Monday, May 28, 2012

Sino-Western Interlude: Mapo Tofu and Chocolate Crepes

Guangzhou Opera House, Exterior
Guangzhou Opera House, Interior
Sometimes I feel like my life in China is like a Motown song (What's Goin' On? Mercy, Mercy Me, Ain't No Sunshine).  On several occasions, exasperation has driven me, despite language and other barriers, to inquire why something that was one way yesterday is today completely and utterly changed. The answer that I have received, on several occasions and from disparate sources, is "China is Developing!"  Solid evidence of that fact is the Guangzhou opera house,
just completed in 2010, which I  finally had a chance to visit last week--equal parts oddball and impressive, the structure looks like a spaceship inside and out, especially at night when the illuminated and incandescent millennium-era buildings of the city's skyline seen through the criss-crossed geometric windows look like other spacecraft crawling through the night sky.

I feel like an alien on a regular basis here, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays when I have to commute from Guangzhou to Zhuhai on the China-Macau border and back again, returning home past the local dinner hour and treading with trepidation into my kitchen with two burners, two pots, an oven the size of a breadbox, and kitchen counters (in the words of one of my former colleagues) at "femur height."

Me and Cross-cultural Literature Student Sapphire
But Thursdays are full of possibility.  I work in a building around the corner from my house and I teach only one class--"Cross-cultural Literature: Representations of China in the West."  Several weeks ago, we read Pearl Buck's The Good Earth along with different opinions from the 1930s about who has the right to speak for China.  Then we tested out the claim given by a couple of characters in Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke that "the grammar" of the peculiar hybrid dialect spoken by traders in Guangzhou during the Opium Wars (perhaps the original "pidgin" language) "was the same as that of Cantonese, while the words were mainly English, Portuguese, and Hindusthani."  More recently, we read Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey alongside Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" and Ginsburg's "Howl" (it took over a month for some government bureaucrat to release my package containing the 2010 film about the poem).  And after class last week, my student Sapphire told me--apropos of nothing--that I was a good teacher, and patient.  These are the days that I test the limits of my dismal kitchen.

Mapo Tofu and Steamed Bok Choy

One recent cross-cultural feast was spicy Sichuan mapo tofu, steamed bok choy with ginger and soy sauce, and chocolate-filled crepes for dessert.  Mapo tofu, with its thoroughly un-American combination of flavors and textures, surprisingly is not only one of my favorite Chinese dishes but a great favorite of a great many foreigners in China.  I've been making it, with greater and lesser degrees of success, since before I came to China and the recipe below (which omits the typical ground pork) is a succinct treatment of the several published English-language versions I've seen and the instructions I got from a student from Sichuan province (who donated the Sichuan peppercorns).  The two chili sauces that I use are produced by Lee Kum Kee, which is not a Sichuan brand but an international conglomerate based in (who knew?) the Cantonese city of Zhuhai; their products are no doubt adaptations and slightly doctored versions of the regional Chinese originals (Cantonese and Sichuan food couldn't be more different--Cantonese people tend to avoid hot chilies and other spicy foods at all costs), and the versions available in the US are likely somewhat different to those sold in mainland China as well (that's not necessarily a bad thing--the Chinese version almost surely includes MSG).  I've seen at least three different variations of the black-bean-based sauce that I use (or possibly at least three different names for the same product) and I mention the various names in the recipe below.  Bok choy is one of my favorite vegetables and I will miss how readily and cheaply it's available here; the recipe below is just one example (with variations) of how easily you can prepare it.  The crepes I make are really Mark Bittman's recipe with chocolate filled in.  Lately, I've been using something called "dumpling flour," which another expat here described to me as "just a superfine flour"; it doesn't seem to be readily available in the States and it may indeed be more than just superfine flour (I can't read Chinese characters but I've concluded that it may contain leavening agents, sugar, and/or other additives).  Try the dumpling flour if you'd like, or all-purpose flour, or something of a finer consistency.  I used the Vietnamese Grand Place couverture that I had in the freezer; you could use any professional-quality high-cacao-content chocolate (ranging from one of Guittard's balanced and blendable baking products to one of the distinctive, unmistakable single-origin dark chocolates from Askinosie) depending on what's available.  Though, of course, availability depends on demand, so you might as well seek Grand Place out--it's worth adding to your and your grocer's shelves.

Mapo Tofu

3 Tbsp Sichuan peppercorns

1.5 lbs medium or firm tofu

2 Tbsp chili black bean paste, or hot bean paste, or spicy black bean sauce
2 Tbsp chili bean paste (a different ingredient)

Six scallions (green onions), white and light green parts sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp cornstarch
4 Tbsp soy sauce

4 Tbsp sesame oil, or even more, to taste
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (maybe half a small bunch)

Turn on the heat underneath a nonstick wok or stockpot.  Do not add oil.  Toast the peppercorns until fragrant, about 15 seconds.  Remove the peppercorns and set aside.

Cut tofu into one-inch cubes.  Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil.  Turn the water down to simmer and poach the tofu for 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon or drain in a colander, being careful not to break up or smush the pieces.

Return the wok or pot to medium heat.  When hot, add both chili bean pastes.  Heat until fragrant and glossy, about a minute.  Add the tofu, scallions, and chicken stock.  Stir ingredients gently.  Mix together cornstarch, soy sauce, and four tablespoons of water; add this mixture to the tofu.  Continue stirring gently.  When liquid thickens, remove the tofu from heat.

Stir in sesame oil and cilantro.

Serve with rice.

Steamed Bok Choy with Ginger and Soy Sauce

1/2 lb bok choy (regular size or baby size, any variety)
A one-inch knob of ginger
2-3 Tbsp of soy sauce

Cut the bottom off each bulb of bok choy so that the leaves separate and fall off. Rinse the leaves to remove any dirt or grit.

The easiest way to do this is to thinly slice the ginger, toss it with the bok choy leaves and place the veggies in the steamer basket of your rice cooker (if you have a rice cooker with a steamer basket).  Steam the bok choy and ginger quickly (it may only take a minute--there's a lot of steam in there) while your rice is cooking.  Remove the steamer basket from the rice cooker, transfer the veggies to a serving bowl and top with soy sauce.

If you don't have a rice cooker, steam the ginger and bok choy in a pot, covered, with an inch of water or stock in the bottom.

An alternative, no matter how you steam the bok choy, is to grate the raw ginger instead of slicing it and mix it with the soy sauce, drizzling the mixture over the bok choy after cooking.

Chocolate-Filled Crepes

1 cup dumpling flour, all purpose flour, or a more finely ground flour
Pinch of salt
1 Tbsp sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
2 Tbsp butter, melted and returned to room temperature (or carefully microwaved until it's half-melted)

Additional butter, for cooking

1 oz chocolate, grated or shaved

Whisk together all of the ingredients except the additional butter and the chocolate.  The mixture should be thoroughly combined, but a few lumps are okay.

Place a small nonstick pan over high heat.  Add half a teaspoon to a teaspoon of butter.  As soon as the butter melts, drop a ladle-full of batter into the pan, and then immediately swirl the pan to distribute the batter in an even layer.  When small bubbles appear on the surface of the crepe and the edges start to pick up (it may only take 30 seconds), gently flip the crepe using a nonstick spatula.  Cook the crepe on the second side for just a few seconds or until you can shake it free of the pan, then slide it out of the pan onto a plate.  Repeat, adding more butter after every two or three crepes.  Cover the plate holding the finished crepes with a second (upside down) plate to keep the crepes from cooling down too quickly.

When ready to eat, sprinkle a small handful of chocolate onto each crepe and before folding it into quarters.  Eat.

You can store the batter for up to 24 hours (maybe even a little longer).  And the cooked crepes can keep in the fridge for a couple of days.  The easiest way to reheat them is just to microwave them for a few seconds.

All of these recipes can feed two to four people, or one with leftovers.


Anonymous Eva G. said...

Got to try some of these recipes. Thanks, they look delicious. And the Grand-Place chocolate too (just read a review of it at but where can I buy it in the USA?

10:54 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few days ago our neighbor, Emily, shared her mapo tofu and rice with us fellow Americans. Great stuff! The creamy tofu was so wonderfully full of Chinese spiciness. I can't wait to try making it. Thanks, Emily! Connie D.

12:31 PM GMT-5  

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