Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wokking Away

< excruciating puns> A few weeks ago, after lots of dilly-dallying and back-and-forthing, I welcomed a new arrival into my kitchen: a shiny new huge carbon steel wok. This momentous decision was no wok in the park! It took a great deal of reading and googling and research to figure out that the wok material that is overwhelmingly preferred by traditional Chinese cooks is carbon steel. This material is ideal for heating to intensely high temperature for searing and stir-frying, but it also means that, unlike the other low-maintenance equipment in my kitchen, the wok is a fussbudget. It requires careful seasoning when you first buy it, and seasoning every time you cook in it. After cooking, you have to wash it gently only in warm water, then heat it to dry it completely, and coat it with a thin film of oil before storing it away. It is like wokking on eggshells to make sure that you keep the rust away. A wok on the wild side, you might say. Well, I can talk the talk, but will I be able to wok the wok? < /excruciating puns>

Bad jokes aside, I *heart* my wok! Since I bought it, we have been cooking so much take-out-style Chinese food. It all started when I wrote about some Sichuan food that I enjoyed in Chicago. Right away, Manisha and Zlamushka both referred me to a wonderful cookbook called Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop. (doesn't she have the most delicious name?)

This is an outstanding cookbook if ever I saw one. Dunlop (who is British) went to the Sichuanese province in China as a student for a few months, fell in love with the cuisine, and went on to become a full-time student in the cooking school there. She learnt how to read, write and speak Chinese, and the cookbook represents recipes that she has personally experienced there. It is an incredible ode to an incredible cuisine.

The dish that I was trying to make was the one I ate in that Sichuan restaurant- Ma Po Tofu. Dunlop translates the name as "Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Bean Curd", named after the person who is said to have created it. Sichuan cooking has a rigorous theoretical basis, it looks like, with 23 flavors and 56 cooking methods. This dish falls under the hot-and-numbing flavor, which tells you a thing or two! I have been cooking almost exclusively with extra-firm tofu or firm tofu, but I think soft tofu is best in this dish. I see soft tofu sold as just "tofu" without any qualifiers in Trader Joe's. The main flavor in this dish comes from Sichuanese chilli bean paste. I was able to find that easily in the international store. It is an addictively tasty paste.

As usual, my version has been adapted from the book. The changes I made to the original recipe are:
1. The recipe calls for 1/2 C oil, I reduce it to 2 T because I'm just not that brave a person.
2. The recipe calls for leeks, with scallions as an alternative. I used scallions. Dunlop specifies that the leeks or scallions should be cut on the bias- in diagonal slices; what Sichuanese cuisine vividly refers to as "horse ear" slices.
3. The original recipe calls for ground beef. I used soy granules, but this can be omitted altogether, she says.
4. For extra flavor, the recipe adds some fermented black beans but I skipped these (they are already present in the paste).
5. Chilli fiends are instructed to add some ground Sichuanese chillies but I did not have these either (anyway, I doubt either V or me can handle that much heat).
6. The final sprinkle on the dish is some ground Sichuan pepper. This is an ingredient that is very similar to (or possibly the same as) tirphal or teppal used in some Konkani or Goan dishes. It has a very distinct "tingly" taste. I skipped this ingredient too. So you see, my version is very watered-down, but it was extremely tasty anyway. When I get a chance to buy all those other ingredients, I look forward to making it the real thing.

Ma Po Dou Fu

(Adapted from Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking by Fuschia Dunlop, serves 2-3)

1 block tofu, cut into cubes
3-4 scallions (green onions/ spring onions), sliced on the bias (at an angle)
2 T peanut oil
1/3 C soy granules (rehydrated TVP or Nutrela granules)
2 T Sichuan chilli-bean paste (or to taste)
1.5 C vegetable stock or water
2 T soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 T cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 C cold water
1. In a seasoned wok, heat the oil until it is smoking. Add the soy granules and stir for a few seconds. Turn down the heat to medium.
2. Stir in chilli-bean paste and fry for a few more seconds.
3. Add the veg stock or water and let it simmer.
4. Add the tofu cubes and stir gently. Simmer them for 5 minutes.
5. Add the scallions and let them cook for 2-3 minutes.
6. Stir in soy sauce and sugar.
7. Add cornstarch mixture, drizzling it all over the wok, until the sauce thickens and becomes glossy. Only add as much as you need. Check for seasoning and serve right away!

I served the tofu with some stir-fried vegetable noodles for a superb meal.

Raaga commented that I am seem to be in love with soy granules/ TVP these days :) Well, I'm afraid it is a bit of a misrepresentation...this is what happens when you decide to publish a flurry of posts that have been languishing in the drafts for several weeks. With this post, the run of East Asian-inspired dishes comes to an end (for now!) and we will return to the regular programming- with some good old Indian food :D Meanwhile, if you have any favorite wok recipes, I would love to get recommendations!

***** ****** *******
A few days ago, Nags challenged us to Show Her Our Cookbooks and reveal our very favorite cookbook.

Many avid cooks amass vast collections of cookbooks. Mine is a very modest one, and a *very* motley collection, at that. It represents all the loving family and friends in my life who go out of their way to spoil me rotten encourage my hobby by gifting me cookbooks or giving me gift cards to bookstores. Here is the first shelf...

And the second one...

I have spoken of my current favorite cookbook many many times, but here it is again, just for the record...

World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey.

5 reasons I love this book:
1. It has hundreds of meatless recipes- a treasury of ideas for anyone who looks forward to a delicious vegetarian dinner every night.
2. The recipes come from all over the world from Brazil to Korea, Trinidad to Vietnam- you can taste the world, one dish at a time.
3. The recipes are home-style, often with names like Cheryl Rathkopf's Sri Lankan White Egg Curry and My sister, Kamal's "Alan ka Saag". They represent the best of home cooking.
4. Every ingredient, say, "Greens" or "Buckwheat" starts with an introduction of the food, its different forms/types and then an array of recipes to use the ingredient. There is such a wealth of information stored in this book. The words carry their own weight, and splashy pictures are restricted to a few pages in the centerfold.
5. All the recipes that I have tried from it have become instant favorites- Lubia Polo, Sri Lankan Mustard Greens and Oriya Mashed Potatoes to name just three.

See you on the weekend!


  1. Ow, Nupur, those puns ARE excruciating! But I fully understand your urge to pun away - I mean, wokkan you do when it hits you, right?

    Oddly enough, my husband also bought a large steel wok recently and I bought some fresh beancurd... some of which is remaining, so I think I have a recipe to try...

  2. That is one good looking wok, no wonder it requires all that preening... The Ma Po Tofu looks delicious. I will keep a lookout for the chilli bean sauce.

  3. Nupur, this dish is so mouthwatering....its a feast for the eyes. you have quite some collection of cookbooks. i really envy you. Hopefully over a period of years i will be able to collect some:)

  4. Nupur,

    You have an impressive collection of cookbooks. My fav is a small book given by my s-i-l which contains authentic goan recipes, written and published by her mil. Congrats on your new wok, I have heard great things about it. Inspite of all the maintenance, it is wok the effort. (feeble attempt, I tried).
    Will be watching this space for more wok inspired delicacies


  5. Mine is not a stainless steel wok...I dont apply oil on it before u suggest that? won't it produce a bad smell..? I dont use my very often...


  6. At least three states and five moves ago, my Dad gave me a wok - a cast iron wok that so far has managed to only get moved and then hide in a basement. It's never even been seasoned - in part because each trip from the basement would require a crane or perhaps more minimally, an elevator. I look forward to your inspiration ... PS don't tell my Dad!

  7. hi nupur, delicious!!!! may i ask wht ingredient I substitute for chilli-bean paste?? I am afraid I wont find it in stores here. Secondly, is using that wok a must?? Can we try out the same recipe using our humble kadai or a non stick pot??? And thirdly can u pls share in some basic and simple to make recipe for stir fried noodles. I generally make hakka noodles, but then wuld appreciate if there are methods....Also I often come across this term as "durum wheat" while buying noodles. So u know what form of wheat is this and if this is an healthier version...


  8. thanks one handsome wok. no wonder he demands oil massage to show off his biceps;)
    wonderful collection of cookbooks nupur.

  9. wokking away is an understatement......LOL
    u hv such a wonderful collection of cookbooks, nupur!
    u tried it, so i take this bean paste is veg & does not hv any "fillers". Dish ooks delicious :)

  10. What a beautiful wok, Nupur! Did you buy this locally or online? I've been dragging my feet on buying a wok and since it looks like you've done the research, I am shameless enough to say: please tell me more! I want to buy one just like that! :-D

    I'm glad you are enjoying Fuchsia Dunlop's cookbook! Time for me to borrow it from the library again. The last time, I held on to it for as long as I could. Or maybe I should just get my own copy! I used to read it just before going to bed and dream of sichaun peppers, drying vegetables on my roof, and so on!

    Your Ma Po Dou Fu looks fiery enough without all the extras. And, I have tirphal! (Did you know it was banned by the US Govt at one time?!)

  11. Lovely recipe, Nupur! The wok seems like quite a lot of work, but if its makes great food, then why not :).

  12. Very funny, wacky wokky jokes. The tofu looks splendid, does the wok play a part ? would it taste diff if a Kadhai is used ?

  13. The puns were fun! :)) Your creation looks fabulous...makes me want to buy the wok immediately, but will it 'wok';) for me, considering my laziness :)

  14. Shyam, well, don't say I didn't warn you :D What have you guys been doing with your new wok??

    Laavanya, the chilli bean sauce is delicious...worth seeking out!

    Priyanka, you will definitely collect some over the years, especially as friends and family come to know your love for cooking.

    Namita, totaaly wok the effort :D Your Goan cookbook sounds great! I love those little home-style recipe books, and wish they could be more widely available.

    Shn, this care is recommended only for carbon steel woks, so if your is different then you don't need to do this.

    Alanna, well, mine is only a carbon steel one (thin sheet of metal) and is heavy I can imagine what a cast iron wok would be like! That being said, a wok produces great results, and especially cooks vegetables very quickly and flavorfully, so I think you would enjoy using it.

  15. Nupur,
    I love the way you write each post.
    I enjoyed this one too.
    That dish looks gorgeous and hope to see more wok preparations.

  16. That wok's a lot of work - there's another excruciating pun!

  17. Wok can I say...nice wok.
    I'm still looking for the perfect flat-bottomed wok (have an electric cooktop).
    Have the same question as Manisha: online or in-store?

  18. nupur, we've realised that our wok needs no fussing at all. in fact, it is one of the lowest-maintenance things in our kitchen. just after you cook with it, use a wet tissue to wipe it clean. then wipe it with a dry tissue and put it away. that simple. if you have burnt on stuff, get some #0000 steelwool from home depot (it's called 'four ought' steel wool, with the sandpaper in the paint aisle. make sure the packet has four zeroes in it.)
    scrub, wipe, put it away. done.

    four ought steel wool and 600 grit sandpaper (from the autoparts store) are indispensable in our kitchen.

  19. Hey Nupur!!! Thanks for the recipe. I loooooooooooove Ma Po Tofu and now I will definitely give it a try at home....I need soem help from you.....I have been hunting for a good Maharashtrian cook book in English ........Do you have any suggestions?

  20. wok can I say Nupur,looking forward to wokful creations.
    One of the regulars I have in chineese resturants in Ma Pau, I love it thanks for the recipe

  21. Raakhee, Hi there! For the paste...hmm...I can't think of a suitable substitute, but you could make a chilli-garlic paste instead for a different yet delicious result. No, a wok is not a must here at all, and a kadhai would work just as well. I don't have a recipe as such for stir-fried noodles. I just saute vegetables (cabbage, carrot, capsicum, all cut in long shreds), then toss with cooked noodles, chilli sauce, soy sauce and then garnish with spring onions. I bet you will find much better recipes elsewhere. Hakka noodles would go great with this dish. Finally, durum wheat is just a variety of wheat ("hard wheat") that is most commonly used to make Italian pasta. Whether it is healthier or not depends on whether it is refined or used whole, just as with any other wheat variety.

    Sia, you are too funny :D !!!

    Richa, well, the ingredient list says chillies, salt, water, fermented soybean paste, fermented broad bean paste, sugar, garlic, cornstarch, soybean oil, lactic acid and two flavor enhancers. I am quite happy to use this paste for my once-in-every-few-weeks Chinese cooking, but if you are concerned, you could certainly think of making your own paste with fermented soybeans (they are available in jars, I think) and Sichuan chillies.

    Manisha, I bought this wok online. Here is what I learnt: Traditional Chinese woks are made of carbon steel (iron and elemental carbon alloy), and the metal is hammered thin. Woks are designed for quick cooking at intense temps; very different from cast iron etc. which is designed for slow simmering. For care and seasoning, look online and you will find good info. Woks are really cheap, and you will find a great one for 8-15 $ in Chinese stores/ Chinatown if you have one in your city. I phoned around/ looked around and could not find anything in St. Louis, hence the online purchase. Never ever buy a carbon steel-nonstick coated defeats the whole purpose of having a wok because you will not be able to heat it high. These are designed just for ignorant customers who want nonstick-everything. A large (12 or 14 inch) wok is best because it will have ample space to toss food around (although it looks huge to begin with). Also, look for a wok with handles because you need to use it to toss food like Martin Yan. Choose a flat bottom or round bottom depending on your stove. Flat bottomed woks of this type can be used on electric stoves without any problem at all.
    Any other questions- don't hesitate to ask! :) This is a purchase for a lifetime, essentially, because woks only get better with use, as they get seasoned over and over again.
    P.S: Check out Grace Young's "The Breath of a Wok" for great info.

    Musical, it does make great food- very restaurant-y food :D

    Sandeepa, no, feel free to use a kadhai. A wok is really just a Chinese kadhai...I bought one because I don't have a kadhai (shame on me, I know). For this dish, because you aren't really sauteeing much, any old pot would do!

    Tee, I was in a very silly mood, as you can see :D It is going to wok out for sure, especially if you are a fan of stir-fries.

    Suma, thank you :) I hope to learn more wok recipes as I go along!

    Sra, it is well worth all the wok ;)

    TheCooker, tee hee :) online, see link above in response to M's comment. But honestly, if you live someplace with a Chinatown, you will get an authentic wok for much less, so do weigh your options.

    Bee, thanks a LOT for this great tip! Have been seeking steelwool, actually, and now I know exactly what to look for. I have a lot to learn about wokking :)

    Smita, hmm...I myself have not come across any good Maharashtrian cookbook but have heard that the English translation of "Ruchira" is good. You can see the original Marathi books (the blue-purple pair) on the lower shelf. The english version has far fewer recipes, I hear, but may be well worth checking out.

  22. Thanks Nupur...I'll definitely get these...Would have loved to have the Marathi versions if I was confortable with them:)

  23. You keep wokking away my friend! The pic of the tofu dish in the wok alone is worth the visit here :)

  24. Really tofu dish looks amazing. Good work dear. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Nupur,
    The Ma pa tofu in the wok looks just like the one I had in a Sichuan restaurant recently. Can't wait to get my hands on that chilli-bean paste and try this recipe. For now, I'll have to make it in a regular non-stick pan. Thanks a wok (a REALLY bad one, I know) for this lovely recipe and the info on woks.


  26. Hi Nupur,
    The wok and the tofu dish look great.Thanks for all the that's a wonderful collection of books you have.Thanks for sharing.Durga

  27. I promise I will not be prejudiced abt yr wok cooking (nor soy granules). Keep the wok recipes coming.

  28. New Wok for the hard working chef :). The food looks fantastic. I loved ur cookbook colection.

  29. what a woky post. just loved that photo with the wok...looks so delicious

  30. Nupur I love Madhur's book too. As a matter of fact it's been on my sidebar since last week - I will be featuring a few recipes from it soon. I also recently bought her Curries cookbook also a must have.
    Your wokking session looks fantastic - hope we get to wok together someday too ;-) Hugs!

  31. Do you have Breath of a Wok on your bookshelf? If you do, look inside in the first chapter where the author describes her visit to a man in Shanghai who makes hand-hammered carbon steel woks. There is a photo of the man. And in my kitchen is one of his woks, brought back from China for me by a cooking buddy! It is my most prized possession.

  32. Nupur, I have been dilly dallying on the wok too, maybe it's time esp if I can make those delicious looking tofu :)

  33. not yet invested in wok, but your wok photo is tempting to grab one from a korean store we have nearby.. Willl have to explore the chinese food now. OMG Nupur you have a very good collection of cook books..

  34. Spun steel wok was the right choice to make. Ironically they are quite inexpensive compared to the big brand name cookware woks which can be $150 or so, and the spun steel is in the $16-$20 range here in Asian restaurant supply stores. Mine is an 18" and I so love it.

    BTW Can I invite you to post/upload to our site? It is free and you can link to your site. We get currently 11 million hits a month and half of our members are Indian in India, UK and US.

  35. waw, I too have a similar wok. it works wonders for stir fries!! even my desi subzis.
    you have a beautiful collection of books.

  36. Your dish looks very nice. You have such a large cookbook collection(it is large compared to mine; I only have three.)

  37. I've been thinking about getting a wok for so long and for some reason keep putting it off. I think my main problem is where to put it! Thanks for all the tips and the link in the comments - I may finally be ready to take the plunge.

  38. Smita, The English version is only one slim volume, not two big parts like the Marathi one.

    Cynthia, thanks :)

    Jyothi, glad you like it.

    Mamatha, I hope you enjoy the recipe :)

    Durga, thanks for stopping by!

    Suganya, I think I will :)

    Pooja V, yes, it is nice to add some new kitchen equipment once in a while :)

    Madhuli, thanks!

    Meeta, looking forward to the your favorite recipes from this book! Would love to wok with you for sure :)

    Lydia, reallly??? That is so cool! I don't own that book...had borrowed it from the library some time ago.

    Mandira, Yes, it is one more thing in the kitchen, but a useful one!

    Padma, yes, those kind of small stores would be a good source of traditional kitchenware.

    Shantihhh, yes, woks are quite inexpensive.

    Sharmi, I have yet to try mine for desi subzis but that is on the agenda! Good to know that it works :)

    TBC, I started out with a couple of tiny booklets, this collection has come about over a few years :)

    Cathy, true, true, where to put this giant wok! Mine is perched precariously on top of three other things in a cramped shelf :D

  39. Hi Nupur,

    I am so proud of your Wokking experiences. It looks like you re really enjoying it. Glad you got the book I mentioned. Form there, I copied the recipe for Mapo Doufu for you. Funny, I was at the Chinese market this morning and was this close from buying that amazing chili paste. I love it and add it to any stir-fry...

  40. Hi Napur...oh, you MUST get a hold of szechuan pepper- same genus as tirphal BTW, so quite similar- it's such a fun, giggle-causing spice! Even with your soy granules instead of meat, your finished dish looks divine. (sssh...don't tell anyone, but I've secretly been doing my own experiments with Punjabi wadis)

    I use my carbon-steel wok for most of my cooking; if I were suddenly forced from my home, you can bet I'd be hauling it with me!! I just rinse it after use in warm water, and use a luffa-gourd to remove any bits; then heat it to thoroughly dry, wipe it with old oil from deep-frying, and put away. Becomes a ritual over time. Most of my cookware is cast-iron, so I'm used to the seasoning ritual.

    I see you have Premila Lal's old book! Hold on to that one- it's a gem in my eyes!

  41. Hi Nupur...You have a great collection of cookery books....specially the marathi ones...My mother had one of those books...The recipes were brilliant...That Wok is beautiful...

  42. I don't oil my wok every time I use it, just wash (no soap!), and heat it to smoking before letting it cool. I oil it every 3rd or 4th time - maybe even less often than that. Once it gets seasoned it's pretty forgiving as long as you never let it sit wet. Same for my little karhai.

    Strangely enough, I don't much care for "World Vegetarian" I think her Indian and African recipes are fairly good, but it feels too ambitious, and I made a number of recipes from it that were kind of "ehhhhhhh" before I gave it away. Hopefully its new owner is enjoying it and treasuring it as you do.

  43. What a great post once again! Love that Wok! I have already started to look for one :)
    I just added a link to you blog on mine, hope that is okay :)

  44. I love tvp/tsp recipes. Keep them coming!

  45. I have been dying to buy a wok but, have hardly seen any decent flat bottomed ones and frankly speaking...I don't even think of those as woks..I will have to wait till we move to a place that has gas stoves and not electric ones:( The dish looks yummy and will make it when I get hold of the paste...I have Sriracha and Sambal you think i could use these instead?

  46. Zlamushka, I'm going to try many of the recipes from your blog, now that I have this wok!

    Pelicano, oooh, your experiments with Punjabi wadis sound *too* tempting! Thanks for sharing your wok-caring tips; I think the idea of a luffa to clean it is sheer genius! I stole the Premila Lal book from my spouse :D he got it from his mom.

    Supriya, yes, the Marathi cookbooks are very dear to me :)

    Diane, my wok is very new, as it keeps getting used and better seasoned, I know the care-taking will get easier.
    It seems we have either tried completely different recipes from World Veg, or our tastes are completely different :D

    Shweta, thanks for stopping by! And for the link, very sweet of you :)

    Anon, Ok, I will :)

    Soulkadi, these pastes have their own distinct tastes, so of course if you substitute them, the taste will be different. Still tasty though, I bet.

  47. Anita, I have no idea where your comment disappeared :( In any case, I think the chilli and fermented bean paste are the dominant flavors here, so I think your version will be delicious! And guess what?! I bought "a taste of India" just 2-3 days ago. I is out of print, but I found a used (in good shape) copy online. I'm loving it! Thanks for the inspiration!

  48. Nupur, thanks for all that info! You're a gem!

  49. Amazing!!!!!!!!never tried tofu before,but after looking at these pictures..must try it out...

  50. I just made this dish for lunch. I have made it for the 6th time so far! This is a fantastic recipe, one I turn to time and again :-)


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