The first time I ate mapo tofu I thought it was fine. The second time I found myself wondering when it was going to arrive at the table, and then eating as much of it as I could while it was still really hot, avoiding my pile of rice so that I could fit more tofu into my stomach. I don’t know what changed between those two meals, but we’ve become so obsessed that whenever we go to Chung King we order the same items: mapo tofu, dry fried green beans, and fried shrimp with hot peppers.

I really am not the sort of person who orders the same thing time after time. But I can’t imagine driving all the way to the San Gabriel valley and not eating one of those three dishes. And logistically, it’s the perfect amount of food for two people. So there you go. We order the same thing every time.

Getting to Chung King around dinnertime involves a pretty grueling drive on the 10, past downtown and two of the worst interchanges in the city, then another ten miles further. I can’t (or am yet unwilling) to attempt fried shrimp, but I figured the other two dishes were totally recreatable, especially if I hunted down the right ingredients. This meant putting off the project for quite some time, because every time I was at grocery in San Gabriel I had forgotten exactly what sort of chili paste I needed. Besides which, if I was at a grocery that might have the right ingredients that meant I was only a few blocks from Chung King, so who cares about buying the right dried shrimp let’s goooooooo please.

I finally amassed the kit, though, and like my grandfather, who when I was a child was on a perpetual mission to make perfect jiaozi, I’ve made the dishes a few times and noodled around enough with the recipes that I am pleased. They’re tasty enough that they can delay a necessary trip to the SGV for at least a few weeks. I will warn you, making both of these is a time investment. I spent a full hour assembling the mise en place, which you have to do because once the pan is hot everything moves very fast. But you don’t have to make both! Mapo tofu, rice, and a nice salad dressed with some citrus and toasted sesame oil would be a lovely dinner. And although the green beans are great as is, the best thing about the recipe is the cooking technique. Fry up some fresh (and dry) green beans in a few tablespoons of oil, tossing them until some are blistered, then salt them and let the oil drain off on paper towels or a tea towel. Cooking them this way will improve your affection for green beans, even if it’s already strong: this technique is so much better than steaming them, or even steaming and then sauteing them. You won’t believe how many green beans you want to eat if you fry them up.

Mapo Tofu
adapted from Appetite for China
serves 2-3 as a main course

I’ve tweaked a few things about these recipes. I think mapo tofu should be shockingly hot, so two teaspoons of sichuan peppercorns isn’t enough. But if you like milder food, then you should use two–you get a little heat, a little numbing, but no pain. The cornstarch needed to be dialed way back. I still advocate adding your cornstarch slurry in two stages, so you can decide just how gloppy you want your tofu. The other seasonings are right on. As for the green beans, I added way more beans–half a pound barely satiates me, let alone anyone else who wants to eat dinner. Strangely enough, you can up the green beans without touching any other part of the recipe, though the dried shrimp is obviously optional, as are the pickled veggies and anything else you don’t have on hand. As I said above, the cooking technique is the star here.

1 1-lb. block silken (soft) tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 T canola oil
1/4 lb. ground pork (optional)
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 leeks, thinly sliced
2 1/2 T chili bean sauce
1 T fermented black beans
2-4 t crushed Sichuan peppercorns*
1 C chicken or vegetable stock
2 t white sugar
2 t light soy sauce
2 T cornstarch mixed with 1/4 C cold water

Scallions for garnish

Heat the oil in a wok or big saute pan over high heat. Add the pork, if you’re using it, and cook until crispy and starting to brown. Break it up as much as possible. Reduce heat to medium, then add the garlic and leeks and cook 2-3 minutes.

Add chili bean sauce, black beans, and the Sichuan peppercorns, and cook for about 1 minute. Mash up the beans with a wooden spoon so they can evenly distribute themselves in the sauce.

Pour in the stock and stir well. Mix in the drained tofu very gently–I use a big spatula for this so that I can get under the tofu without breaking it. Season with the sugar and soy sauce. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the cornstarch mixture in two stages. I usually push the tofu to the side so that I can pour the cornstarch slurry straight into the sauce and mix it up without disturbing the tofu.

Serve while still super hot. Garnish with scallions and eat with rice.

*my Sichuan peppercorns come whole and I don’t have a spice grinder. So I pulse them with the garlic in the food processor and this crushes them rather coarsely. If you grind the pepper finely your dish will be spicier, I expect.

Dry Fried Green Beans
adapted from Appetite for China
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

3 T canola oil
1 1/2 pound green beans – rinsed, dried, and chopped to 2-inch lengths. The drying is essential.
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
1 t ginger, chopped finely (I do this in the food processor with the ginger)
1 T Sichuan preserved vegetable, rinsed and finely chopped
1/2 T dried shrimp, chopped finely (optional)
5 or 6 dried red chilies
1/2 T chili bean sauce
1/4 t sesame oii
1 t sugar
1/2 t salt

Heat oil in a big saute pan until just beginning to smoke. Add the green beans and toss them around every minute or so, for five minutes total or until the beans are slightly wilted and some are blistered. Some will still be crunchy; I like this but you can cook them more. Remove them from the pan and set aside to drain on paper towels or an old tea towel.

Drain off all but 1 teaspoon of oil from the pan–leave just a little slick. Add the garlic, ginger, preserved vegetable, dried shrimp, and red chilis; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Return beans to the wok, and add chili bean sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and salt. Stir it up and dish it out.

Notes: the dried shrimps don’t make the beans taste shrimpy–they add just a little funkiness. You do want to chop them quite finely though, because getting a hunk of one is funkier than you might like. At the grocery where I find all these ingredients the dried shrimp are in a refrigerated case, and it’s worth it to buy ones that aren’t priced for the bargain basement. But I’ll reiterate–both the shrimps and the preserved vegetable are optional.