One important feature in everyday life is food, but for the Chinese food is doubly important. Indeed, Confucius, the well known Chinese philosopher, is believed to have said that “food is heaven” (mín yǐ shí wéi tiān, 民以食为天 and sometimes shortened to 以食为天 or yǐ shí wéi tiān), a phrase that is now in common use.
Many people in the West will be familiar with Chinese food, given the large number restaurants that have sprung up over the last half century or longer. However, many such restaurants offer food which has been adapted for western tastes and is inherently based on Cantonese cuisine since many immigrants originated from Hong Kong.
But Chinese food is far more diverse than the sweet and sour pork and egg fried rice that many might be familiar with.
So, lets explore some of the more popular dishes that are common across mainland China.
One extremely popular dish is má pó dòufu (麻婆豆腐). Má stands for mázi (麻子) which means a person disfigured by pockmarks. Pó (婆) translates as "old woman or grandmother". Thus má pó is an old woman whose face is pockmarked. Therefore, má pó dòufu is sometimes translated as "Pockmarked-Face Lady's Tofu". This is essentially a physical description of the dish partly due to the scattering of Sichuan [Szechuan] peppercorns and black beans.
The dish is a combination of tofu, or bean curd, cooked in a spicy chili bean-based sauce with minced pork or beef. There is also a vegetarian version referred to as má là dòufu [麻辣豆腐] which can be translated as numb and spicy tofu or simply spicy tofu.
It is one of the simplest and tastiest dishes and originates from Sichuan province. And the ingredients are not too difficult to obtain either.
What you will need is some tofu, preferably firm tofu rather than the soft silken tofu which is sometimes on sale. Most supermarkets sell tofu nowadays. One well known brand is Cauldon which is around £2 for a 400 gram pack.
You will also need some spring onions, fresh root ginger, garlic and chillies. Other ingredients needed are chili bean paste, soy sauce, white rice vinegar, Chinese cooking wine and sugar.
Chilli bean paste (là dòubànjiàng, 辣豆瓣酱) is a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices. Some versions are very spicy, and vary between a salty or sweet flavour. Most Asian stores stock this though it can be found in some supermarkets, and is certainly found online.
There are many brands, the most familiar makes being Lee Kum Kee, which is fairly authentic, and Heinz, which tends to be a bit sweet.
Ginger, garlic, spring onions and chillies are easy to obtain. Red chillies are best, and birds eye chillies produce the best punch.
Soy sauce is readily available, though try to stock your larder with both a dark and light version, preferably naturally brewed.
Chinese vinegar comes in both dark and light versions. One famous brand, usually only available in Asian stores, is Gold Plum. What you’re looking for is Chinkiang Vinegar (Zhènjiāng xiāngcǜ, 镇江香醋), a dark sour vinegar. White rice vinegar is less easy to obtain and although one might use wine vinegar as a substitute bear in mind that Chinese white rice vinegars are less acidic and milder in flavour than Western vinegars. They also tend to be sweeter. Japanese rice vinegar may be easier to obtain, but failing that white wine vinegar mixed with a little sugar could be substituted.
The most unusual ingredient, but essential in many Sichuan dishes, is Sichuan peppercorns. In China they are available in two varieties. The most commonly available type are the red variety, though for a more fragrant and numbing flavour the green Sichuan peppercorns are better.
Sichuan pepper is known in Chinese as huājiāo (花椒; literally "flower pepper"). Unfortunately few supermarkets stock this product and one may have to resort to ordering them online. Indeed you may only find the red variety. Though please try to lay your hands on the green ones if you can as they are undoubtedly superior.
So having stocked your cupboard with all the essentials, lets get cooking.
Preparation in the Chinese kitchen is everything. You don’t want to be scrambling around for ingredients as you cook since the cooking procedure is often very fast and any delay can ruin a dish.
So to start cut up your block of tofu [around 400g] into cubes, place in a bowl and cover with just boiled water. This is not essential but some chefs find it takes any sour flavour away and helps the tofu expand slightly and enable it to absorb more flavour from the sauces later.
While your tofu soaks you can prepare your dry ingredients. Finely grate around a tablespoon of peeled root ginger and place it into a bowl. Then add about the same amount of garlic, either very finely chopped, grated or crushed. If you want the dish very hot add one or two finely chopped bird’s eye chillies to the mix.
Finely chop one or two spring onions and place them into another bowl.
Next we want to prepare the sauce. For this we mix together about 2 tablespoons of chilli bean paste, a tablespoon of light soy and a dash of white vinegar. A drop of dark vinegar may also be added to enrichen the colour. A little sugar may also be added to taste. A drop of Chinese cooking wine may also be added. Shaoxing wine is perhaps the most common Chinese cooking wine seen on the shelves, but a cheap dry sherry is just as good and more easily sourced.
Then mix a little water and cornflour and place in separate bowl.
Finally put a few Sichuan peppercorns on a small saucer. A level teaspoon is more than sufficient, though you may wish to use only half. Some recipes also demand having a little ground Sichuan pepper which is sprinkled over the dish at the end. To prepare this, simply dry fry a few peppercorns and as they begin to send off an aroma place them in a mortar and pestle and grind to a fine powder.
Having prepared all your ingredients drain your tofu and place to one side. Then heat up your wok [guō, 锅] and add about a tablespoon of oil, sunflower, peanut or similar will do. You may also add a few drops of sesame oil for added flavour.
Add the Sichuan peppercorns. they should sizzle nicely. Don’t let them burn. Then add the grated ginger, garlic and chopped chillies if using, and stir well.
After a minute or so add the tofu and stir gently so as not to break up the cubes. Then add the sauce mixture and stir once again, coating the tofu evenly with the sauce. Add a little water if it appears too dry and cook for a few minutes to allow the flavours to penetrate the tofu.
Then stir in the chopped spring onions, reserving a few for decoration, and add a little of the cornflour/water mixture to help thicken the sauce as needed.
The sauce will thicken quickly after adding the cornflour so within second you will need to remove the wok from the heat and gently pour the contents into a serving dish.
Finally sprinkle with a little ground Sichuan pepper and top with chopped spring onion. Enjoy with a bowl of steamed white rice and perhaps an ice cold Tsingtao beer.
For the more traditional má pó dòufu (麻婆豆腐), add the minced beef or pork after frying the ginger, garlic and chillies, and add the tofu after the meat is well cooked. Some recipes don’t suggest the addition of vinegar, dark soy or even sugar, but I feel they are an essential addition.