It all started with Sichuan pepper. Its smell, I mean; that was one of the first distinctive things I noticed in China. Walking down a street in Chengdu lined with restaurants, the aroma of hot cooking oil and Sichuan pepper assaulted my senses. It’s one of those things in life that’s absolutely unmistakable. Like the otherworldly smell of perfect croissants wafting from a corner bakery in France.
The taste of Sichuan pepper is so distinctive, in fact, that I can hardly bear to use more than a few grains of it in my cooking. My first taste of hot pot (an oily, Sichuan peppery broth in which you cook morsels of food) hit me over the head with a taste that didn’t leave my mouth for 3 days.
má là 麻辣
Chinese cookery, with thousands of years of refinement, files food into a series of tidy taste classifications, like sweet or sour. Sichuan peppers claim a category all their own: mind-numbing.
source: Ron Gluckman, http://www.gluckman.com/SichuanFood.html
Spiciness is believed to rid the body of internal dampness and overcome the cold according to the traditional Chinese doctrine. Therefore, with the climate of the Sichuan province being wet and damp overall, while it can be cold where it rises into the surrounding mountain ranges, the peppercorn forms an essential part of Sichuan cuisine.
So much for the instructional part of our lesson. Now here’s an example of one of my favorite local dishes, Ma po doufu.
Chinese : 麻婆豆腐 ; pinyin : Mápó dòufu
Literally, “Pockmarked face Grandmother’s Bean Curd”
Here’s a recipe. I found several, but this one is good because you can substitute vegetarian ingredients. It uses other special Sichuan ingredients such as fermented black beans.
Firm Tofu – 200 gm
Fried tofu (minced) – about 75 gm (replace with minced beef for the original version)
Chili bean paste – 1.5 tbsp
Peanut oil – 3 tbsp
Fermented black beans – 2 tsp
Whole Sichuan red chilies – 6-10, depending on your chili tolerance
Chicken stock or vegetable stock (unsalted) – 1/2 cup
Sugar – 1 large pinch
Light soy sauce – 1 tsp
Cornflour – 2 tsp mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
Sichuan peppercorns (ground) – 1/4 tsp
Spring onions (scallions) – chopped – 2 tbsp
How to make it
Cut the tofu into 1/2 inch cubes.
Heat a wok on high heat. When it’s nice and hot, add the oil. Add the minced beef (or minced fried tofu) and stir-fry for about a minute on high heat. The beef should be brown on the outside but still have some cooking left.
With a spatula, move the beef to one side of the wok so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. (If you don’t, you will shortly start coughing till your lungs pop out.)
Now add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. The oil should have a nice smell from all this seasoning.
Add the chicken or vegetable stock and stir it in. Then gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don’t stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.
Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.
Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornflour-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu nicely.
Stop the cooking at this stage, add the spring onions and mix.
Empty the dish into a hot bowl. Scatter with the powdered Sichuan peppercorns and serve.
zhong shui jiao – spicy dumplings
guo ba rou pian – crispy rice pork. The fried rice sizzles when the food and liquid are poured over it.
gong bao ji ding – known in the U.S. as “kung pao chicken:” chicken, hot chilis, and peanuts.
a tub of rice and a bowl of pickled green vegetables
My friend’s photo – the basic utensils for a meal.