Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pock-Marked Woman's Bean Curd

Great name for a dish, no? I find it irresistible as apparently did the local Hunanese in whichever of the myriad versions of how the dish acquired its name. A common version is that Ma Pó was a poor woman badly scarred by leprosy who lived on the outskirts of Chengdu at some time between 1800 and last month who survived by hawking this wondrous combination of silky bean curd, minced pork (or in some versions beef or lamb) and vast amounts of chilli and a final spicing of crushed szechuan pepper before serving.

Another version has it created in the first year of the Tongzhi reign (1862) of the Qing Dynasty by Chen Xingsheng Restaurant. The main chef was the wife of Chen Chunfu whose name has been lost in the mists of time, but was known then - and now - for her pockmarked face, a result of small pox, hence the name. She is said to have prepared this spicy, aromatic dish for labourers who laid down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch on their way to the city's markets. Later the restaurant was renamed as the Pockmarked Chen Grandma's Bean Curd Restaurant, which became famous far and wide.

It was one of Mao Zedong's favourite dishes. Mao's successor, Deng Zhou Peng loved it too, preferring it with equal quantities of chilli and pork - he's a braver man than me!

This version comes from Fuchsia Dunlops 'Sichuan Cookery'.

Pock-marked Mother Chen's beancurd 'ma po dou fu'

1 block of beancurd (about 500g)
4 baby leeks or spring onions
100ml groundnut oil
150g minced beef or pork
2½ tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste
1 tablespoon black fermented beans
2 teaspoons ground Sichuanese chillies (only for chilli fiends)
250ml vegetable stock
1 teaspoon white sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
salt to taste
3 tablespoons potato flour mixed with 4 tablespoons cold water
½ teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Cut the beancurd into 2cm cubes and leave to steep in very hot or gently simmering water which you have lightly salted. Slice the leeks or spring onions at a steep angle into thin 'horse-ear' slices.

Season the wok, then add the groundnut oil and heat over a high flame until smoking. Add the minced beef and stir-fry until it is crispy and a little brown, but not yet dry.

Turn the heat down to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until the oil is a rich red colour. Add the black fermented beans and ground chillies and stir-fry for another 20-30 seconds until they are both fragrant and the chillies have added their colour to the oil.

Pour in the stock, stir well and add the drained beancurd. Mix it in gently by pushing the back of your ladle or wok scoop gently from the edges to the centre of the wok - do not stir or the beancurd may break up. Season with the sugar, a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce and salt to taste. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until the beancurd has absorbed the flavours of the sauce.

Add the leeks or spring onions and gently stir in. When they are just cooked, add the potato flour mixture in two or three stages, mixing well, until the sauce has thickened enough to cling glossily to the meat and beancurd. Don't add more than you need. Finally, pour everything into a deep bowl, scatter with the ground Sichuan pepper and serve.

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