MA PO DOU FU (vegetarian version, for six)
one 1-1/4 pound plain white tofu
4 baby leeks or spring onions, green parts only
4 tablespoons cooking oil
2-1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste
1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons ground red chiles (optional)
1 tablesppoon finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
½ cup vegetable stock or water
¼ teaspoon finely ground white pepper
2 tablespoons potato flour mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water
¼ to ½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1.Cut the tofu into ¾ inch cubes and leave t o steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients (do not allow the water to boil or the tofu will become porous and less tender). Slice the baby leeks or spring onion greens at a steep angle into thin “horse ears.”
2. Heat a wok over a high flame. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl it around. Reduce heat to medium, add the chili bean paste and stir fry until the oil is a rich red color and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chile (if using) and stir fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them, too. Then do the same with the ginger and garlic. Take care not to overheat the seasonings, you want a thick, fragrant sauce and the secret of this is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavors and aromas.
3. Remove the tofu from the hot water with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess water, and lay it gently in the wok. Push the tofu tenderly with the back of your spoon to mix it with the sauce without breaking up the cubes. Add the stock or water, the white pepper and salt to taste and mix gently, again using the back of your spoon so you don’t damage the tofu.
4. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes to allow the tofu to absord the flavors of the seasonings. Add the leek slices (if using) and nudge them into the sauce. When they are just tender, add a little of the flour and water mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat once or twice more, until the sauce clings to the seasonings and tofu (don’t add more than you need). If you spring onions rather than leeks, add them now and nudge them gently into the sauce.
5. Pour the tofu into a deep bowl. Sprinkle with ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.
from Fuchsia Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice