What was that meal I ate?
February 23, 2006 3:56 AM   Subscribe

What on earth was that meal that I ate? Tingling spicy tofu?

In 1996 I had the great pleasure of visiting China. In a lakeside town, we actually found a Japanese restaurant, and decided to eat there.

I ate a dish called `Tingling Spicy Tofu'. It was quite spicy, with a very interesting flavour, and one of my travel companions confirmed my thought that it tasted like marijuana (!).

There's a lot of it grown in that region, so it wouldn't be hard to get. It is, however, terribly weak as a narcotic.

There was no feeling of being high, so it may not have been an ingredient. My tongue did indeed tingle, and felt somewhat numbed. For an hour or so afterwards I had a pleasant tart sort of taste that seemed to be more chemical in nature. By that I mean it didn't seem like a flavour in my mouth, but a reaction with my tastebuds.

Does anyone have any idea what this might have been? It was wonderful.
posted by tomble to Food & Drink (20 answers total)
Best answer: Sounds like Szechuan peppercorn, a common ingredient in Szechuan-style Chinese food and also sometimes used by the Japanese. The Chinese in fact refer to Szechuan food as "mala" which is often translated as "spicy" but which literally means "numbing and hot", the numbing part from Szechuan peppercorn and the hot part from hot peppers. This on Szechuan peppercorn from the link:

The taste of most species is pungent and biting; it may take some time to develop, but in the end produces a strangly numbing, almost anaesthetic feeling on the tongue.

Google around, you'll find more.
posted by mono blanco at 4:08 AM on February 23, 2006

Best answer: Also...the dish you had might very well have been mapo dofu.
posted by mono blanco at 4:13 AM on February 23, 2006

Best answer: mono blanco is right. It's Sichuan Peppercorn (which is banned from imported into USA, btw) and the dish you had was probably Ma Po Tofu. The numbing effect is precisely what it's loved for. (Technically, it's a berry, not a peppercorn, but what the heck.)

I have a recipe here. It's a vegetarian version, but it tastes better with some minced pork or beef.
posted by madman at 4:39 AM on February 23, 2006

Sichuan peppercorn is no longer banned in the US -- they lifted the ban this year, as long as the peppercorns are heated prior to importation. They were banned because they were carrying a cirtus canker. But the heat kills the canker. It was never a human health issue.
posted by jennyjenny at 5:39 AM on February 23, 2006

Thanks for the info, jennyjenny. I live many thousands of kilometres away from the US, so not quite up to date on the latest developments. (I knew about the canker; I didn't say it was a human health issue. :)
posted by madman at 5:44 AM on February 23, 2006

That's it. I'm so going for some ma po tofu at the corner Chinese place today.
posted by brownpau at 5:47 AM on February 23, 2006

As to marijuana component: A chinese national I know was exposed to that smell at a party and said "I like that smell. That smells like the herb we burn to let the smoke go on the bare feet of women that are having babies."
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:25 AM on February 23, 2006

Best answer: I love this dish and make it frequently. I've never had a restaurant version (in the US) that was as good as this recipe, which I adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop (mostly to include a vegetarian version). If I have them I'll use both leeks and scallions.


1 lb tofu
4 baby leeks or 2 leeks or 1 leek plus 1 bunch scallions
1/2 cup peanut oil
6 oz ground beef or ground pork or 6-8 shiitake mushrooms + 2 sliced garlic cloves
2 1/2 tbs chile bean paste (toban djan)
1 tbs fermented black beans
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp white sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce
2-3 tbs arrowroot
1/2 tsp ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns


1. Cut tofu into 1-inch cubes and steep in salted hot water.
2. Cut leeks into long "horse ear" slices (or roughly chop scallions)
3. Add peanut oil to wok over high heat and stir-fry meat or mushrooms, adding garlic at the end
4. Turn the heat down to medium and add the chile bean paste, stir-frying for 30 seconds, then add fermented black beans and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.
5. Pour in stock and add tofu. Mix it gently to avoid breaking the tofu. Season with sugar, soy sauce and a little salt. Simmer for 5 minutes or more.
6. Add leeks or scallions and stir in until just cooked. Turn heat to low and add arrowroot until sauce has thickened. Serve with scattered peppercorns at the table, over rice.
posted by nev at 6:50 AM on February 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I love mapo dofu. The first time I had it in Taiwan (at the Hsiao O-mei near Roosevelt Road) it was so spicy I couldn't believe people around me were gobbling it so casually; a few spoonfuls were all I could manage. The next day I tried it again... Soon I was seriously addicted. I've never been able to replicate the experience in the US, probably due to a combination of the ban on peppercorns and fear of excessive spicing on the part of restaurateurs. (I'd ask my wife to try nev's recipe, but she hates tofu, alas.)
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on February 23, 2006

Make it with chicken!
posted by nev at 7:21 AM on February 23, 2006

Okay, ride-on question: where can I find these Sichuan peppercorns in a metro-accessible part of the Washington DC area?
posted by brownpau at 7:27 AM on February 23, 2006

While you're out getting your peppercorns (wherever that is you get them in DC), make sure to pick up the douban jiang (豆瓣酱) that nev mentioned. The fermented spicy bean paste gives a lot of Szechuan food, including ma po tofu, its distinctive background flavors. This is just as important in re-creating that meal you ate. Also, a handful of chopped scallions and cilantro on top can be really delicious, though I don't see this in restaurants very often.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:22 AM on February 23, 2006

Yeah, one of the reasons I added that parenthetical about "toban djan" was that it was the spelling under which I found the brand that I bought. It's this stuff, which is commonly available in Chinatown here in Boston and likely elsewhere.

If there's a better or more authentic brand with an easily-identifiable label, I'd love to know about it.
posted by nev at 8:45 AM on February 23, 2006

Nev, I can't tell you anything about whether it's more authentic or not, but the stuff I get at Super 88 comes in a flexible, clear plastic jar with a red/orange screw top. I think the label is some shiny/metallic color. There is English writing on the front. It's with the non-Lee Kum Kee bean pastes. It comes in two varieties, I think... two different kinds of beans. I get the kind with broad/yellow beans.
posted by rxrfrx at 9:55 AM on February 23, 2006

And I skipped the LKK brand because I think it uses soybeans, which I've read is less authentic for ma po tofu.
posted by rxrfrx at 9:56 AM on February 23, 2006

Good to know, thanks!
posted by nev at 10:04 AM on February 23, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, this is great! Does anyone know if these peppercorns are available in Australia?
posted by tomble at 1:36 PM on February 23, 2006

Best answer: Does anyone know if these peppercorns are available in Australia?

They're everywhere. Check out any Asian grocer for "sichuan" or "szechuan" pepper / peppercorns. Usually comes in a plastic packet. You can even find it in the supermarket if it has a half-decent Asian section. If you're outside a metro area, send me an e-mail and I'll post you a pack ;).
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:21 PM on February 23, 2006

Stupid link: obiwanwasabi@gmail.com. Just saw you're in Melbourne, so you'll have no worries tracking it down.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:23 PM on February 23, 2006

Response by poster: thanks, obiwan! Managed to get some yesterday at the local asian grocery.
posted by tomble at 11:57 PM on February 25, 2006

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