Posts Tagged 'food'

The Best Mapo Tofu

I discovered Sichuan food a year and a half ago and, unexpectedly, gained a new hobby. Since then, I’ve cooked my way through much of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. I’ve eaten Sichuan in New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Shanghai, and Beijing. I’ve spent hours trying figure out which of the myriad mysterious Chinese-labeled ingredients on the shelves at Uwajimaya were the ones I was looking for, and trying to interpret the inconsistent and often non-descriptive translations on Chinese menus. (Recently, to aid in my Chinese restaurant ordering, I copied the Chinese characters and phonetic transcriptions for my favorite dishes and many basic food terms onto a card that I carry in my wallet. I really did this.)

One of my favorite dishes is Mapo Tofu. When done well, it’s so delicious and comforting: warm, salty, spicy, and tingly with Sichuan peppercorn. I’ve tried it at many different restaurants and had some versions that were instantly forgettable and some that I still think about months later.

It’s also incredibly easy to make at home, once you have a few basic ingredients in the pantry. The recipe below–in which I combined elements of several different recipes I tried–is my current favorite. Since I first started cooking Chinese, for better or worse, I’ve become more comfortable using lashings of oil, so these days, I’m more apt to make this version–which is still less oily than many restaurant versions–than the modified version I was making last year. (Disclaimer: I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert, and I make no claims about what is authentic. This is just what I like the best, after a fair amount of sampling and experimentation.)


Peanut or vegetable oil

Block of tofu, cut into bite-size squares (I like fresh, silken tofu the best, but firm will also do just fine)

About 6 oz. of ground pork

2-3 tablespoons Sichuan spicy bean paste

2-3 tablespoons chili oil

1-2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorn powder (Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground to a powder)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon fermented black beans, chopped

3 green onions, chopped

2 gloves garlic, chopped

1 cup chicken stock

1.5 teaspoons cornstarch, mixed with a little water


Heat a little oil in a wok or skillet and add pork. Cook pork until almost done. Add Sichuan bean paste, chili oil, and garlic, and cook for a minute or two. Add soy sauce and fermented black beans and cook for another minute or two. When pork is cooked through, add stock and tofu. Stir gently to mix everything well, and bring to a simmer. Add cornstarch/water mixture and stir until glossy and thickened. Add green onions and Sichuan peppercorn and remove from heat. Serve with rice.


I’m turning into a food hoarder.

One of the things I’m adjusting to, moving to the country, is buying groceries ahead of time.

Before we moved, I bought every dinner just before we ate it. I tried to keep breakfast and lunch on hand (at least when I was working at home) but I never bought groceries for making dinner before the day I needed them. Everything was within easy walking distance, and I’d decide what to cook for dinner according to my daily whim.

Now, there’s a grocery store across the street from our new place, but the selection is limited. I need to plan ahead if I’m going to be able to make whatever I want for dinner, or face a 40-minute round trip drive to reach other stores with a bigger selection. (Or a 2-hour bike ride, probably in the rain, since we only have one car.)

I’ve been out driving around and shopping a lot — doing a lot of moving-related errands which are thankfully almost done — and so I’ve been trying to stock our pantry and refrigerator by picking up food whenever I’m near a grocery store. Snacks, in case people stop by. Cookie-baking supplies. A chicken for roasting in the near future. Ingredients to go with the chorizo I picked up in Seattle the other day.

It feels unnatural. My default position on buying stuff is to not buy it. This is obviously a good habit in some ways: it probably saves money, and it keeps us from collecting too many things and creating clutter.



It can also be bad, or at least inefficient, like when I refuse to buy more than four rolls of toilet paper at the same time. (When I lived by myself, I bought them one at a time, so the four-pack is a concession.) This drives my husband crazy, and he responds by buying ever-larger bulk packs of toilet paper and paper towels. He outdid himself when we moved; we now own a truly outlandish stock of paper goods.

My reluctance to acquire things is also a negative in the case of elastic hairbands, which I search for beneath beds and behind couches and treasure like family heirlooms, even when they’ve lost all elasticity and are coated in spidery tangles of hair that make my husband shy away in horror. I should clearly just buy new ones, but it rarely feels necessary enough to compel action on my part.

So haphazardly buying all this food we don’t technically need at the moment I’m buying it and aren’t going to immediately consume goes against years of habit. It raises a faint warning bell in my head that  I’m turning into a food hoarder and that it won’t stop until we’re sleeping on the floor amid piles of stale rice crackers, rotting feta cheese, and aging chorizo from DeLaurenti in Seattle. It probably won’t turn out that way, but for now, it is a genuine adjustment.

Cookies, and working from home.

Three Girls Bakery in the Pike Place Market has delicious cookies. They taste like they are 50 percent butter, and the texture is a perfect combination of softness, firmness, and chewiness. This is the third day in a row I’ve stopped there for an afternoon snack.

This is one of the reasons I love working at home so much: when I was ready for an afternoon break today I decided to walk through the market to pick up what I needed for dinner and look for stocking stuffers. I also found a good new source of Sichuan peppercorn for my Chinese cooking experiments, Market Spice. All in all, it was so much nicer than taking the elevator down to a Starbucks and back up to my office without going outside or seeing anything different on the way.

I also took a break this morning to try to make my cat ride the Roomba, which obviously is very important and would never happen in an office.

Now I’m just wasting time, and I should either go for a run or go back to work. I suppose this is the peril of working from home, along with never taking a shower or wearing anything but yoga clothes.

Ni hao—your duck! Adventures in eating in Beijing.

I just spent 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing. Second to visiting some good friends of my husband who live in Shanghai, eating lots of delicious Chinese food was my top priority for the trip.

There were a few bumps in the road—including an inadvertent trip to Subway and a run-in with some aptly named “chou doufu” (literally, “stinky tofu”) and otherwise forgettable street food on Wanfujing Snack Street—but we mostly succeeded.

Almost everything we ate was yummy, but here are the three most memorable things we sampled.

1. Peking Duck. We went to Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck, listed in Lonely Planet. It was big, bright, busy, and expensive compared to other restaurants we went to in Beijing (but not that expensive compared to restaurants at home). I have no idea if there are better places for Peking Duck in Beijing, but we were totally satisfied with our meal and the ambience.

We ordered a couple of soups and a whole roast duck.

our duck

After the soup, which was tasty, our duck arrived along with the chef who was carving it. A waitress popped up and pointed it out to us with an economical: “Ni hao. Your duck.”

We received a plate of sliced duck and two plates of condiments, some of which we didn’t recognize: sliced onion, plum sauce, thin pancakes, one hollow bun, something pink, something pickled, and so on, including a small amount of sugar.

A waitress popped up again to give us instructions on how to eat our duck. The most surprising part was dipping the skin in the sugar. I’m not a huge meat-eater, and I tend to shy away from things like skin and fat. But the crispy brown duck skin dipped in sugar was a revelation. It tasted like doughnuts, but richer, crispy and melting in my mouth. It was delicious, and unlike anything I’d ever eaten before.

the whole spread

The rest of the meal was also quite fine. I’m still not sure I’m a big fan of duck, but smothered in plum sauce and wrapped in a delicate pancake with fresh slices of onion it was inevitably tasty. The duck was followed with duck soup and fresh fruit.

2. Tofu with chili sauce at Xhang Ma Ma. This was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with no English menu or pictures that our hotel sent us to, along with a printed-out order in Chinese characters that we dutifully handed to the waitress after a long wait for table on a Friday night. We tried four dishes and all were delicious, but the tofu dish was the most memorable. I don’t know whether it is a traditional dish or unique to the restaurant, or what the English translation of the Chinese characters on our printed-out order is, but it was slices of fresh, soft tofu served with a chili oil-based dipping sauce.

tofu prior to devouring

I eat a lot of tofu, and this was the best I’ve ever had. I usually think of tofu as an innocuous medium for whatever sauce I’m eating it with, but this had its own delicate, slightly salty flavor. I would have eaten it alone. But the dipping sauce, heavy with Sichuan peppercorn, chilis, and sesame seeds, was intoxicating.

yummy dark-red chili sauce

We inhaled it with tingling mouths and went back the next day to gulp down some more before hurrying to catch a taxi to the airport.

3. “Stir-fried Beef with Pepper.” Alas, I didn’t think to write down the Chinese characters for this vaguely translated dish and again, I don’t know whether it is traditional or created by the restaurant.

We had this at a restaurant called Club Camp, which (according to the internet) specializes in Yunnan food, in Chaoyang. We wandered into it the night we arrived in Beijing. It was late, we were hungry, and we were unsuccessfully looking for a different restaurant listed in our guidebook. Despite the unappealing name of the restaurant, the food was outstanding, and we went back for a second meal when we were in the area two days later.

This was our favorite dish of the several we tried. It was fiery, one of the spiciest things we ate in China, and incredibly flavorful. The second time we dined there, we played food detective and inspected it to try to figure out everything that was in it. Our list includes beef, fresh peppers of some sort, dried chilis, cumin, anise, peanuts, fermented black beans, sesame seeds, and scallions, but I’m sure I’m still missing some things. Suffice it to say, it was a flavor explosion and again unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

In the week I’ve been home, I’ve purchased two Chinese cookbooks, been to the Asian grocery store twice, and cooked Chinese food four times (tonight, Dan Dan Noodles from Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty). Needless to say, Beijing made an impression.

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