Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sichuan Style Tofu with Aubergine

I had a bad cold at the end of last week and the weekend and when it first hit I wanted comfort food. Spicy comfort food at that.. very spicy. The sort of spicy that gives a cold a cuff round the ear then a hard kick up the arse before flinging it out the door.

I decided, in the end, as I had an aubergine in the fridge, to go for a kind of meatless mapo doufu (tofu) crossed with fish-fragrant aubergine, adding finely chopped shitake mushrooms to replace the meat element of both.

Fish-fragrant aubergine isn’t in fact fishy at all. Fish-fragrant is one of the 23 classic Sichuan flavour combinations with the name actually referring to the method of preparation and ingredients that are associated with traditional Sichuan fish cookery resulting in spicy, sour, salty, and sweet flavors all combined in the one dish.

Mapo Doufu is also known as pock-marked Mother Chen’s beancurd. The story goes that a pock marked old woman (ma = person disfigured by pockmarks and po = old woman), possibly the widow of a Qing dynasty restauranteur, used to prepare this dish for passing traders. Mapo doufu is powerfully spicy with both conventional "heat" and the characteristic "mala" (numbing spiciness) of Sichuan cuisine that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns.

I salted my aubergine for about 30 minutes before cutting into batons, purely because it wasn’t superfresh and I thought may be a little bitter. It ‘s usual to deep fry the aubergine but as I’m trying to eat relatively healthily (ahem) at the moment I stirfried it in a little oil instead until it was all well browned.

The Sichuan chillis and peppercorns should be dry-fried together in a small pan over medium heat until fragrant before grinding using a pestle & mortar. Take care not to burn them though.

The following is predominantly inspired by the recipes for the two dishes mentioned above, found in my trusty standby Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery, and also a little by a recipe seen in a Ching He Huang book.

Sichuan Style Beancurd with Aubergine
Serves 2

2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 aubergine, sliced into 2cm x 4cm batons
3-4 dried shitake mushrooms, rehydrated & finely chopped (soaking water reserved)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 Sichuan chillies lightly dry fried then crushed
¼ tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly dry fried then crushed
2 tbsp hot chilli bean paste, (or to taste)
1 tbsp fermented black beans
250ml vegetable stock
400g firm tofu, cut into 1.5cm squares
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp black rice vinegar
1 tsp palm (or brown) sugar
1 tbsp potato flour mixed with 2 tbsp water
2 spring onions, finely chopped

Heat a wok over a high heat and add half the oil. Add the aubergine and stir-fry for about 8 minutes until browned and softened. If necessary you can add a few splashes of water if the wok is getting too dry to stop it sticking and also help it cook.

Set the aubergine aside on a kitchen roll covered plate.

Add the remaining oil to the wok and when it starts to smoke, add the garlic, mushrooms, ginger and the crushed chillies & peppercorns and stir-fry for 20 seconds or so. Add the hot chilli bean paste & fermented black beans, crushing the black beans a little with the back of a wooden spoon. Stir fry all together for about 30 seconds or so until the oil becomes red and it is all very fragrant.

Add the stock and reserved mushroom water, stirring well before adding the aubergine and fresh tofu squares. Bring to a simmer, carefully stirring (you don’t want to break up the tofu). Add the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Stir in the spring onions and the potato flour mix and cook to thicken for a few minutes.

Serve in a deep bowl (with plain steamed rice if you like) and if you’re as partial to the tingling heat of Sichuan peppercorns as I am, serve with a little more scattered over.

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