Quarantine Cuisine: Sichuan Mapo Tofu
In southwest China is the rugged province of Sichuan, also Romanized as Szechuan, and beyond the modern-faced capital, Chengdu, lie mystical, mist-hung mountains, ancient temples, and picturesque villages in which the most famous of the Great Cuisines of China was born and developed. Sichuan cuisine is most known for its numbing spice and aromatic, robust flavors, achieved primarily through a marriage of Sichuan peppercorns and hot chili peppers.
Sichuan peppercorns are not, in fact, peppercorns––they are the dried berries of the prickly ash tree, and their fragrant, lemony aroma conceals a tongue-numbing compound that keeps the mouth on pins and needles, partially numbing the tongue so the diner can take more of the chili heat and enjoy the prominent flavors of things like garlic, ginger, black cardamom, and cinnamon. Some of the most famous dishes in authentic Chinese and Chinese-American cuisine come from this marriage of Sichuan peppercorn and chilis, which came to China from South America. Heard of "kung pao" chicken? Yep. How about Sichuan hot pot, a style of dining that has been undergoing a renaissance of late?
Mapo tofu can be traced to Chengdu as early as the 1200s. The word "mapo" comes from the words for "pock-marked" and "grandmother," perhaps making legendary the woman who first developed this dish. It gains its powerful flavor not just from the combination of Sichuan peppercorns and peppers, but also dou ban, a salty paste of fermented broad beans and chilis. I decided to pair this with some veggies, this time a traditional Sichuan green bean recipe, and some steamed rice.
I ordered my peppercorns and bean paste online, and took a glorious whiff of the bag of overwhelmingly aromatic peppercorns before grinding up a heaping tablespoon of the berries with the mortar and pestle. I then prepared my mise-en-place, grating two tablespoons of ginger with a zester, crushing seven cloves of garlic, and arraying the various condiments.
In the wok, I first deep-fried some whole Sichuan peppercorns for garnish. I then removed them from the oil and added the ground peppercorns and a tablespoon each of garlic and ginger, sautéing until aromatic. Two tablespoons of bean paste and shaoxing wine were added next, and then some cornstarch dissolved in water and chicken broth. To make this recipe vegan (the first vegan recipe on Maestro Eats!), use veggie broth instead of chicken broth, and just double check that there aren't any animal products in your bean paste. The recipe often includes ground pork or beef, but we omitted.
Once the sauce reduced, I added cubes of firm tofu, chili oil, and some chives (recipe calls for scallions, but I was fresh out!). I combined and cooked for a few minutes before sliding the mixture out of the wok and into a bowl.
For the green beans, I trimmed the beans and coated in a bit of sesame oil and salt/pepper before putting into the air fryer at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. You can also dry fry the greens in the wok with a little bit of oil, or under the broiler. For the condiment to mix, add the rest of the garlic and ginger to oil over medium heat, and then add a bit of ground Sichuan peppercorns and scallions (or chives!) and cook for a bit until fragrant. Once the beans have been air-fried, add them to the hot walk for just a bit, along with the condiment, and stir until combined, serving family-style alongside the tofu.
You'll want a healthy side of white rice to go with this and absorb the heat. The tofu will be delightfully complex, salty, and spicy, with the numbing sting of the Sichuan peppercorns and the fire of chilis and other spices. The green beans will have a bit of the same flavor, but without the simultaneous numb and scorch of the tofu.
When eating such fiery cuisine, alcohol can only increase the burn. As silly as it sounds, I like milk with spicy food––fat helps numb the sting. We are, however, enjoying an absolutely magnificent Kobler Vineyard viognier from Donelan in Sonoma County while watching some Boston Legal re-runs. It's been a productive Memorial Day, as you can see!
I have implemented a new schedule for postings over the next few weeks: I'll post a Quarantine Cuisine recipe early each week, a "Throwback Thursday" restaurant or travel review on Thursdays, and a Quarantini Series on Saturdays. Hopefully this will make things predictable for a while, and also clear out some of the backlog of posts I have in my Drafts folder!
Hope everyone had a great holiday weekend! Cheers to the week––if you go out to buy things, shop local!