A Spicy Taste of Home

5 Jan

I grew up in a suburb in Northern California which is 40% Asian and 25% Chinese. Demographics aside, what this meant for me was that I got to eat a lot of very delicious ethnic food from a very young age.

One place in particular, a Chinese restaurant Hong Fu, had been my family’s lifeline since I was six or seven years old. We’ve had multiple family celebrations there, and are on a first-name basis with the owner and most of the staff. My tastes changed as I grew older, from beef-with-broccoli to bolder flavours. But I don’t remember my father ordering anything else but mapo tofu. Initially I stayed away from the dish, wary of its spiciness. I think I only tasted it for the first time when I was in my teens. But one spoonful of savoury, numbing-spicy sauce and custardy tofu, and I was hooked.

I didn’t understand how unusual Hong Fu and my town as a whole were until I moved to Edinburgh in my third year of university. To be blunt, I had never seen so many white people in one place in my entire life! Surreal is the word. And this homogeneity impacted the local cuisine; while there were curry houses on every second block (this is the UK, remember!), any Chinese food I sampled was almost always a variation on the theme of sweet-and-sour, cornstarchy, and deep fried. Good for soaking up booze at the end of a long night, but not for much else. And there was no mapo tofu to be found.

But moving to London has certainly improved my access to ethnic food. My local Tesco is full of ingredients I’ve never seen before, and sometimes I am the only gringa on the bus or in the shops. And if I want a spicy tofu fix, there are several Sichuan restaurants in Soho which do very tasty versions. Or I simply make it myself.

I don’t claim that my variation below is particularly authentic, but it’s certainly delicious, and especially good for a cold night when you want something different from standard Western stodge. You can find the black beans, chili sauce, and Sichuan pepper in Chinese markets and some general Asian markets (I have a Vietnamese grocery store down the road that fills most of my needs). The Sichuan pepper is sometimes labeled “wild pepper”. I use beef in the recipe, but you can use ground pork, or leave the meat out entirely.

Also, if anyone tells you that they hate tofu, this is the dish to convert them!

Mapo Tofu (via Appetite for China and Fuchsia Dunlop)

Serves 2-3

1 block soft tofu, cut into 3cm cubes
2 tablespoons neutral (not olive) oil
250g beef mince
3 spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle
3 cloves garlic, minced
3cm x 3cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
3 tablespoons chili bean sauce
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan pepper
250ml chicken stock
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons caster sugar

Garnish:
Ground Sichuan pepper
Sliced spring onions

Making the Thing

1. Heat a wok or high-sided sauté pan over high heat. Add the oil and swirl around all sides. Add the beef and stirfry until meat starts to brown and go crispy, around 2-3 minutes. Lower heat to medium, then add spring onion, garlic, and ginger, and stirfry for another minute.

2. Add the black beans, the chili bean sauce, and the Sichuan pepper, and mix for around 1 minute.

3. Add the stock and mix well. Add the tofu, and gently push it around the pan to combine with the sauce (the soft tofu is fragile and will end up in bits if you are too vigorous). Then add the soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar. Simmer all together for around 5 minutes to bring together all the flavours.

Serve with white rice, and garnish with more pepper and spring onions.

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