Wordless Wednesday: Sichuan Specialties

Stir-Fried Pea Leaves with Garlic

Vegetarian Rice Roll

Vegetarian Noodle with Chili Bean Paste

Triple “C” Cauliflower (Spicy Caramelized Fried Cauliflower)

Tofu Skin Rolls

Hot & Sour Fern Root Noodles

Mama Ji’s
4416 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

Raise a Stink

With a name like “stinky tofu,” the deck is already stacked against this polarizing snack. Granted, the title is entirely well-earned, accurate if somewhat blunt, and not merely a result of cultural misunderstanding. The aroma will hit you a block away, wafting through night markets like a pungent homing beacon for those in the know. Tenaciously clinging to hair and clothing, the distinctive perfume follows you home, infused simply through proximity, whether or not you chose to partake. To the uninitiated or unadventurous, the scent is not exactly one you’d want to bottle and put in a diffuser. Rotting garbage, overflowing toilets, and decaying fish are sometimes cited as less favorable comparisons, yet fervent fans will travel an hour or more to reach their favorite hawker, slinging only the most odoriferous options imaginable.

Verified vegan stinky tofu  from 家湘涼麵 in Shilin Night Market

Do you like kombucha? Okay, then what about blue cheese? If you can stomach that, how do you feel about durian? Funky, fermented cubes of tofu is an acquired taste that may not be for everyone, particularly for western palates unaccustomed to such ripe stank. Though most flavor is discerned through our olfactory experience rather than our taste buds, the best renditions taste relatively mild in contrast to the assertive, pervasive stench.

Before sniffing out this controversial staple, be forewarned that most stinky tofu (written as 臭豆腐 or chòu dòufu) is not vegan. Traditionally fermented in a brine made with spoiled milk, fish innards, and/or dried shrimp, this “secret sauce” tends to be a closely guarded family secret, never to be disclosed under threat of death (or disownment.) In Asia, if you don’t speak the language fluently, your best bet is to start at dedicated veggie or Buddhist establishments. In the US, where dietary restrictions are the norm rather than the exception, you should be able to discern if there are any dairy or seafood additions, if not a full list of ingredients.

Texture is almost as critical as the infamously musty, gamey taste. Preparations run the gamut from practically raw to fried within an inch of their lives, but my favorite sort is deep fried, resoundingly crunchy on the outside, firm and meaty yet almost silky on the inside. The softer the tofu, the funkier the flavor, so it takes a bold eater to spring for those barely steamed squares instead.

Eating stinky tofu in Taipei, as is typically served in a plastic bag with wooden sticks

Condiments play an essential role in taming this tofu, each seasoned with an equally heavy hand to provide sufficient contrast. Fiery hot sauce and kimchi, sharp black vinegar, sweet and salty pickled vegetables, and crunchy garlic are all common and all highly recommended. Intense, bold flavors envelop your entire consciousness, punching harder with every subsequent bite, demanding your full attention from start to finish. It’s no passive grab-and-go snack, but a noteworthy event, even if it becomes a daily indulgence. .

In China and Taiwan, stinky tofu is classic comfort food, cheap and satisfying, great with (or after) a few drinks, and readily available all day, any day.

Stinky tofu from Dragon Gate Bar & Grille in Oakland, CA

Close your eyes, take a big bite, and breathe it all in. You may love it, you may hate it, but everyone should try stinky tofu at least once.

Steamy Secrets

It’s remarkable how the most ubiquitous, seemly mundane ingredients can be utterly transformed with a fresh perspective. For example, eggplants show up in nearly every culture, every grocery store, and every cookbook. For the wide range of varieties available across the world, accompanied by the distinctive palate of flavors that each locale prefers, there’s truly an eggplant preparation for everyone. Despite the abundance of options, it seems we’re drawn back to the same recipes time and again, sticking to the familiar for the sake of simplicity. That was certainly the case for me, which is why the promise of an all-eggplant cooking class held both intrigue and skepticism. What new was there to learn about this staple vegetable that I naively presumed had already divulged its culinary secrets long ago?

The one way I would never have attempted to cook an eggplant turned out to be one of the most revolutionary. Believe it or not, steaming these burnished violet nightshades created one of the most superlative eggplant dishes to hit my plate in years. Previously ignorant to this dramatic metamorphosis, the idea of steamed eggplant sounded about as appealing as stewed gym socks. On the contrary, the softened and shredded fruit is downright silky, luxuriously caressing the tongue with unexpected richness.

Hailing from China, this unsung hero of eggplant cookery comes to life with an impossibly creamy glaze of toasted sesame, soy sauce, vinegar, and a gentle kick of heat. Such complex flavors seem to contradict the simple procedure, but that’s the true beauty of this secret formula. This radical departure from the standard menu was right there all along, hidden in plain sight

Beijing-Style Steamed Eggplant with Sesame Sauce
by Chef Philip Gelb

2 Chinese Eggplants, Halved Lengthwise
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Oil
2 Teaspoons Light Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Black Vinegar
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Palm Sugar
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1 Tablespoon Chili Paste (Optional)
1 Thinly Sliced Scallion, to Garnish

Steam the eggplants for 10 – 15 minutes, until very tender. Meanwhile, combine all the remaining ingredients for the sauce in a large bowl.

Let the eggplants cool for a few minutes so that you can handle them comfortably, and then use your hands to tear them into long strips.

Toss the eggplants with the sauce and top with scallion. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe