One of my ambitions, when embarking upon this Lenten challenge, was to embrace beancurd. I’ve never really liked its slightly eggy texture, or milky blandness, but 40 days of vegetarianism seemed like ample opportunity to reconcile myself to the stuff. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw my opportunity – a friend on Twitter posted a link to a vegetarian version of a famous Sichuan dish, MaoPo tofu, traditionally made with pork or beef, by bloggers Yasmin at Le Sauce, and Jenny Gao of jing theory. Now, ever since hearing Fuchsia Dunlop speak at Taste of London a few years back, and devouring her seriously brilliant memoir of her time in the province, Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper, I’ve been mildly obsessed with Sichuan food, whose virtues are amply displayed in the name of my favourite starter, hot and numbing beef. So this seemed promising.
Having gathered a motley mixture of tofu aficionados (Anna, Bethan and Liz), tofu takers or leavers (Rhys and Ian) and tofu deniers (Jot and myself), I set about planning my menu – because obviously I wasn’t going to put my trust entirely in beancurd. As well as Yasmin and Jenny’s MaoPo tofu, I made a selection of cold starters, in obedience to Fuchsia’s observation that ‘a Sichuanese feast always begins with a teasing spread of cold dishes to arouse the senses, open the stomach … and set the mood for the meal to come.’
So, with the help of her Sichuan Cookery, and five different Chinese grocers and supermarkets, I made the following:
The wonderfully named strange-flavour peanuts, encased in a ‘crisp fudgey paste’ made from salt, sugar, rice vinegar, chilli powder and roasted Sichuan pepper (which has a curious tingly, slightly citric flavour) …
I managed to get this wrong the first time – Fuchsia suggests heating the sugar solution to 125C, which, according to my (presumably faulty) thermometer, is a temperature more associated with black treacle than syrup, and resulted in an enormous bitter black hedgehog of nuts that went straight in the bin. The second time around, and running out of peanuts, I was perhaps a little too cautious, and the nuts, although tasty, weren’t terribly sticky. Next up, soy bean pods blanched with ginger, dried chillis and Sichuan pepper (discovering you could buy these things unpodded has saved me a fortune in itsu):
…then spicy cucumber salad, which reeled me in with step 4, ‘heat a wok over a high heat … add the cucumber pieces and stir and toss for about 10 seconds.’ Cooked cucumber, an idea that’s intrigued me ever since reading Julie and Julia, was a shoe-in. These are some funny little ones I found in one of the local greengrocers:
I salted them, squeezed the excess water out, then briefly tossed with dried chillis and Sichuan pepper, and served drizzled with sesame oil.
I absolutely love salted cucumbers, I’d definitely make this again.
Steamed aubergines with chilli sauce – a bit of a hit. Never steamed an aubergine before, but, as someone (Liz?) pointed out, it’s a clever way to stop them sponging up vast amounts of oil. The sauce was made from light soy sauce, Chinkian vinegar, sugar, chilli and sesame oils. I’m guessing that it’s served as a dipping sauce for that very reason – toss them both together and you may as well have deep fried them (mmmm…)
Lettuce with sesame sauce: not the prettiest of dishes, I concede, but I’m a sucker for cooked lettuce. The sauce, made from light soy, sesame oil and tahini, added an oddly Ottolenghi-ish touch to the meal.
Finally the star attraction – the tofu. Fuchsia’s recipe included the traditional minced beef garnish, but Jenny and Yasmin’s cleverly substitutes mushrooms instead, which provide a similar depth of savoury flavour without offending my deep-set principles. With it we had Jasmine rice, and some stir-fried greens with copious amounts of garlic.
I’m pleased to boast I am an utter convert to the joys of tofu in this specific context (I remain to be convinced more generally). The sauce is so intensely flavoured – aromatic, hot, savoury with femented beans – that any other protein would have been too much. The silky, creamy blandness of beancurd, however, sets it off beautifully. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, the next evening, I ordered the same dish (well, without the mushrooms, but also without the meat) at Bar Shu (see, I told you I liked Sichuan food). In fact, everyone claimed to enjoy it; perhaps it was the Chinese beer I found on offer in Morrisons:
Last up, the dish I was secretly most excited about – pudding. I couldn’t find any Sichuan desserts that appealed (sweet potato cakes sounded like they’d go down like a carb balloon after that lot), so I cheated and skipped a few thousand miles south to recreate one of the jellies I loved so much in Singapore a couple of years ago.
These are made with appropriately lurid agar agar powder and coconut milk, flavoured with pandan leaf: although the set was disconcertingly firm (something I seem to remember was true at the time too), they went down a treat. (The recipe in my Singaporean recipe book called for me to fold a beaten egg white into the mixture, but this spoilt the slippery texture, so I didn’t bother for the green batch – not sure what benefit it would bring?)
Poor Ian sadly couldn’t make it, on account of having inconveniently broken his jaw, so this picture is for him. (Hopefully he might have progressed on to something slightly more solid than jelly by this time.)
Mission accomplished. Finally I see the point of beancurd: ma po dou fu. Next stop, a chocolate tofu cake that came up in conversation on Saturday. It can’t be worse than our Delia’s efforts with instant mash, surely.