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  1. Grandmother's spicy tofu is an essential Sichuan dish, and graces the menu of every Sichuan restaurant I've ever seen, anywhere in the world. It is quintessential Sichuan food, bursting with flavor and chock full of bold spices. The Chinese name refers to its historical inventor, a grandma with a pockmarked 麻子 face. Yunnan, where I live, has fondly adopted this dish and has made it our own. Not surprising, since we appreciate spicy food here just about as much as they do in Sichuan. After enjoying it for years in restaurants, I've been making it at home these last several months. A major advantage of doing it yourself is that you can adjust the heat of the dish, adapting it somewhat to your likes and dislikes, while still retaining its essential character. But I don't want to mislead you: no matter how you tweak it, this is food for an adventurous palate. It's not white toast or mashed potatoes. Let me show you how I made it yesterday. Like many good things here, it begins with a trip to the market to pick up the best fresh ingredients. I almost always approach these projects by telling the vendor what I intend to make and asking for specific ingredient recommendations. My usual tofu seller reluctantly turned me away. He specializes in tofu from Shiping Town and he told me what I needed for this recipe could be had for half as much money just across the alley. (As always, click the photos to enlarge them.) What I needed was "soft" 嫩 tofu, and that's what I got. Neither the silky "flower" tofu 豆花 that falls apart immediately or the "firm" tofu 老豆腐 that is best for sautéing. Will show it to you closer in a minute. I also bought long, tender green garlic greens, plucked before they start to form the characteristic root bulb. These go by the name 蒜苗 or 青蒜 and Sichuan cooks love them. They impart a mild garlic flavor, with some crunch and a fresh note missing from dried cloves of garlic. They are "brighter" as well as more subtle. To the right of the garlic greens in the photo above you see fresh cilantro, complete with roots, stems, and leaves. I bought a handful of these. They have so much more flavor than dried coriander seeds. On to the spice lady now, master of pickled foods and slow-preserved sauces, some of which you see just above. I always get a thrill out of entering her kingdom, and linger as long as I possibly can. She shows me new arrivals and tells me of alternatives to my tried and true selections, tempting me to expand my horizons. My shopping list from her only called for two items, but both were crucial to the success of the venture and neither would admit of any compromise. First was 豆豉, salty fermented black soybeans. These are in the left foreground of the picture above left. The beans are discrete, not mashed into a paste; but note that they aren't black "turtle beans" such as are used in Mexican cooking; they are a special soybean variety. And the star of the seasoning lineup, and one of her specialties, was the rightly famous Pixian douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱。It is shown in the photo above right, in the big bowl on the left-hand side. This magnificent seasoning has often been described as "the soul of Sichuan cuisine." It is made from fermented broad beans and chilies, plus an assortment of auxiliary spices. The best of it takes months or even years to ferment and has so much punch you can smell it across the room. Let me show you now how all this came together in my Kunming kitchen yesterday afternoon. Important side-note: Before anything else, as in most Chinese home cooking, start soaking the rice. It needs a 15 minute pre-soak, and then requires about 30 minutes to boil and steam in my electric rice cooker. I do ingredient prep while the rice gets a head start, but never actually fire up the wok until the rice is completely ready. One prep item was a little out of the ordinary, and that was the essential Sichuan peppercorns 花椒。For this dish they need to be toasted and ground. I used a non-stick skillet with no oil and a marble mortar and pestle. You toast them until they begin releasing their aroma. When you smell them at that moment, it's a reminder that they aren't really peppers at all, they are unusual members of the citrus family. They have a distinct citrus aroma. I used two teaspoons of them. The tofu needs to be cut into cubes and soaked for 20 minutes or so in lightly-salted warm water. This does two things: first it removes any "off" flavors and second, it firms it up a bit so that is easier to handle during cooking. Less likely to fall apart or crumble. Finely sliver or mince some fresh ginger 生姜,enough to make two or three teaspoons. Do the same with two cloves of dry garlic 大蒜 and roughly tear apart three or four dried red chilies 干红辣椒。This is an important juncture because it's where you can easily alter how fiery you want the dish to be. To crank up the heat, use fresh chilies instead of dry ones. Selecting more potent chilies will allow you to earn admission to the "forehead drenched in sweat club" when you eat the finished product. 出汗 Finely cut the garlic greens 蒜苗, fresh cilantro 香菜, and the white of a large spring onion 大葱。I hold back a few of the chopped garlic greens and coriander so I can sprinkle them on the top of the finished dish as a garnish. I do the same with some of the crushed 花椒 toasted and ground Sichuan peppers. The rice just now announced that it was ready. I checked it, gave it a quick stir with a pair of chopsticks, unplugged the cooker and cracked the lid. Gently drain the tofu and set it aside. Everything is now ready to go, including the ground pork. One could use beef instead. I bought about 400 grams of tofu and abut 50 grams of meat. (I buy them by eye and then weigh them afterwards at home.) A ratio of six or eight to one is about right. This is mainly a tofu dish, not a meat dish. Mushrooms can be substituted for the meat if you are vegetarian. I've laid out two heaping tablespoons of douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱 (on the left) and one heaping tablespoon of fermented black beans 豆豉 (on the right.) Used my big knife 菜刀 to finely chop the black beans so they will cook a bit quicker. Add some oil to a hot wok, quickly stir-fry the minced ginger, and add the garlic and dry red peppers when it begins to change color. Taking care not to burn the garlic, next add the ground meat and fry it until it looses it's pink color. Add the chopped garlic greens, cilantro, and spring onion, stirring quickly 翻炒 over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of Shaoxing cooking wine 料酒, and about a cup of chicken stock or water. This is the point at which to add a teaspoon or so of sugar if you think it is getting too spicy. Sugar seems to slightly moderate the heat. Mix everything well and then gently add the tofu, turning the fire to low. Let the tofu cook 2 or 3 minutes with minimal stirring. When you do stir it, do so with the back of your wok tool 锅铲 or ladle 大汤勺, only pushing slowly away from yourself, moving it in one direction only. No vigorous swirling, flipping or back and forth movements that might cause the tofu to fall apart and sort of just disappear. When the tofu has taken on the colors of the sauce in which it is cooking, you can thicken the juices with a mixture of cornstarch 淀粉 and water 水淀粉, prepared ahead of time by mixing one teaspoon of corn starch with two or three teaspoons of water. Don't add too much. The pan juices should just barely coat the back of your spatula or ladle. Don't turn it into a paste. I usually don't put in any extra salt because the beans, bean paste and soy sauce all are salty. Sprinkle on the remainder of the freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns, scoop it all out into a bowl and garnish with some of the reserved greens. This is a dish that is best served right away, while it is hot, straight from the stove. Diners, myself included, often heap some of it directly on top of a bowl of steamed rice and eat it that way. Might mention that some recipes call for adding additional vegetables to turn it into a one-dish meal. Though that's an approach I sometimes take with other Chinese food, I prefer not to risk messing up this classic. After all, it's one of China's "top ten" signature dishes, famous throughout the Middle Kingdom as well as all corners of the "outside world." Give it a try if you are in the mood for something spicy and memorable. It will make your day and it will do it the Sechuan way!
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