Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mapo Doufu

My experience with "Chinese food" has been pretty limited; like probably the majority of North Americans, I'm most familiar with the greasy, questionable kind of stuff that I imagine is largely tailored to Western fast food tastes. Aside from an okay dim sum experience and some decent dishes at nicer restaurants, I had pretty much written off Chinese food as something too often deep-fried, sugar and MSG-filled and unhealthy to risk filling my stomach with so I essentially ignorantly swore it off for the past few years. Of course, I knew that behind the food court combo fare there must be an ancient and advanced culinary tradition, I just didn't know where to find it - or what to order! I think the language barrier is actually a big disadvantage for people unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine; they can't read the Chinese names on the menu and English descriptions are often something very un-descriptive like "Beef in Black Bean Sauce" or "Pork with Green Peppers". That's not very encouraging to (unadventurous) people who prefer to stick with what they know rather than gamble on a potentially unpleasant surprise. Unfortunately, this leads to the impression that the vast and daunting world of Chinese cuisine begins with Ginger Beef and ends with Sweet and Sour Pork. Anyway, I knew I was missing out!

I first got excited about Szechuan/Sichuan cuisine thanks to Anthony Bourdain's TV show "No Reservations". I never knew it was centered around a variety of really unique spices, known for being spicy and fragrant which is a flavor combination guaranteed to catch my interest. Some of the plates displayed on the show looked about 90% chile peppers, I was really curious to try it but apparently it's hard to find that kind of "authentic" dish outside of Sichuan province and I didn't have any good recommendations for a local restaurant. I never considered trying to cook this kind of thing at home until I saw a recipe for Mapo Tofu posted by Vincci on Ceci n'est pas un food blog. Thanks to her detailed descriptions and clarification of ingredients, I was able to hold my iPhone up to a shelf of bean paste and match the Chinese characters properly!

Pi Xian Broad Bean Sauce and Sichuan Peppercorn "Prickly Ash"

There were a lot of different broad bean sauces and pastes but only one that I saw marked Pi Xian so I bought it...a kilogram of it. It seemed like a good deal at just over $3 but I now have an ominous, dense 1kg bag of powerfully fermented broad bean loaded with bits of hot pepper. It's amazing and very potent, I could smell it unmistakably through the packaging even though it was sealed in plastic, wrapped in paper and another layer of plastic, and I wouldn't hesitate to describe it as demonic or at least malevolent, possibly borderline haunted. I have a feeling I'm going to be adding spoonfuls of it to a lot of other stuff I cook, I've already used it to power up some fried rice. I really hope I can find some more recipes that give me an opportunity to make use of both of these signature Sichuan ingredients. The peppercorns were like a totally new flavor to me, I was really impressed. It wasn't quite spicy enough for me so I'll probably add more Pi Xian Douban next time but it's a really interesting, numbing sort of spicy sensation, made even more interesting by the floral/sour/citric undertones of the peppercorns.

Toasted peppercorns.

Mapo doufu/tofu with brown rice and baby bok choy

I followed this recipe exactly, using ground beef and excluding Shaoxing wine. It was one of the best things I've ever cooked and I'm already planning to make it again!

Recipe after the jump.

Ma Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐)
Adapted from The Paupered Chef
Makes 4 servings
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) Szechuan peppercorns, divided
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) cornstarch
  • 4 tsp (20 mL) cold water
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) low-sodium soy sauce
  • ½ cup (125 mL) low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 tbsp (30 mL) Shaoxing wine (optional)
  • 1½ lb (680 g) silken tofu, chopped into 1" cubes
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil
  • ¼ lb (115 g) lean ground beef or pork
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tbsp (30 mL) Pi Xian broad bean sauce
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) chili sesame oil, or more to taste
  • 3 medium scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced
  1. Toast 2 tsp (10 mL) of Szechuan peppercorns by placing them in a wok set over medium-high heat and stirring vigorously for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool for a moment before grinding in a mortar and pestle (if you don't have one, a Ziploc bag and a rolling pin will work here too.)
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water. Stir in soy sauce, chicken broth and wine. Set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, bring enough water to cover the tofu to a boil. Carefully add the cubed tofu and simmer for about a minute. (It doesn't hurt to leave it in for a little longer.) Drain the tofu in a colander and set aside.
  4. While the tofu is simmering, heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the remaining teaspoon (5 mL) of Szechuan peppercorns. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring often, until fragrant. Drain the peppercorns, being sure to keep the oil. Discard the peppercorns.
  5. Now you're ready to cook - return the pepper-infused oil to the wok and turn the heat to medium-high. Add the ground beef or pork and stir-fry until no longer pink.
  6. Add garlic and ginger and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring vigorously.
  7. Add broad bean paste and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring vigorously.
  8. Stir in cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook for about 30 seconds.
  9. Carefully fold in tofu and chili oil. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat immediately. Serve garnished with chopped scallions and toasted peppercorns.

2 comments:

Madame Fromage said...

This looks intriguing! I really like how you post pics of the packaging here and that you are very exacting in the ingredients for this dish. I've been craving something like this -- maybe I'll just go out and make it myself. Nice blog, btw. I found you through Food News Journal.

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