My friend Nayan is a talented polymath who claims that he can cook anything. A professionally-trained chef turned itinerant winemaker, Nayan professes to have perfect palate memory: that he can taste something, identify its components, and duplicate it. On Sunday, for the first time, we cooked together. We were both craving spicy food. What started as a vague idea to cook something with chillies turned into a foray into regional Chinese cooking.
When collaborative cooking works, there are few things more fun. Nayan turned up with a sack of provisions from Chinatown and a whiskey hangover. I cunningly gave Nayan my very best knife to use and poured him a shot of Polish vodka I’d picked up during a recent trip to Warsaw. “Nas drovye!” I said. While Nayan chopped vegetables, I flitted about with my camera and minced pork and sliced jellyfish. “This is a very good knife,” he said happily.
We made ma po tofu, a classic Szechuan dish of tofu and pork that’s heavily spicy with chilli, fragrant with fermented black beans and garlic, and laced throughout with the numbing, buzzy tang of Szechuan peppercorns. (Ma Po Tofu means pocked-face grandmother’s bean curd, in a probably apocryphal reference to the woman who supposedly created the dish.) We also made two dishes that were an homage to Ying Chow, Nayan’s favorite Cantonese restaurant in Adelaide, a fabulous spicy pork, jellyfish and celery dish and a fried tofu and edamame dish.
Although ma po tofu is traditionally made with pork, Nayan likes to add chopped shitakes and chopped pickled bamboo shoots for texture. From my perspective, a passable vegetarian version can be made substituting these ingredients for the pork. Either way, while not strictly traditional, they are optional, and delicious.
150 grams (about 1/3 pound) lean pork, finely chopped into mince
200 grams silken tofu, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 tablespoons fermented black beans (if using dried fermented beans, soak in an equivalent amount of hot water for about 20-30 minutes)
2.5 cm ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 small or one large clove garlic, finely chopped
5-6 shitake mushrooms (optional), cut into small dice – if using dried, soak in hot water for about 30 minutes before dicing
1.5 tablespoons pickled bamboo shoots (optional), cut into small dice
4-5 red chillies, finely sliced
1-2 teaspoons chilli paste
2-3 scallions (spring onions), white and pale green parts cut into 1 cm rounds, green parts finely sliced and reserved for garnish.
1-1.5 teaspoons Szechuan peppercorns, toasted in a pan until fragrant and pulverized in a mortar and pestle
3 tablespoons chicken stock (if making a vegetarian version, use a vegetable or mushroom stock)
2-3 tablespoons vegetable or groundnut oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons corn starch (corn flour)
This dish comes together quite quickly, so be sure to complete your prep before starting.
Assemble your ingredients, and combine the soy sauces with the corn starch and water in a bowl and set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan until very hot. Add the minced pork and stir-fry, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until it starts to color. Stir in the fermented black beans and ginger and continue to cook, mashing the beans with your spoon.
Add the garlic, chillies, chilli paste, white and pale green spring onion, and the mushrooms and bamboo shoots (if using), along with the chicken stock. If you have an extractor fan, now would be the time to use it. Otherwise, hop around coughing like an idiot from the chillies.
Stir fry these ingredients for no more than two minutes or so, then add your soy-starch mixture and tofu. Bring this to a boil and bubble, stirring gently, until the tofu is heated through, and your sauce has reduced slightly. (Remember, it will continue to thicken once it has been removed from heat.)
Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. You shouldn’t need more salt because the soy and fermented beans are quite salty, but use your judgment on this. Stir in the Szechuan peppercorns and serve immediately, topped with the minced green part of the spring onions, with rice.
Makes about 4 servings.