When I stay with my friend Fan Qun at her parents' farmhouse in northern Hunan, we sit outside on sunny days, looking out over the narrow fields and gently rising hills. The road is a track, and there is virtually no traffic, but neighbors walk past often, and usually stop for a chat or a cup of tea. One occasional visitor is the local bean curd-maker, an old man in a blue Mao suit, who carries a bamboo slat on his shoulders, from which hangs a basket of freshly made bean curd, and a basket of the bean curd dregs that can be made into soup. Fan Qun's mother sometimes fries the bean curd, and then simmers it in a sauce with chiles and other seasonings.
"Home-style bean curd" is one of the most common everyday dishes in Hunan, and is said to have been a particular favorite of Chairman Mao's. I have recorded many different versions of it, in kitchens all over Hunan, and the one below is my amalgamation of the most delicious. If you don't have either chili bean paste or the salted chiles, just use double quantities of the one you do have. To make it really rustic, you should use lard instead of oil for frying, and serve the sauce unthickened.
2 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 1/4 lb. firm bean curd, drained (about 1 1/4 blocks)
3 oz. boneless lean pork, cut into fine slivers
1 tsp. Shaoxing wine
1 tsp. chili bean paste
1 tbsp. chopped salted chilies
1 tbsp. finely chopped garlic
1 tsp. dried chili flakes (optional)
1 cup stock
1/4 tsp. dark soy sauce
3/4 tsp. potato flour mixed with 1 tbsp. cold water
3 scallions, green parts only, cut into bite-size lengths
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/3 cup peanut oil or lard
1. Put the dried mushrooms into a heatproof bowl, pour over enough hot water from the kettle to cover and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Drain, squeeze dry, discard the stalks, and cut the caps into thin slices; set aside.
2. Meanwhile, cut the bean curd into large squares, then cut these into triangular slices, about 1/2 inch thick; set aside. Put the pork in a bowl and mix with the Shaoxing wine.
3. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add 3 tablespoons of the peanut oil or lard and swirl around. Lay slices of bean curd onto the surface of the wok and fry, turning over once, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and set aside. You will need to fry the bean curd in a couple of batches.
4. Clean the wok, if necessary, and reheat over a high flame until smoke rises. Add 3 tablespoons peanut oil or lard and swirl around. Add the pork and stir-fry until the slivers separate. Add the chili bean paste and salted chiles and stir-fry until fragrant. Throw in the mushrooms and garlic and continue stir-frying until they also smell delicious. Add the chili flakes, if using, stir once or twice and then pour into stock.
5. Return the bean curd to the wok with the dark soy sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for several minutes to allow the flavors to penetrate the bean curd, seasoning with salt to taste, if necessary.
6. Add the potato flour mixture and stir to thicken the sauce, then add the scallion greens. Finally, off the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.