Firstly to start with a warning, the authentic version of this recipe is NOT GLUTEN FREE… YET! This is due to a very critical ingredient in Sichuan cuisine called Broadband Paste, Doubanjiang, Toban Djan or even chilli bean paste/sauce (豆瓣酱 – dòu bàn jiàng). Every commercially available version of this paste I can find contains wheat in the form of flour. I’ve used Sriracha hot sauce as an alternative but it’s really no comparison to the real thing. I am also currently in the process of making my own paste, trialling a few recipes and methods. Once I find a recipe which can produce a gluten free version of this paste, then this delicious dish can officially join this blog.
There are many varieties of Broadbean Pastes available, the basic requirement is to look for one made from broadbeans or fava beans which might seem obvious but some use soya beans which can often be the case in southern chinese manufacturers. Next you probably want one which has a dark red colour, this means it has been fermented for a long time giving a greater depth of flavour.
My personal favourite is a spicy version (辣豆瓣酱 – là dòu bàn jiàng where là means “hot”) shown in the picture below on the left called Hot Broadbean Paste which can be found in Wing Yip chinese supermarket. However, if you don’t live near a large Chinese supermarket, the Chilli Bean Sauce on the right is much more commercially available and I was able to buy it in my local Tesco. The flavour is not as strong but still it’s a recipe which has been improved recently. For further options, please read the post by one of my favourite Chinese food chef in the UK, Fuchsia Dunlop.
So I’ve been asked for a vegetarian recipe using primarily tofu. What better recipe than the all time classic Sichuan dish of Mapo Tofu! This iconic dish can be found in any self respecting restaurant claiming to make “chuan cai” along with many restaurants all over China as well as China town.
The legend is the dish was invented by a smallpox scarred old woman (the mapo part) who served it to local labourers around the Qing Dynasty. Recipes for this dish often over complicate things, using too many ingredients and making things rather complex. In essence this is a quick dish with few ingredients but never the less producing maximum flavour!
Traditionally and perhaps unusually for China, it is served with minced beef, but I have always found the vegetarian version I describe below is just as good. The traditional method is also list for those gunning for authenticity.
4 sticks of celery finely sliced (150 g minced beef instead for the traditional method)
300 g silken tofu (other soft to medium tofu is also fine, silken tofu fall apart more easily but I prefer the texture when eating)
4 spring onions, chopped
1 medium red chilli (optional for extra heat and not necessary when using Sriracha), finely chopped
2 tablespoons Sriracha hot chili sauce (broadbean paste for non gluten free version – far superior)
1 tablespoons fermented black beans (Lao Gan Ma blacked beans in chilli oil)
1 teaspoon white sugar
1½ tablespoons Sichuan peppercorn
3 tablespoon groundnut oil or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons all purpose Kikkoman gf soy sauce (or light soy sauce)
3 tablespoons cornflour
200 ml vegetable stock (chicken stock if vegetarianism is not your thing)
1 small/medium wok
1 small non stick pan
pestle and mortar
- Start by toasting the Sichuan peppercorn in a small frying pan, dry, until lightly golden. You should get a distinct aroma from the peppercorn. Transfer to a pestle and mortar, grind to a fine powder.
- Heat the oil in a small wok on high heat until smoking and making sure the base is covered.
- Add the celery and fry for 3 minutes, stir to make sure it doesn’t stick. For mince cook for 5 minutes until browned but still moist.
- Meantime chop the spring onion, chilli and prepare the tofu by cutting into 2 cm cubes. I love working with tofu, cutting it is such a pleasure. The saying knife through butter in the west is replaced with knife through tofu in chinese.
- Add the Sriracha hot chili sauce (hot broadbean paste) and stir for another 30 seconds until fragrant.Then add the fermented black beans and red chilli, fry for another 30 seconds and mix together.
- Add the stock and tofu, mix gently together. Leave to cook on a medium/low heat for 5 minutes. Don’t move the tofu too much as this will cause it to crumble.
- Add the spring onion and mix together. Then mix the cornflour with 5 tablespoons of water. Add the mixture slowly to the dish, use as much as needed to achieve a sticky glossy texture.
- Plate then sprinkle the Sichuan peppercorn powder finely over the dish and it’s ready!