Mapo Doufu (Pock-marked Ma's Bean Curd)

by Ellen Schrecker (from Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook)

Put the tree ears in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let them soak for about 15 minutes, until they become soft and gelatinous.

Peel the ginger, then chop it into tiny pieces, about the size of a match head. Clean the scallions, then chop them, both the white part and about one-third of the green, into pieces slightly larger than the ginger, about 1/4" in diameter.

If a food processor is not available, march-chop the ground meat for a finer texture. Add 1 Tbsp. of the chopped ginger and one scallion's worth of the chopped scallions to the ground meat, along with the soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine, and mix thoroughly. If a food processor is available, process the ginger, scallion, ground meat, soy sauce, sesame oil, and wine all together. Set aside the meat mixture for about 30 minutes.

Peel the garlic, then chop it coarsely. Combine it with the rest of the chopped ginger and mince them together until they reach the consistency of a thick paste (or use a food processor). Mrs. Chiang insists that the finer you chop the garlic and ginger the more interesting the finished dish will be.

Cut the dark skin off the outside of the water chestnuts, then chop them into pieces about the size of a match head. Jicama may be substituted for the water chestnuts.

Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl and set aside.

Cut the bean curd into 1/2" cubes.

Drain the tree ears, then rinse them and pick them over carefully to remove the tiny impurities, like little pieces of wood, that might still be embedded in them. Then mince them into little pieces the size of a match head.

Just before you are ready to begin cooking, add the cornstarch to the meat mixture and blend thoroughly.


Cooking

Heat your wok or pan over a moderately high flame for about 15 seconds, then add the oil. It should be hot enough to cook with when the first small bubbles begin to form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.

When the oil is ready, quickly throw in the garlic and ginger and vigorously stir-fry them over a medium flame for about 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop the ingredients from the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle, so they won't burn or stick.

Continue to stir-fry while you add the hot pepper flakes in oil, hot pepper paste, water chestnuts, tree ears, and oyster sauce. Then stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

Add the meat mixture and keep stirring it as it cooks, taking special care to break up any large chunks of meat that stick together.

After the meat has cooked for about 1 minute and has lost its pinkish color, throw in the bean curd and the chopped scallions and stir-fry everything together. Then add the sugar and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

Pour in the soy sauce and the water and wait for the liquid to boil, then let the contents of the pan cook over a moderate flame for 2 minutes more.

Add the peppercorns and stir thoroughly.

At this point, determine how much sauce there is in the pan. If the dish seems watery, you should get ready to add the cornstarch and water mixture that you have already prepared. But if there does not seem to be much liquid, you won't need the cornstarch.

Make sure that you stir up the cornstarch mixture before you pour it into the pan, then stir-fry everything over a medium flame for a few seconds until the sauce becomes clear and slightly thickened.

Add the sesame oil and stir it in thoroughly; then, just before serving, taste the dish for salt. It should taste sharp and clear, with just a hint of sweetness. Stir the salt in and serve.