Thursday, April 30, 2015


The other day, while eating tofu and rice at a Hunanese place south of Market Street, I remembered the fish from somewhere else. The lovely sauce would have gone equally well with that fish.
Smooth, spicy, but not too bracing.
It's a well-known dish.
You've had it.

To spark your memory, here's a recipe for pockmarked auntie beancurd.

 MA PO TOFU 麻婆豆腐

One block firm tofu (very roughly, one pound).
A quarter pound of ground or minced pork.
2 TBS chili paste (辣椒醬 'laat chiu jeung').
2 TBS Szechuan hot bean paste (辣豆瓣酱 'laat dau baan jeung').
2 TBS cooking oil.
1 TBS chili oil (辣油 'laat yau').
½ TBS Szechuan peppercorns (花椒 'faa chiu'), roasted and ground .
½ Tsp. fermented black beans (豆豉 'dau si') soaked, smashed.
2 scallions, cut to short lengths.
2 gloves garlic (大蒜 'daai suen'), chopped.
A dash of dark soy sauce (老抽 'lou chau').
Quarter cup stock and a jigger of sherry.
Pinch of sugar, pinch of cornstarch; blended in a little hot water.

Cut tofu into chunks, gently blanch in boiling water, and drain. Saute the ground pork, garlic, and bean paste with both oils till the meat is no longer pink. Add the chili paste, dau si, and soy sauce, stir around to mix everything, then add the tofu, stock, and sherry. Cook for a few minutes, then add the ground Szechuan pepper, scallion, and the sugar - cornstarch water. Heat a little longer and serve it forth.

That, you will agree, is a highly specific recipe. Most cooks simply wing it, and may omit the fermented blackbeans altogether, or substitute a hefty splash of rice wine for the stock and sherry. Vegetarians (usually crazy white folks) will bugger it up entirely by leaving out the meat.

The meat is essential; pork and beancurd are a perfect pairing.

As are fermented bean sauce and fish.


A similar approach and saucy result can be used with a whole fish. Many restaurants will offer a fried fish slathered with a fermented bean sauce, topped with minced scallion, in a lovely presentation where the rubicund hue of the sauce contrasts beautifully with the fresh green appearance of the scallion, adding chunks of tofu to the dish for further effect.

It is indeed very appealing, and there is a textural contrast.

But you didn't want ma po tofu with fish instead of pork.

You wanted fish.

The essential fish is carp. Called 鯽魚 ('jik yü') or 鯉魚 ('lei yü') in Chinese, and available live at wet markets. It must be freshly killed before cooking to preserve the exquisite sweetness of the flesh. You can also substitute mud carp (鯪 'ling'), which is native to the Pearl River delta. Gut and clean it after bashing it hard on the head.

Score the fish a few times in the thicker part of its body, dust lightly with cornstarch, and quickly deepfry it to colour the outside, but no more; you do not want a hardened plank or indigestible lump. Be Belgian in your approach to this, rather than English.
When done, put it on a platter.

For the sauce, the general procedure is very similar to ma po tofu, and aside from the meat and beancurd, the ingredients are too. But add ginger (sliced or slivered) and a small dash black vinegar.
Same amount of fermented bean sauce, hot sauce, hot oil, and garlic.
A little bit of soy sauce will accentuate the sweetness.
Sherry or rice wine (米酒 'mai jau'), water.
A pinch of powdered pepper.
Minced scallion.

Hot wok, quick hand, and just wing it.

Pour the finished sauce over the fish.
Garnish with cilantro.

["gaa juk seun"]

If you really need a textural contrast, use matchstick-cut bamboo shoot.
Add it to the pan when colouring the garlic and ginger.

NOTE: Bamboo shoot (竹筍 'juk seun', also written 竹笋) can be found in cans at most Chinese groceries. They are sometimes available fresh.
If fresh, trim and cook them for half an hour, then let them cool in the water completely before use. Tinned shoots are usually already pre-cooked, and simply require rinsing and a quick blanch.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

1 comment:

Flippo said...

If doubtfull, always blanch bamboo shoot. Rabong can make you itch.

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