Never thought of cooking Chinese food at home? You're not alone, but Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop may change that tune. Cooking columnist Sybil Pratt writes, "Chinese cooking can be elegant, complex and daunting. . . . Over the centuries, Chinese home cooks have learned to cook and eat in a frugal, healthy way, making vegetables and grains sing with flavor while using meat, poultry and fish sparingly."

It's our Top Pick in Cookbooks for February, and it's an excellent excuse to try your hand at a brand new cuisine—or to perfect a favorite!

Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu (Vegetarian Version)
Ma Po Dou Fu

Mapo doufu is one of the best-loved dishes of the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu. It is named after the wife of a Qing Dynasty restaurateur who delighted passing laborers with her hearty braised tofu, cooked up at her restaurant by the Bridge of 10,000 Blessings in the north of the city. The dish is thought to date back to the late nineteenth century. Mrs. Chen’s face was marked with smallpox scars, so she was given the affectionate nickname ma po, “Pock-marked Old Woman.”

The dish is traditionally made with ground beef, although many cooks now use pork. This vegetarian version is equally sumptuous. Vegetarians find it addictive: one friend of mine has been cooking it every week since I first taught her the recipe some 10 years ago. In Sichuan, they use garlic leaves (suan miao) rather than baby leeks, but as they are hard to find, tender young leeks make a good substitute, as do spring onion greens. You can also use the green sprouts that emerge from onions or garlic bulbs if you forget about them for a while (as I often do). This dish is best made with the tenderest tofu that will hold its shape when cut into cubes.

  • 1–1 1/4  lb (500–600g) plain white tofu

  • Salt

  • 4 baby leeks or spring onions, green parts only

  • 4 tbsp cooking oil

  • 21/2 tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste

  • 1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and drained

  • 2 tsp ground red chillies (optional)

  • 1 tbsp finely chopped ginger

  • 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic

  • 1/2 cup (100ml) vegetarian stock or water

  • 1/4 tsp ground white pepper

  • 2 tsp potato flour mixed with 2 tbsp cold water

  • 1/41/2 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Cut the tofu into 3/4 in (2cm) cubes and leave to 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.”

Heat a wok over a high flame. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl it around. Reduce the heat to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red color and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chillies (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.

Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated spoon, shaking off excess water, and lay it gently in the wok. Push the tofu tenderly with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to mix it into 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 scoop so you don’t damage the tofu.

Bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes to allow the tofu to absorb 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 are using spring onions rather than leeks, add them now and nudge them gently into the sauce.

Pour the tofu into a deep bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.

Reprinted from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright © 2012 by Fuchsia Dunlop. Photographs copyright © 2012 by Chris Terry. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Read our review of this book.

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