Heartwarming, homely and utterly delicious, this is one of the most famous Sichuanese dishes, and epitomises the spicy generosity of the folk cooking of the region. The Sichuan pepper will make your lips tingle pleasantly, and the tender tofu will slip smoothly down your throat. Serve it alongside rice and some delicate greens.
500g plain white tofu
6 tbsp cooking oil
100g minced beef
2½ tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste
1 tbsp fermented black beans
2 tsp ground chillies
1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
175ml stock or water
¼ tsp ground white pepper
2 stalks Chinese green garlic or 2 spring onions, cut into 2cm lengths
1 tbsp potato starch, mixed with 2½ tbsp cold water
¼ -1 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1. Cut the tofu into 2cm cubes and leave to steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Heat a seasoned wok over a high flame. Pour in 1 tbsp of the cooking oil and heat until the sides of the wok have begun to smoke. Add the beef and stir-fry until it is fully cooked and fragrant, breaking the clumps of meat into tiny pieces as you go. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.
3. Rinse and dry the wok if necessary, then re-season it and return to a medium flame. Pour in remaining cooking oil and swirl it around. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red colour and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chillies and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too, then do the same with the garlic and ginger. Take care not to overheat the aromatics – you want to end up with a thick, fragrant sauce, and the secret is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavours.
4. Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated ladle, shaking off any excess liquid, and lay it gently into the wok. Sprinkle over the beef, then add the stock or water and white pepper. Nudge the tofu tenderly into the sauce with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to avoid breaking up the cubes. Bring to the boil, then simmer for a couple of minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours of the seasonings.
5. If you're using green garlic, stir this in now. When just cooked, add a little of the potato starch mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat this twice more, until the sauce clings deliciously to the seasonings and tofu (don't add more than you need). If you're using spring onion, add this now, nudging it gently into the sauce.
6. Pour everything into a deep serving bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.
This is an edited extract from The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop (Bloomsbury), RRP $55.