- 2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on a bias
- 1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 cups mung bean sprouts, plus more for serving
- 3-4 green onions, sliced (green and white parts)
- 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for serving
- 1/2 cup chopped peanuts,
- lime wedges, for serving
- 3 tablespoons low sodium vegetable broth
- 3 tablespoons tamari
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon sriracha sauce, optional
- Fill a large wide bowl with hot water. Spread the pasta out in the bowl, submerged in water, and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes until almost al dente. I like to do this before I start preparing the rest of the ingredients.
- Combine the sauce ingredients in a cup and whisk until combined. Set aside.
- Optional step: For crispy tofu, spray the interior tray of your air fryer with the oil spray. Lay the tofu out in the tray and spray with a little more oil. Cook in the air fryer at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, flipping/shaking the pieces after 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can pan fry the slices in a frying pan. Or you can skip this step altogether if you don't want crispy tofu.
- Heat the sesame oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and lemongrass and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes or until sizzling and the garlic is becoming golden. Add the carrots (and tofu, if you're skipping the above frying step), and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the carrots are becoming tender. Add the red bell pepper and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Once the pasta is soft, strain the water and rinse with cold water. Add the pasta and sauce to the pan and stir until fully combined. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced and the pasta is just starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sprouts, stir and cook for about 1 minute, and then remove the pan from heat. Stir in the green onions and cilantro.
- Serve immediately, topped with a bit more sprouts, cilantro, chopped peanuts, and a couple lime wedges. Enjoy!
What foods have helped you heal?
Photography by Kristy Turner