Unfortunate Skin Tofu
Does your mother have bad skin?
Is it so bad that you've often wondered why someone hasn't created a spicy hot recipe with tofu and beef to extol your mother's bad skin virtues?
If so, you are not alone.
The following recipe is a Chinese restaurant staple. It's called ma po dou fu ("pock-marked Mother Chen's bean curd) and is a regional dish from the Sichuan province of China, which you may know as producing some of the hottest Chinese food around, such as Kung Pao Chicken. Unlike traditional Cantonese cuisine, Sichuan cuisine liberally uses spices to flavor a dish, as well as using beef instead of pork for many other dishes.
Often in American Chinese restaurants, when one is served Mapo Tofu, what one recieves isn't the Sichuan dish, but a Cantonese interpretation of the dish (actually, on the menu it's usually called something else, but if you ask for ma po dou fu, you'll get it). For one, true Mapo Tofu uses ground beef, not ground pork. Second, dried red chilis are used for heat, not any other kind of chili (I've been served the dish with jalepenos). Third, Sichuan peppercorns are used liberally in the dish to create the "hot-numbing" flavor which is one of the many signature flavors of Sichuanese food.
Since finding this classic dish in its authentic form is so hard to find in the U.S., I've decided on making it from scratch using the fabulous new cookbook by author Fuchsia Dunlop. The book is titled "Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered In the Chinese Province of Sichuan" (2003, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.). Even though it's checked out from the library, this one is definitely going on my wish list. So far I've tested the Mapo Tofu and Kung Pao Chicken recipes and, boy, are they hot, and spicy, and flavorful, and did I say hot? Something I also love about this recipe that may turn off some Westerners, is the abundant use of oil in cooking which, along with the corn starch, makes a silky, smooth, and yes oily, sauce.
Oh, wait, heart attack!
No, I'm fine.
According to the book, Old Pock-Marked Mother Chen (you just gotta love her!) was the wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur who would prepare this oily, spicy dish for laborers, who would lay down their loads of cooking oil, to eat while on their way to the city's markets.
I usually don't gush over cookbooks, but Fuchsia has written a book that has opened up a whole world of cuisine that for the most part has barely travelled beyond China's borders. For that she should be praised! (Although after a few of these hot and spicy dishes, your nether-regions may not be so quick to salute!)
"Land of Plenty" is a must for anyone who seriously loves to eat and cook Chinese food, especially those who yearn to seek out the authentic flavors of the dishes we are so familiar with, yet aren't really.
OK, my only one complaint is this picture:
This is the photo in the book of the "ma po dou fu" recipe. As you have seen and will see from my results, it looks nothing like that.
One ingredient used in this recipe is the famous (or infamous) Sichuan peppercorn, which for many people who have heard of it, only few have seen it, let alone used it in cooking. Those who have seen it perhaps may have only seen it many, many years ago, or perhaps only recently. This is due to the fact that the Sichuan peppercorn is not really a "peppercorn", but a member of the citrus family. For decades, all raw citrus products have been banned from import into the United States, including Sichuan peppercorns. The ban against the peppercorns wasn't actually enforced until a few years ago, when the only peppercorns you could find were smuggled in by means I don't want to know about (and here we are back to the nether-regions...).
Currently, Sichuan peppercorns are allowed into the US, but only if they've been brought to a temperature of 160 degrees before export out of China. How this affects the quality and freshness of the peppercorns, I don't know, and so far I haven't heard of any professional studies proving or disproving anything.
What I do know is that the fragrance and flavor Sichuan peppercorns bring to a dish is like no other I have ever encountered before. And yes, it does numb your mouth, which is just weird. You can find Sichuan peppercorns in most places in Chinatown that sell spices. However, sometimes they are unlabeled. You can try asking for Sichuan peppercorns, but sometimes they are called "prickly ash berries". One dollar will buy you enough to last a long time.
To use Sichuan peppercorn in a dish, always toast the peppercorns at a medium temperature just until they start to smoke and become fragrant. I find doing this to be pretty easy by toasting them in a cast-iron skillet, giving them a good shake every once and a while. After they've been toasted, grind them up in a spice grinder (or clean coffee grinder) until they are powdered. After that, you're ready to use them. However, if you aren't using the spice anytime soon, you should leave the peppercorns untoasted and unground until you are ready to use the spice.
The other crucial ingredients to use in this recipe are fermented black beans and chili bean sauce. These items also can be hard to find and I've even found locating them in Chinatown to be slightly difficult (but I'm still just getting my feet wet there).
The fermented black beans are common in many Chinese dishes and sauces and have a very characteristic flavor to them. Any dish that calls for them or a sauce made from them (the most common is the garlic black bean sauce) would be impossible to make with their ommision. The chili bean sauce (you guessed it) is also made from fermented black beans and, that's right, chilis. However, it's not as hot as you might believe, but it's still pretty spicy. I found these two ingredients at a market on Stockton Street near Broadway. The beans were 89 cents (and more than I could ever use), while the sauce (which I could use on anything!) was $1.89. Make sure you look for the expiration date on the beans!
If you don't live near a Chinatown, here are some places on the web that you can find these ingredients (Note: I found them doing a Google search – I can't vouch for their service or quality).
Fermented Black Beans
Chili Black Bean Sauce
The only other comment I have to add about this recipe is that, in the future, I think I'm going to make it with a little more tofu than the recipe calls for. This is just my personal taste. Also, I used regular dried red chilis for this dish, but DANGER, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, because you can really go overboard quickly. I suggest using only a very small amount (and with the seeds removed) the first go around. Trust me, I found out the hard way with the Kung Pao Chicken! (and we're back to the nether-regions...)
Last night was my third attempt at making this dish in the last 2 weeks, and written down here is the recipe, as translated by me (don't worry, no significant deviations).
Ma Po Dou Fu
1 block of tofu (1 pound)
2 small or one large leek
½ cup of peanut oil
½ pound of ground beef
2 ½ tablespoons of chili bean sauce (also called "paste")
1 tablespoon of fermented black beans
2 tablespoons of ground dried chilis (I add them whole and in quanties I know will be comfortable to eat)
1 cup of stock (I use beef, but the recipe calls for chicken)
1 teaspoon of white sugar
2 teaspoons of light soy sauce
salt to taste
4 tablespoons of cornstarch diluted with 6 tablespoons of cold water
½ teaspoon of ground Sichuan peppercorn
1. Cut the bean curd into 1" cubes and leave to steep in very hot (almost boiling) slightly salted water. Slice the leeks or leek at an angle into thin slices.
2. Add the oil to a wok, a cast-iron pan, or a dutch oven and heat over high temperature, just until it begins to smoke. Then add the minced beef (or ground beef) and sautee until crispy but not dry.
3. Turn the heat down to medium and then add the bean sauce and stir-fry. After 30 seconds, add the dry red chilis and fermented black beans and fry for another 30 seconds.
4. Then add the stock, stir well, and then add the drained tofu. Mix gently. Simmer for 5 minutes or until the tofu has absorbed some of the sauce.
5. Next add the leeks and stir in. When they are just cooked, add the cornstarch a little at a time. You may not have to use the whole amount. Only use enough so that the sauce clings to the meat and the tofu. Finally, spoon everything into a large bowl or serving dish (or plate individually) and sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorn spice over the top.
Serve with hot tea and lots of towels to wipe your forehead with!