This is easily my favourite Chinese recipe. Soft, silky tofu in a rich, spicy, flavourful meat sauce...it's always a crowd pleaser. There are a few ingredients to get to know if you haven't had much experience with Chinese cooking, but the process is really straight forward and can be a relatively quick dinner. It also keeps well, so make lots and have extra for lunch the next day!
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- 1 ½ tsp Sichuan peppercorns, toasted (see note)
- 200g ground beef
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2-inch piece ginger, finely chopped
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- 2 Tbsp spicy broad bean paste (see note)
- 1 Tbsp Chinese black beans, rinsed and roughly chopped (see note)
- 1 cup chicken stock or pork stock, UNSALTED, or water
- 2 Tbsp Chinese cooking wine (optional)
- 1 ½ tsp sugar
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- 350g smooth soft tofu, 1-inch cubes (see note)
- 1 Green onions, chopped
- Chili oil (optional, see note)
- Sichuan peppercorns: You can buy these at Chinese grocery stores. They come in green and red varieties, either will work, but I prefer red. These peppercorns give a unique aroma and also a tongue-numbing sensation. Some people like a little numbness, others like a lot. To be safe, the amount I provided for this recipe is quite mild, so feel free to add more if you like a lot of numbness!
- Spicy broad bean paste: Called "douban jiang" or "toban djan", the brand I showed in the video is available at Chinese grocery stores, and it was the only one my store carried at the time, but try googling some images of other brands as well, and keep it handy at the store as some brands don't have any English on the label.
- Chinese black beans: These are actually fermented soy beans and they are available at any Chinese grocery stores, they come in small bags or in bigger tubs.
- Choosing the right tofu: You want it smooth and soft, but not so soft that it will fall apart in the dish. So I don't go with soft or silken tofu, although you can...just be very gentle with it. The one I use is referred to as "smooth tofu" but you can also get one that's labeled "traditional tofu". There is no "firmness" designation on this kind of tofu because for Chinese people it's sort of the the standard, all-purpose, "regular" tofu if you will. It is slightly softer than "medium" tofu but firmer than "soft." You will want to look for this at a Chinese grocery store where they have lots of tofu options, as you likely won't find this kind of tofu at a Western supermarket. Definitely not firm tofu for this dish though!
- Chili oil: You can buy chili oil but it is also very easy to make. Take any kind of spicy dried chilies (I use Thai dried chilies) and grind it into a powder. Add the chilies into a small pot and add in neutral-flavoured cooking oil (add as much oil as you want, the more oil you add, the less spicy it will be—I do about 1 Tbsp chili powder to ¼ oil). Gently heat the oil over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the chilies turn a little darker and smell smokey, and the oil is nice and red. Strain the oil through a fine mesh strainer. Keep in the fridge to prevent it from going rancid.
Toast Sichuan peppercorns in a dry saute pan for a few minutes, stirring constantly until they are aromatic and darken slightly. Grind in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder until fine.
Heat a wok or a saute pan over medium high heat, add the ground beef (no oil needed) and the soy sauce. Cook the beef, stirring constantly to break it up into small pieces, until the water that comes out of the meat has evaporated and the beef is browned slightly.
Turn off the heat and remove the beef with a slotted spoon, leaving any fat behind. If your beef is quite lean and there isn't much fat left, add a little more cooking oil to the pan so there's enough to saute the garlic and ginger.
Turn the heat back on to medium, add garlic and ginger and saute until the garlic starts to turn golden. Add ground black pepper, half of the ground Sichuan peppercorns (or all of it if you like more of the numbness and aroma), the broad bean paste and the black beans. Saute the herbs and seasoning for about 30 seconds, then deglaze with stock, scraping off any bits that are stuck to the bottom.
Add sugar, Chinese cooking wine, and the beef; simmer gently for 5 mins.
Meanwhile, dissolve the cornstarch in about 3 Tbsp of cold water.
When the sauce is done simmering, pour in half of the cornstarch slurry while stirring, and let it come back to a simmer. Check the sauce for thickness, and if it's still too runny, add a little bit more of the cornstarch slurry until the desired consistency is reached. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Add the tofu to the sauce and gently nudge the tofu around so it is sitting in one layer. Spoon some the sauce over the tofu, then let it simmer gently for another 5 minutes.
Transfer onto a serving bowl, drizzle with more chili oil if desired, and garnish with chopped green onions and some of the reserved Sichuan peppercorns if desired. Tip: Some people do not like the numbing sensation from the Sichuan peppercorns, so it might be safe to serve the extra Sichuan pepper on the side so people can sprinkle on more if they want it.
Serve with jasmine rice, and enjoy!