Had you put a gun to my head a few years ago and asked me what my least favorite kind of food was, I'd have A) asked you why wanted to shoot me, and then B) probably said Chinese. Bad broccoli and beef, greasy fried rice, those strange orange packets of sauce--these were my impressions of the entirety of Chinese cuisine and what a billion people ate for dinner. Though I probably knew better, I couldn't block the mental image of those bad Chinese buffets that litter Midwest strip malls.
So imagine what happened when I first tried Mapo Doufu from the Sichuan region of China. It's a mixture of tofu, ground meat, and chile bean paste suspended in a bright red and dangerously spicy sauce. The first bite knocks you over with heat, and then this strange numbing sensation takes over your brain and cools you down. It's like slamming five beers and then eating spicy buffalo wings, without having to, you know, slam five beers. It's so rich, you'd think every ounce of the dish was made of meat, but there is actually very little in the bowl. Tofu is the main star, and never has tofu seemed so racy and hedonistic.
If our favorite foods make us obsess, then our least favorite foods probably just come from not understanding. Sure enough, if you point that gun at me today--though, let's stop with the violence from here on out--I'd first pick Mexican (my true love), and then say Sichuan.
Why do I love it? Well, just like Mexican, Sichuan cuisine seems based on relatively cheap ingredients coddled and transformed into something beyond the sum of their parts. Both feature a healthy helping of chiles and introduce spices to jazz up cheap cuts of meat. Sichuan usually skips the acidic element, but it makes up for it with one key ingredient: the Sichuan peppercorn. The peppercorn has no perceptible heat, and yet it tingles your tongue into a numbing submission.
I attempted to make Mapo Doufu a few weeks ago for Serious Eats using a well respected recipe. Unfortunately, I couldn't find every ingredient, and had to sub a few other Korean condiments for Sichuan ones. The result was fine, but it wasn't nearly as good as the dishes I'd been eating in Chinatown.
Luckily, I got a comment on the dish by resident Serious Eats scientific whiz, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who claimed that Mapo Doufu was his favorite dish of all time. Here's a guy that's been writing a burger column every week, and throwing all his talent behind meaty mains, and yet his favorite dish is a fiercely spicy tofu dish from Sichuan. Best part: He'd written about it in detail for the Boston Globe.
He has all kinds of tricks. Sautéing a whole bunch of Sichuan peppercorns in oil first and then removing them, helps infuse the oil with that numbing warmness. He also recommended switching from ground pork to ground beef.
But the biggest piece of advice was to use fermented broad bean chili paste. This is where most of that meaty flavor comes from. Of course, it was the only element that was hard to track down. A trip up to Super H Mart in Niles turned out to be a waste. Finally I found various packages down in Chinatown that might have worked, so I bought them all and figured one of them would surely work. I was told to look for bean paste that had broad beans listed as one of the first ingredients, and that had "Pixian" on the label somewhere. I used the middle one, with great success.
The result is simply Sichuan heaven. It'll make you start sweating from the heat, and then numb your whole face into submission. If you've never experienced Sichuan food, you might as well jump in the deep end.
Add 2 teaspoons of the Sichuan peppercorns to a wok set over medium-high heat. Stir continuously for 30 seconds. Transfer to a mortar and pestle. Let cool for a few minutes, and then grind.
Time to prep. Whisk together the cornstarch and the water. When combined, add the wine, soy sauce, and stock.
Pour some water into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil. Carefully add the block of tofu. Cook for 1 minute. Drain the tofu in a colander. (I realized I left the block of tofu whole only after the fact. I think you're supposed to cut it into cubes, and then boil it.)
Pour the oil into the wok set over medium heat. Add the rest of the Sichuan peppercorns. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring often. Then drain the peppercorns, making sure to keep all the oil. It is important. Discard the peppecorns.
Return the peppercorn-infused oil to the wok, and turn the heat to medium high. Add the beef. Stir fry for about 30 seconds, until it is no longer pink.
Add the garlic and ginger. Cook for another 30 seconds. Stir like mad.
Add the broad bean paste. Cook for 30 seconds. Stir like mad.
Pour in the cornstarch mixture. Stir constantly, and bring to a boil. Cook for 30 seconds.
Carefully fold in the tofu and the chili oil. Bring to a boil, and then immediately turn off the heat. Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl.
Top with a dusting of the ground Sichuan peppercorns, and the sliced scallions.