While there is no shortage of foods hot enough to scorch the mouths of even the most intrepid culinary thrill-seekers, they don’t make for a particularly enjoyable eating experience.

It’s unfortunate that dishes from the Sichuan region often fall under the same umbrella, garnering fame and infamy alike for their incandescent heat. But Sichuan cuisine is more than the sum of the Scoville ranking (50,000 to 70,000, for the record) of its namesake chili. The flavor backbone of Sichuan cuisine is called mala (麻辣) in Chinese, a combination of the words for “numbing” and “piquant spice.” The traditional burning heat (la) one expects from a spicy dish is coupled with an effervescent tingling sensation (ma).

This combination, showcased in the recipe below, yields a heat that while undeniably powerful, falls short of painful. Tempered with the inclusion of red miso, this Japanese-Chinese fusion māpō dōfu is a flavorful and beginner-friendly introduction to the intricacy of Sichuan spice.

Serves 4-6
Prep: 10 mins.; cook: 20 mins.

• 240 milliliters stock (beef or chicken)
• 50 grams red miso
• 30 milliliters Chinese soy sauce
• 30 milliliters sake
• 8 grams cornstarch
• Salt
• 340 grams soft tofu, cut into 2.5- to 3-centimeter cubes
• 2 grams Sichuan peppercorns
• Peanut oil
• 275 grams ground beef
• 75 grams doubanjiang (Sichuan chili bean paste)
• 20 grams garlic, minced
• 20 grams ginger, minced

1. Mix stock, miso, soy sauce, sake and cornstarch in a small bowl and set aside. In a small pot, bring just enough water to submerge the tofu to a boil, add a pinch of salt, and lower to an energetic simmer. Add the tofu and simmer for three minutes, then remove the pot from the heat, leaving the tofu in the water.

2. Heat a wok (or large saucepan) over medium-low heat and toast the Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant and lightly browned, for about two minutes. Then grind the peppercorns to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

3. Reheat the wok until it’s extremely hot, then shut off the heat and add a generous glug of oil, swirling to coat as much of the pan as possible. Return the wok to the burner and put the heat on medium-high, until bubbles form around the tip of your chopstick or wooden spoon when you dip it in.

4. Cook the beef until it’s brown and crispy, and the oil in the pan goes from clear to golden, and back to clear again.

5. Push the beef out of the pool of oil (leaving the meat in the wok, off to the side), turn off the heat and stir in the doubanjiang. Return the heat to medium-low, making sure the paste isn’t burning, until it dyes the oil a vibrant red, for around a minute and a half. Add the ginger and garlic, and mix.

6. Add the stock mixture to the wok, and let your beef re-enter the liquid, stirring until combined. Drain the tofu and add it to the wok. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly (and gently, to avoid crushing the tofu), to ensure uniform thickening.

7. Once it’s thickened (after about six minutes), sprinkle in the Sichuan powder and remove the wok from the heat. Serve over rice, garnished with green onions.

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