This is a lovely dish from the province of Szechuan, China, with an equally loverly story attached to its origin which may be read here. Only a handful of Chinese restaurants abroad ever offer this dish, for it isn’t a quick stir-fry: it is a simmered, stew-like dish with a bit of preliminary prep-work involved. Traditionally, a small quantity of ground pork (or beef) is included, and hitherto I have followed suit.
When I received an Arusuvai Friendship Chain gift of extremely-fresh, Szechuan peppercorns sent by the ever-talented Musical, I set to work almost immediately to prepare this long-time favorite which prominently features this tongue-numbing spice. I sat there, nibbling daintily away at a plateful with freshly-steamed rice, resisting an urge to shovel it in greedily (it is so delicious…) when a few thoughts struck me: truly, it is the finely-balanced sauce which dominates the flavour….the ground pork lends a gentle sweetness, but mostly the pieces serve as a textural counterpoint to the soft bean-curd…
And then, within a span of a few days, two jolting pieces of information crossed my path: first, I discovered the PETA videos posted on Youtube.com (I won’t go into detail here, but it would be sufficient to say that I saw things which I will not soon forget); second, the family chiropractor sent us his usual monthly newsletter. Most often this contains useful tidbits that he gleans from his personal wanderings in Ayurveda-land, but this time he included a brief summary of the findings of recent research that linked the consumption of animal protein to inflammation, and specifically a link to various forms of arthritis. And then…Jai of Jugalbandi wrote this post– furthur cementing my new convictions. So, I decided to make my consumption of animal protein an even rarer occasion than it already is. And I began to think of a new way to make ma po tofu…
Over the years, I’ve tried a few different recipes, but I really liked the one found in Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. It’s so delicious. And I knew it would be delicious still without a half-pound of pork. But what to add in its place? TVP (textured vegetable protein) is an obvious choice; it closely replicates the chewy texture of meat, but… I don’t like to rely on a factory-made product too much, nor does it add a whole lot in flavour…
Mushrooms. I’ve sometimes added various types of mushrooms to this dish anyway… they’re somewhat chewy…they would add a subtle flavour… but how will I convert them into little pieces like that? The ways are endless… Walnuts. Coarsely-ground. Delicately-sweet, and they are also used frequently in China. Use both.
But first, who will I pass on the Arusuvai “torch” to? Hmmm…good question. Truly, no-one answered my riddle correctly. However… two people were quite close:
Linda of Out of the Garden answered “tofu” correctly (but seasoned differently)…and
Zlamushka of her own Spicy Kitchen answered “Ma…” correctly (but named another Szechuanese dish).
Since these two were the closest, I invited them to be my recipients of a little suprise…and they have both accepted the offer. Congratulations to both of you!
And now, Mushroom Meal!!!:
I took 1/2 pound (8 oz.) of plain old “button” mushrooms (they’re popular for a reason) and shredded them into a moist heap. But, not wanting shreddy-strands in my dish, I dehydrated this (I used an electric food-dehydrator, but an oven on a low-heat setting will work as well). Then, I took these dried shreds and smashed them into a coarse, granular powder in a mortar…the restrained use of an electric mixer/grinder or food processor will do the job just as nicely. We all end up with about 2-3 tablespoons. I suppose the same could be done to already-dried (stems removed) shiitake/Chinese black mushrooms- though I think their flavour would be too dominant here- but perhaps another milder-flavoured ‘shroom?…
Ma Po Doufu/Tofu
(Pel’s vegan version based on Mrs. Kuo’s)
3 blocks of firm tofu (original recipe calls for 4- 3″X3″ blocks…generally, American blocks are a bit larger)
2 T peanut (or other) oil
4 slices of peeled, fresh ginger; minced
1/2 C coarsely-ground raw walnuts
2-3 T mushroom meal (dried, coarsely-ground mushrooms– see above)
1 T Chinese cooking-wine, or dry sherry
1 T hot bean paste (AKA Szechuan bean paste)
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
1 t or more, to taste, red chile oil* (optional)
1 C lightly-salted chana broth (liquid from cooking chickpeas/garbanzo beans) or other vegetable-stock
2 t cornstarch dissolved in 1 T cold water
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
2 t roasted sesame-seed oil
2 whole spring onions (I used more cuz I like ’em: 6), thinly sliced
1/2 t (or more if you like) lightly dry-roasted and crushed Szechuan peppercorns
1)Cut the bean-curd into 1/2″ cubes; cover with hot water and drain just before adding.
2)Heat the peanut oil in a wok over med-low flame; add the ginger and fry until fragrant; add the walnuts and fry just until they begin to smell roasted.
3)Add 1 C of hot water and the mushroom meal; bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally at first and then more frequently, until the mixture is fairly dry and the mushrooms have reconstituted- about 20 minutes.
4)Add the seasonings and stir well; add the chana or vegetable broth.
5)Drain the bean-curd and scatter these into the pan; stir very gently to even these out; bring to a gentle boil, cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes over med-low heat, stirring once during this time.
6)Stir the binding sauce well, then pour in a spiral over the contents of the pan; stir gently until the sauce thickens; turn off heat.
7)Gently fold in the spring onions;
8)Turn onto a serving-platter and sprinkle the ground peppercorns over the top; serve with hot steamed rice. You will assuredly enjoy! (Did I mention this is delicious?)
*Red chile oil can be bought, or simply made this way: heat 1 C oil until quite hot; remove from heat and add 6 T (3/8 C) ground red chiles (stand back, the fumes will irritate your breathing apparatus), stir gently for about a minute, then add 1 C more of oil to halt the frying. Allow to cool completely, strain through a musin cloth or several layers of cheesecloth and pour into a bottle. Besides being a useful cooking-sauce, it can also be used as an ingredient in dipping-sauces and salad-dressings… hotness yum!
Well, no…actually I was just browsing through one of my cookbooks and came across this recipe for steamed buns with a sweet red-bean filling(ma yung bao, for those interested). I recall making them a few years back for one of my ex’s, but perhaps you know how things like food become associated with past moments and people, and how you can find yourself “forgetting” certain dishes for awhile…well, I see no need to deprive myself of these any longer. Time goes on. Time heals all wounds, and, as my granny used to say, “Time wounds all heels…”
Unfortunately, granny wasn’t Chinese, so Confucious, you need not worry dear- your position is safe! But grandma-ma did take a Chinese cooking class several years ago, though I don’t think she was able to use her new-found skills much, as grandpa was a sworn “meat-n-potatoes”-kind-of-guy, but… I think she would have loved these! Truly. Perfect with tea, or an anytime-little-treat. Travels well too.!
Ma Yung Bao
(Chinese steamed buns filled with sweet red-bean paste)
For the red bean paste:
1 C adzuki/red chori (more info here)
3 lumps of gur/jaggery, crushed- or any sugar of your preference to taste
a pinch of salt
1) Take the adzuki/chori, rinse them in a few changes of water, then cover well with water and soak for 4 hours or so (this step can probably be skipped). Place beans and water to cover an inch or so in a pressure cooker and cook (at 15 lbs of pressure) for 10 minutes. Allow to cool and the pressure to fall.
2)Then, remove the cover and bring to a gentle boil and evaporate as much water away as possible, stirring gently now and then. When it begins to catch, remove from heat.
3)Puree the beans in food processor until a smooth paste is achieved, or, if you like, you may take small portions and bang away in a mortar-and-pestle or sill-batta to achieve a paste.
4)Return the paste to a pan, set it over low heat and add the sugar and salt. Stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely*. This can be stored for a very, very long time in the refrigerator without spoiling.
5)Alternatively, sweet red bean paste may be purchased in a can, but I’ve tried it and trust me, this is way better and not too difficult.
For the buns**:
1 t active dry yeast
1 T sugar (some recipes use more- up to 1/4 C)
1/4 C lukewarm water
3 1/2 C all-purpose flour/maida
1 T solid fat (I used ghee, but Chinese recipes traditionally use lard)
3/4 C lukewarm water
1)Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 C of water. Set aside.
2)Rub the fat into the flour until crumbly and well-mixed, then add yeast mixture and remaining 3/4 C of water to form a slightly sticky dough. Adjust with flour/water as necessary.
3)Turn out onto a floured work-surface and knead for 5 minutes. Dust more flour if it is too sticky. At the end it should be smooth and springy. Set in a large bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and place in a warm place to rise for about 2 hours- until it has doubled in size.
4)Punch the dough down and re-cover it for about 30 minutes to rise and double in size again. At the end of this return the dough to the work-surface and knead 5 minutes again.
5)Take the dough and roll it into a long “log” about 2″ wide. Cut this in half, and then cut each half into portions that, when rolled into a ball, will be about 2″ in diameter. I didn’t do this… I just pinched off balls of dough; you get a feel for the appropriate size.
6)Take each ball of dough and flatten them between your palms and then roll out to about a 4-5″ circle, dusting top and the rolling surface with a pinch of flour.
7)Place a heaping tea-spoon of filling in the centre.
8)Then, make pleats along the outer edge as shown, pinching each to seal; gather the set of pleats and pinch while turning and slowly releasing the dough as you go. It takes some practice; I didn’t really get it right until the last few were produced, but no matter how they look, they’ll taste fine in the end!
9)Set these on grease-proof/waxed paper, laying the damp cloth gently over, to rise for 30 minutes or so.***
10)Line a steamer tray (or heat-proof plate within a steaming apparatus) with a damp cloth and place the buns within, leaving ample room around each to allow for furthur expansion during steaming. Steam for 15 minutes.****
11)Remove the steaming container from the steam underneath (carefully to avoid steam-burns) and allow the buns to cool and the remaining steam to escape before lifting the lid. (A sudden temperature change will cause the buns’ surface to crack). Then remove and serve. These can be made ahead and re-heated in the steamer for a few minutes if you wish, though I find they are still delightful at room temperature.
Here are pics of the rolling and filling:
*Some recipes for this paste require heating a small amount of roasted sesame-seed oil (3 T) in a pan before adding the paste, and also adding preserved cassia blossoms (2 t) as a flavouring, but I am unable to locate this in my city.
**This seems to be the preferred dough for this, but when I made these previously, I used a “quick” method that incorporated baking soda or powder instead of yeast. Some writers even suggest ready-made, refrigerated ”Parker house roll” dough (such as Pillsbury brand) as a quick substitute, but you know me…
***Some recipes invert them- pleats down- after this point.
****Some recipes brush the buns with roasted sesame-seed oil.
Oh! And before I forget…I discovered a very good way to use spent coffee-grounds and the juice from salted cucumbers! It’s my own little invention. [assumes a smug expression]
Take a large spoonful of moist coffee-grounds, add some juice that was squeezed from salted cukes, and a little yoghurt…voila!
A chemical-free, energizing facial-scrub! Just be careful not to get any in your eyes, as it doesn’t feel very good. (I know this from experience, perhaps.)