Szechuan Tofu

When I was in college, I lived with several housemates right off of Aurora Avenue North, a strip of highway notorious for seedy motels, drugs, and prostitution. Around the corner was a video store called The Voyeur, a pizza joint staffed entirely by Russian guys, a dingy pet store that sold puppy mill puppies, and a Chinese restaurant called the Szechuan Bean Flower.

The restaurant was nondescript. Housed in a strip mall, with the confrontational fluorescent lighting, torn leatherette booths, and smudged linoleum typical of the genre, there was nothing in its appearance that hinted at greatness. I’d never been particularly inclined to eat there. I’ve always been an avid home cook, and with access to the incomparable HT Market (for a glorious time, my neighborhood grocery store) and a top-notch kitchen (the area’s undesirability meant that we got to live in a really nice house with a gas stove) there was little reason to take a chance on a dodgy looking strip-mall restaurant.

At some point, I ended up there anyway. My roommates had developed a mania for hot pot and I quickly caught on. Submerging tender napa cabbage, toothsome rice noodles, and cold slabs of tofu (I skipped the pork and the “beef honeycomb”) into a seething oily broth, then dipping the morsels in a spicy peanut sauce, represented an acme of enjoyment for us broke, food-driven college kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink in bars.

The hot pot was really, really good. But the true revelation came when I finally ordered from the regular menu.

I can’t remember if I was a vegetarian at the time. It’s possible. But even during the meatiest periods of my culinary life, I’ve been a tofu lover. It’s always what I order at Asian restaurants. Plus, I love spice. So I gravitated to the Szechuan tofu. Once I tasted the first bite – crispy fried tofu, alive with the beguiling heat of Szechuan peppercorns, strewn with verdant stalks of cilantro – I was addicted.

This Szechuan tofu was the perfect dish. Texturally, visually, aromatically. It had never before occurred to me to use cilantro as a vegetable; I was an uninspired simpleton. I craved this tofu weekly (or more) and ate it as frequently as I could. Until, one day, I visited the Szechuan Bean Flower with some family who were visiting from Germany. They were true appreciators of food, and vegetarians who adored spicy tofu dishes. I couldn’t wait to turn them on to my life-changing discovery. It’s hard to overstate the confusion and disappointment I felt when my “Szechuan tofu” arrived at the table. Instead of an assertively fragrant red and green pile of fiery tofu and tender cilantro, it was just another tofu dish: spongy yellow cubes languished in an insipid gravy, flanked by carrots and celery and bell peppers. I was crushed.

It turned out that the restaurant had changed owners; although the kept the menu intact, the recipes had changed.

Over the years, I’ve attempted on a few occasions to fill the Szechuan tofu-shaped void in my heart/stomach by making my own. The first couple times, I ended up with a pleasing, spicy tofu dish with lots of cilantro. Idiotically, I failed to include Szechuan peppercorns in these renditions. More recently, I bought extra-firm tofu, which I pressed overnight, and proceeded to fry into leathery dry chunks: the tofu was too dry, and too small. The flavor was good enough, though, so that the friend I’d made it for surprised me a few weeks later by requesting that I make it again. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up.

We made a trip to the venerable HT Market, where we bought tofu from the excellent Thanh Son, plus a whole lot of cilantro and an assortment of weird gelatinous and sweet and salty and artificially colored and entirely unnecessary snack foods (my pantry was already stocked with Szechuan peppercorns from World Spice Merchants).

This time, I didn’t press the tofu; it was late, and we were ravenous. As it turned out, this was a good choice (Thanh Son’s tofu is firm and meaty, and, being really fresh, not packed in water). I also cut it into decidedly bigger chunks. I fried the tofu in a couple of inches of canola oil; it came out crisp and golden, while retaining its internal heft and moisture. Next, I stir-fried it in a big aluminum stock-pot (I don’t have a wok anymore – it probably got lost in one of my many moves) with plenty of Szechuan peppercorns (lovingly hand-ground in my trusty suribachi), a few japones chilies, a splash of soy sauce, and some Sriracha. Then I tossed in two bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro. My friend stir-fried choy sum with ginger to add green-leafy virtue to the meal.

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The result? Really, really good. I’m intensely self-critical when it comes to food (okay, to everything). But I thought my rendition of Szechuan tofu was pretty great. The tofu could have been crispier; maybe I should have dredged it in corn starch or something?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I’ve experienced the real thing. I don’t know if my version was actually that close. But a google search told me there’s a Szechuan Bean Flower in Issaquah – quite likely the very same one?! – and a pilgrimage is in the works.

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