Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A+ Birthday Bowl

Last Friday was my 64th birthday, and I received numerous well wishes from friends, especially Vera, Chuck, and Dave. But what I really wanted was a big, steaming bowl of mapo doufu (Sichuan spicy bean curd with minced pork), and nobody in town even comes close to the version served at A+A Sichuan China. The best version I’ve ever had was at a Bejing-style Chinese hole in the wall spot in Bangkok, called Ta Yang Grou (5/4 Soi Ngamn Duphli, 2 blocks east of the Lumpini Subway station). You walked down a half flight of stairs to get to the dining room, to find ten smallish tables and nobody that speaks English. Thankfully there was a picture menu, and their mapo doufu was spectacularly good. Henry Chung’s Hunan in San Francisco used to make an admirable version, back in the mid ‘70s, when it was a tiny little lunch counter joint on Kearny St. But I digress.

Two kinds of potstickers, dry cooked green beans, and luscious mapo doufu from Ta Yang Grou, in Bangkok

Cyndi and Ling from A+A, my own personal mapo doufu Sirens, were calling, and I could hear their distant song beckoning me north. It so happened that R and I were going to catch an afternoon showing of Birdman at the Arbor Great Hills, and then cruise farther north down 183 to the Anderson Mill exit and A+A after the movie. By the way, Birdman is excellent and I highly recommend it. It is one of the very few films that I will eagerly watch over and over again.

Once I had perused the specials board and the menu, I settled on a platter of pan fried dumplings (Appetizer #6), Beef with Cumin Sauce (B-10), the pre-determined mapo doufu (V-16), and Black and White Mushrooms with Baby Bok Choy (V-2). I was intrigued by a special on the board: pork with long beans. I love long beans (AKA asparagus beans, snake beans, yardlong beans, etc.) and you don’t see them that often around here. Unfortunately, they were sold out, so I settled for dry-cooked green beans with garlic (V-9) with shredded pork added. The dumplings were the first to arrive, and the pastry wrapper is obviously handmade. The filling is moist and porky, the wrapper toothsome and nicely browned on the bottom, but the dipping sauce could use more vinegar and ginger. Still, a nice start to a good meal.


Next aboard was the beef with cumin sauce, resting on a nest of chopped lettuce. This is a dish from Hunan, but cooked here with aplomb. The beef is very tender and aromatic from the cumin, and from the accompanying paper thin slices of garlic. The other players are ginger, chiles, rice wine, soy, and scallions. A very simple preparation, with huge, big flavors. My mapo doufu arrived nuclear hot and steaming in a big brimming bowl, so I was forced to only take nose hits until it cooled down just a bit, which meant we could attack the dry cooked beans with pork and garlic. The beans are just on the verge of becoming slightly shriveled, and loaded with charred sliced garlic and bits of red chile and Sichuan peppercorn. The strips of pork melt in your mouth in clouds of porcine delight. We both wolfed down the majority of that dish in nothing flat.

Beef with cumin sauce

The braised mushrooms with baby bok choy was placed on the table, with meaty chunks of shitake and pure white enoki mushrooms bathed in a rich, velvety stock, along with those cute little almost crispy baby bok choys. This dish has a nice difference between textures and the flavors really complement each other. Another winner. But by then, the mapo doufu was safe to eat and I attacked the bowl.

Black and white mushrooms with baby bok choy

Dry-cooked green beans with pork

I love the rich flavor, the spicy heat of the chiles, the numbing effect of the Sichuan peppercorns, the little textural highlights of the meaty pork and the scallion, and the soft pillow-like cubes of bean curd. The funky flavor of the fermented Sichuan chile paste, with broad beans, garlic, and chile just explodes on your tongue, and every now and then you get a little salty fermented black bean surprise. This all takes place against a background of garlic, scallion, reduced pork stock, chile oil, and soy. This whole dish is umami perfection, and since the early 1970s it has been my favorite all-time Chinese dish.

The magnificent mapo doufu in all of its jiggly glory

We left with big smiles on our faces and a few leftovers for later, and then R presented me with a Tupperware container full of my birthday surprise. A batch of my mom’s strawberry cake recipe, cooked as cupcakes. Every birthday, that was the only thing I wanted from my mom, a big slab of that super moist, strawberry-riffic cake, slathered with strawberry frosting loaded with strawberries, butter, and confectioner’s sugar. It is sinfully rich and fattening, and those little, gorgeous pink birthday treats that R baked were spectacular. Helluva birthday. Great movie, fantastic meal, wonderful dessert.

Mom's (and MJ's) strawberry cake, as cupcakes, courtesy of R

Post Script
As I mentioned earlier, it is really difficult to find a decent version of mapo doufu in a Chinese restaurant. Strange, because it’s really not that hard to cook the dish. My guess is that your standard Americanized Chinese restaurant doesn’t stock Sichuan fermented hot bean paste in their larder, and they try to fake the dish using their standard cooking supplies. Word. If you don’t have the stuff to make the dish, take it off of your damn menu! If you want to make the dish at home (and I know you do), here’s my recipe.

Mapo Doufu · Sichuan Spicy Bean Curd with Meat
Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd

Serves 1 to 4

This dish is named after the pockmark scarred wife of a Chengdu, Sichuan restaurateur who was known as Old Mother Chen. She prepared the dish sometime during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) for the laborers who passed her roadside cafe as they transported loads of cooking oil to the city's markets. Traditionally the dish was made using pre-cooked ground beef, which is unusual in Sichuan, where pork is the dominant meat. Most restaurants here in the States make the dish with ground, minced, julienned, or thinly sliced pork, or the meat is omitted entirely for a vegetarian version. The traditional aromatic vegetable used is Chinese leeks, but scallions are commonly substituted. The dish should be served in a bowl rather than a plate, to better retain the heat. Mapo doufu is rich, very spicy, and warming, accented by the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, which add a spicy tingle to the tongue. Texturally it is soft, with crunchy accents of meat and scallions. This is a dish that is found on most American Chinese restaurant menus, yet one that is very difficult to find correctly prepared.

1 package soft (“silken”) or medium bean curd (14 ounces), 1-inch cubes; simmered 10 minutes.    in lightly salted water; drained
3 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
6 ounces minced or ground beef or pork
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 Chinese leeks or scallions, green parts included, cut on the diagonal into ½ inch slices
1 Tablespoon dried red Sichuan chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 to 4 Tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste (dou ban jiang, toban djan)
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and drained, mashed slightly
½ tsp ground Sicuhan chile paste (optional)
1¼ cups pork or chicken stock
½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
Salt to taste
3 to 4 Tablespoons cornstarch made into a smooth slurry with 6 Tablespoons chicken stock
½ tsp dry-toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, for garnish
Finely minced scallion for garnish
Steamed long grain white rice for service

1. Heat the wok until very hot and add the oil, swirling to coat the interior. Add the ground meat and stir-fry the meat for 2 minutes, or until cooked and crisping, but not dried-out. Add the garlic and stir-fry 15 seconds, and then add the leeks and chiles and stir-fry 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium and add the chile bean paste and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the black beans and chile paste (if using) and stir-fry 30 seconds. Pour in the stock and stir well, then gently slip the bean curd into the mixture, stirring gently by moving the back of the spatula from the outside in towards the center; do not break up the bean curd. Season with the sugar and soy, stir well, and taste for salt (use caution, the chile bean paste is salty, as are the black beans). Simmer for 5 minutes. Stir the cornstarch slurry (it settles while sitting) and add to the mixture while stirring gently, waiting to see how thick it has become before adding more. The sauce should cling to the meat and tofu, but not become cloying.

2. Garnish with the Sichuan peppercorns and scallion and serve hot with steamed white rice.

Sichuan chile bean paste is a paste made from fresh “two golden strips” chiles (erjin tiao) and fava beans (not soy beans, as many believe) which is then aged and fermented. The best and most famous paste is made in a town on the outskirts of Chengdu named Pixian. The fresher the sauce is, the redder the color will be. Paste which is aged and fermented the most will acquire a purplish hue. Generally the sauce is aged between 3 and 5 years. The sauce goes by the name Sichuan chili bean sauce, chili bean paste, toban djan, and toban jhan, and is available in cans, bottles, ceramic jugs, and plastic pouches. Good brands are Chuan Lao and Sichuan Dan Dan but they can be hard to locate. Lee Kum Kee or the brand that comes in the 6 ounce blue can are acceptable if that is all you can locate, but they lack the fermented funkiness and the heat of the real deal bean paste.

This link will take you to the brand of Sichuan Pixian Broad Bean Paste that Hunan and Sichuan cooking expert Fuschia Dunlop recommends, which is sold by in 16 ounce pouches:

The real deal Pixian Fermented Broad Bean Sauce with Chilies

A+A Sichuan China
13376 N Hwy 183, Ste 100, 512/258-5445      this is the old link, but it gets you to the menu a lot faster than the current link, which is in perpetual slow motion for some reason   

My previous Chronicle review from 2011:

Mick Vann ©   

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