Thursday, April 15, 2010

In The Land of Plenty, The Man Who Wings it is King

Per my usual method of jumping into something headfirst with great enthusiasm, but without fully having an idea of what I'm doing (cooking only, never legal), I found myself wandering through Chinatown markets on a sunny Monday afternoon in search of common Sichuanese pantry ingredients. While browsing shelf upon shelf of indecipherable bottle, I decided on a whim I wanted to make Mother Chen's pockmarked bean curd, more famously known as mapo tofu. I had just started reading Land of Plenty, the Sichuanese cookbook by Fuschia Dunlop, and I was eager to cook some of my favorite dishes at home.

I spent what seemed like 20 minutes comparing the merits of various types of chile-bean paste while the counterwoman eyed me nervously. I eventually settled on a jar entitled “Pockmarked Grandma's  Bean Curd Seasoning.” Turns out I chose fairly well, as broad beans (aka fava beans) were the first ingredient, rather than soybeans (which Dunlop recommends to avoid). It was also made in Sichuan Province. I’m not completely sure, but I think it's just chile-bean paste with ginger and garlic added. I couldn't find fermented black beans (didn’t look hard enough), but I also picked up some Shaoxing wine, green onions and a package of firm tofu I found in the refrigerator section. Typically (and consistent with my lack of planning), I immediately passed a long line of people waiting to buy fresh tofu from a vendor. Next time dumbass.

I feel the need to digress before continuing. I dig this book, and plan on cooking a lot of the recipes inside. Plus, I have a food blog, so it seems only natural that I would document the process. BUT, I know what you are thinking, and I will be the first (and most vocal) person saying that I am NOT Julia & Julia, NOT French Laundry at Home, and NOT Momofuku for 2. Whatever the merits of these cookbook-dedicated-blogs (clogs? blookbooks? coo-de-blogs?), I have absolutely zero intention of turning into the "Land of Plenty at Home" Guy. This blog is called Law & Food, and I swear I will start writing lengthy legal posts about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act before I do that (this scenario assumes that enough people would be interested in me as the Land of Plenty Guy in the first place, which I sincerely doubt).

Sorry I needed to get that rant out of the way before I could proceed.

Once I got home, I prepared my mise en place for my first official dish from Land of Plenty.

Not bad right? Not great either.

A little improvisation was required. I added bok choy to give make it heartier (and I didn’t want to make rice). The recipe also called for ground beef, but I’d overloaded on it during the weekend. I subbed in some leftover mushrooms to approximate the umami taste. I also only had birds-eye chilis, which Dunlop says are too spicy, so I only used a small amount. What I ended up missing most were the fermented black beans, which are what usually elevates mapo tofu for me (I also like it with a sprinkling of peanuts for some crunch).

Here's the final dish, it came out really well.

I'll be using The Quaker's camera at home for hopefully less shitty pictures.

Immediate lessons learned: Kalustyan's Sichuan peppercorn blows. Absolutely horrible. After dinner, I did some research on my trusty friend Chowhound and discovered a thread where a dozen home cooks spent a month cooking through Land of Plenty and its Hunan counterpart Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, also written by Dunlop. I am truly indebted to their contributions, and anyone intending to cook out of either of these books would do well to read these threads.

Back to the Sichuan peppercorn issue. I bought Kalustyan’s peppercorns in the fall, and while I realized immediately they were pretty sorry, I’d only used them a couple times (never in a purely Sichuan dish). While the mapo tofu was delicious and flavorful, it was mainly coming from the chili-bean paste. The peppercorns brought almost nothing to the table.

Chowhounders raved about Penzey’s Sichuan peppercorns. Luckily I live near Grand Central, where there is a Penzey’s kiosk. On my way home from work the next day I swung by and picked up a jar along with some star anise.

Choose right. 
Once I got home, I was eager to test the two side-by-side. First, the Kalustyan’s. Opening the bag gives off a weak floral aroma, and the bag was full of black, flavorless seeds and stems. I popped a husk in my mouth and rolled it around for a minute. Weak flavor, almost no detectible numbing.  Nasty. I opened the Penzey’s jar and the distinctive floral aroma of Sichuan peppercorns filled the room. The jar was full of bright red husks, very few seeds and stems. I tried a husk and instantly felt my mouth tingling.

That night, I made dry fried green beans (again with no meat) and fish fragrant fried tofu with the remainder of my bok choy. Awesome. I didn't take any pictures, but I'm making it again tonight.

Now that I am past the initial flailing, I am starting to see how Sichuan flavors are combined. This is also made easier once you have all the pantry ingredients at hand (to be completed today).  I am also strangely determined to make the fermented glutinous rice wine. A couple of large, earthenware jar are necessary.

So check back to see some of my attempts at cooking (hopefully) authentic Sichuan cuisine in the next few months (if only to see whether I can get drunk off homemade rice wine).


  1. Tokyo Mart on mulberry has the fermented black beans "yang jiang preserved beans with ginger" for $1.50. my peppercorns stink, thank you for the tip on penzey's.

  2. Thanks Michael, every package I picked up looked right, but none of them said "fermented" on the label, so I wasn't %100 sure.

    Definitely try the Penzey's and your peppercorns side by side. You'll be amazed at the difference.