Friday, April 20, 2007
It's raining buckets here in SoCal today. Ordinarily that makes me want soup but I don't have any soup recipes in my queue, so about about something hot and spicy instead?
These are Sichuan/Szechuan/Szechwan peppercorns. Despite their name, they're not related to black peppercorns or chili peppers. However, they do create that ma la (numb hot) sensation characteristic of Sichuan cuisine.
The numbing comes in handy when eating the tons of chili peppers that are part of so many Sichuan dishes. They have a lemony flowery aroma, so you'll know if you're getting the real thing, or just lots of chili peppers instead. How numbing are they? Well, let's just say in the interests of giving first-hand testimony for my blog, I popped just one little Sichuan peppercorn hull (not even the peppercorn) in my mouth and chewed. My tongue and lips immediately felt like I got a shot of novacaine.
Sichuan peppercorns were banned from importation in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 because they could potentially carry a citrus canker, a bacteria harmful to citrus crops. The ban was only loosely enforced until 2002. And for a while, Sichuan peppercorns were nearly impossible to find in stores or in restaurants. The ban was lifted in 2005. I recently bought a 4-oz bag of Sichuan peppercorns at the Asian grocery store for $1.99.
Ma po tofu (pockmarked old lady's tofu) is so named because of a legend about a leprous old lady who lived on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Chengdu. Her house was near a road and one night a poor farmer and his son sought shelter from a storm. So happy to have company (on account of her leprosy and all you know), she raided her meager pantry to prepare them a meal. Using just a few ounces of pork, tofu, and Sichuan peppercorns, she created a spicy, piquant, tofu dish. It was so tasty that others sought her out for the dish as well, and later named it after her.
Is this story true? There's similarities of pronunciation and form in the Chinese character for "leprous" and the character for "numb." But outside of that, I guess we'll never know.
Ma Po Tofu (Chinese Pockmarked Old Lady's Tofu)
1 package soft tofu (The original recipe calls for soft tofu, but I prefer firm because it's easier to cook with since it doesn't fall apart.)
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, or more if you can stand it. (I grind mine with a mortar and pestle to release the aroma and oils in the peppercorns.)
A few ounces of pork, minced finely
Chili peppers, as many as you can stand, the more the better
1 tblsp fermented bean curd
1 tblsp soy sauce
2 tsp black bean sauce
2 tblsp of corn starch dissolved in 1/2 cup of broth, or water if you don't have any broth available.
Optional: 2 scallions, sliced thinly, and a small bunch of cilantro, minced.
Slice tofu into 1-inch cubes. Set aside. Dissolve cornstarch in broth, or water, and set aside.
In a dry wok or saute pan on high heat, lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers to release the oils and fragrance. Then drizzle a tablespoon or so of sesame oil and saute the minced pork for about a minute. Add the fermented bean curd, black bean sauce, and soy sauce. Mash the bean curd if it's still in a cube, and make sure to mash the sauce into the meat until thoroughly mixed. Add the cornstarch broth and mix again. Give it a few minutes for the cornstarch to thicken the sauce and then add the tofu cubes. Stir everything again.
If you wish, for a bit of color, I like to add minced cilantro and sliced scallions.
Serve with rice.
Who else made this dish?
Amy of Nook & Pantry made hers with silken tofu.
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2006-2013 by Wandering Chopsticks.