Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Cooking Lesson in China (and a Ma Po Tofu Recipe)

One of the many highlights of my recent trip to China was a cooking lesson that was arranged for the small group I was traveling with. It was held at the Shanghai National Vocational School, which trains local residents for work in commercial kitchens.

We had spent the morning exploring some of Shanghai’s many markets – some quaint and outdoor (such as the Antiquities Market), others in modern multi-level buildings featuring fabrics (and custom tailoring), knock-off purses and strands upon strands of the most amazing fresh water pearls.

We were hungry not just for lunch (which we would end up having to make for ourselves) but for a connection to a China that wasn’t just created or preserved for tourists. The National Vocational School would prove ideal on both accounts.

Our visit there began with being ushered into a conference room and being outfitted with chef’s jackets and paper toques. We found out that we were just as much of a sight to the school’s staff and students as they were to us. Curious students and staff kept peeking in and taking photos of us. We later found out that we were the first English-speaking group that had ever arranged a class such as this.

This was not a slick, demonstration kitchen. This was a real, working commercial kitchen with what I swear was fire-breathing woks. We would each be making three dishes that day – Ma Po Tofu (or spicy tofu with ground pork), Sweet and Sour Pork (which I thought was something they thought we’d like) and Beijing Dumplings (kind of like a boiled pot sticker.) Most of the prep work was already done for us. Ms. Chen, the school administrator, and Chef Jing would demonstrate a dish with our translator, FunFun, interpreting, explaining, questioning and trying to figure out quantities for us. (That's FunFun on the left with Ms. Chen.)

Then it was our turn. We each bellied up to an enormous wok set over a ring of fire. The woks were so hot that minced garlic left unattended would be burnt black and acrid in seconds. I asked for a potholder and was handed a folded up, thin dish towel. The floor was slick with grease. This was not cooking for the timid.

We plunged in. Soon the clanging of our thick metal scoop-shaped ladles was ringing through the kitchen, adding to the roar of the industrial strength exhaust fans. As we swished oil, plopped in ingredients and stir-fried in our woks, the school’s staff would hover over us, adding a little more of this or gesturing for us to add that, right now. If we didn’t move fast enough, an impatient Chef Jing would take over and with a few deft moves finish a dish. Ms. Chen would come around and look at our finished dishes, nod approvingly and loving ladle on a more than a little oil on top, making each glisten and me wonder exactly how much weight I would be gaining this trip. (That's Chef Jing in the vocational school kitchen.)

After we had finished making each dish, we would troop into the dining room where we would pick up our chopsticks and consume what we had just produced. I couldn’t get enough of it all, and I don’t mean just the food.

There were no recipe handouts. I tried to take notes and get an idea of quantities (exactly how much was one ladle full of oil), but knew I’d have to make these dishes at home to be able to really describe to others how to create them. But that’s okay; there is no way I could ever perfectly reproduce that day. I’m missing some crucial ingredients – Chef Jing’s practiced moves, Ms. Chen’s ladlefuls of oil, and FunFun’s valiant attempts to explain it all.

(I will be posting the other recipes we made that day as I adapt them. To view them as well as other posts on Blog Appetit Goes to China, please click here.)

Ma Po Tofu (Pockmarked or Old Grandmother’s Spicy Tofu)
Serves 1-2 or 3-4 as part of a multi-dish meal

I like my Ma Po on the spicy side, so feel free to use a bit less of the “hot” stuff. The dish has a wonderful play between spicy and the sweet and sour. Other versions I’ve seen leave out the sugar, the vinegar or both. They may be Shanghai adaptations to the classic Sichuan recipe. (Shanghai cuisine is said to be sweeter than elsewhere in China.)

8 ounces medium or regular tofu, rinsed, cut into ½” cubes (see notes)
1/3 cup of vegetable oil such as peanut, canola, grapeseed or corn (able to withstand high heat cooking) or enough to coat the wok evenly.
6 ounces chopped or minced pork or dark-meat chicken (see notes)
1 tablespoon each fresh minced ginger, chopped garlic and chopped green onion (scallion), plus additional chopped green onion for garnish (optional)
1 tablespoon of chili bean paste (At home I used the kind with fermented black soy beans, but any kind will work), or more or less to taste. (see notes)
½ cup of water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of (unseasoned) rice vinegar (I used Chinese black rice vinegar, you can use plain rice vinegar or cider vinegar if that is not available.)
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 teaspoon of cornstarch stirred into 1 teaspoon of water
½ teaspoon ground brown Sichuan pepper

Heat a few inches of water in a wok and bring to boil. Slip in the tofu cubes and boil for about a minute or until the cubes have become to soften and look creamier in texture. They should still retain their shape, however.

Remove and drain tofu. Pour water out of wok. Dry well and heat. When the wok is hot, add oil to coat, swirling pan around to make sure it is well covered. Add ginger, garlic and green onion, stir frying until light brown and the aromas are released. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add the minced meat and stir fry for about one minute. Add the chili bean paste, stir fry for a few seconds, then add the water and the bean curd cubes. Bring to a boil and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, being careful not to break the tofu cubes. Add the salt, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce. Stir to combine then add in the cornstarch mixture, stirring carefully to mix thoroughly without breaking up the tofu until the sauce has thickened. Remove to serving dish. Sprinkle with ground Sichuan pepper and garnish with chopped green onions.

The recipe at the school used ground pork. I’ve replaced it here with minced, boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I minced the chicken with a cleaver. You could certainly grind it in a food processor or buy ground chicken or turkey, just be sure you are not using white meat poultry. You could also use ground pork. One recipe I have from China uses minced beef. I imagine a vegetarian ground meat substitute might also work.

If you can’t find medium or regular tofu, use firm (not extra firm) and boil it a little more until it is soft and creamy looking.

If chili bean paste is not available, you could use 1 tablespoon of fermented black beans (which look dried and are sold in a plastic bag and are not in a sauce) and 1 teaspoon or so of crushed red hot chili pepper flakes.

(The photo above shows the dish made during the cooking lesson. My version is a little less soupy.)

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