When my wife went out to Vancouver a little while ago, I asked her to pick me up some of ‘that spicy bean sauce I like’. I was actually referring to Lee Kum Kee’s ‘Chili Black Bean Sauce’ but I should have been a little more specific in my request because she came back with another Lee Kum Kee product that I have never seen before. I was disappointed to not get what I asked for, of course, but it turned out to be a happy accident of sorts as it gave me a new product to play around with…
Lee Kum Kee has a pretty hefty product list, including a fair number of sauces based on chili and various beans, so the name of the ‘Spicy Bean Sauce’ you see above is a little generic and vague. If you look closely at the front of the label, however, you will see the little green letters under the main title (in red) which read: ‘Ma Po Sauce’. This is actually a direct translation of ’麻婆醬’ (the Chinese characters above the English name), which are pronounced ‘mápó jiàng’ in Mandarin.
(By the way, the third character, ‘醬’ (jiàng), is a word that, in its broadest sense, refers to any culinary paste, but which in this context is best translated as ‘sauce’)
Aficionados of Sichuan cuisine will no doubt have heard of, if not tasted, the famous dish ‘Ma Po Tofu’ (麻婆豆腐), which features cubes of tofu in a spicy sauce. There are no ‘Ma Po’ preparations other than the standard ‘Mo Po Tofu’, to my knowledge, and it is pretty plain that this particular sauce is intended as being a sauce base for that old classic of Chinese cuisine. Indeed, as you see below, the label includes a recipe for that particular specialty:
The name of this dish has an interesting, if somewhat apocryphal ‘history’. The basic storyline is that it was invented by an old woman (sometimes identified as a Mrs. Chen) who subsequently became famous for serving at a restaurant she operated with her husband (or, in some versions, her sister). No pictures exist of the woman (which would require she actually existed, of course) but legend has it that she was not particularly attractive, being scarred by pockmarks. The Chinese name of the dish, in fact, is commonly translated as ‘Old Pockmarked Grandmother’s Bean Curd’ although I think it may, possibly, be more properly be rendered as ‘Old Grandmother’s Pockmarked Bean Curd’ as I seem to recall reading somewhere that the ‘pockmarks’ are actually supposed to refer to the Sichuan Peppercorns used in the dish that end up ‘speckling’ the tofu.
Whatever the truth of the story, the recipe for ‘Ma Po Tofu’ included on the label is a pretty good example (leaving aside the actual sauce ingredients for the moment) of the basic dish. There are hundreds of recipes extant (both in cookery books and on the Internet) and, as always, there are quite a few variations on the general theme. Basically, Ma Po Tofu, consists of tofu and ground meat (although vegetarian versions exist), all served in a ‘málà’ sauce which, regular readers will recall, combines the numbing (‘má) qualities of Sichuan peppercorns with the (là) spicy heat of chili. Scallions are quite often included and quite a few recipes ‘bulk’ out the basic ingredients with other vegetables such as green beans or peas (especially those still in the pod).
I should confess, at this point, that I have never tasted ‘Ma Po Tofu’ myself, as I am not a fan of tofu at all. I don’t mind a few tiny chunks in a bowl of ‘Hot and Sour Soup’, by any means, but a dish that features it as a main ingredient is not, I am afraid, ever likely to engage my culinary pleasure. That being said, though, I have seen scores upon scores of different recipes and I am forced to conclude that this Lee Kum Kee version of the basic sauce is somewhat less than traditional…
The ingredient list, as you see above, contains tomato paste as a major (and quite non-traditional) component and this is reflected in the appearance.
The taste of the sauce, as the ingredient list might suggest, is dominated by a very fruity tomato taste and, although Sichuan Pepper is included as an ingredient, it is clearly added in such small amounts that their taste and ‘numbing’ effect is totally absent. Accordingly, I have to say, after trying this product, that it strikes me less as a proper ‘málà’ sauce than it does one of those generic ‘ready-made’ Chili con Carne sauces. Sadly, then, I have to conclude that it fails in its intended purpose.
Anyway…. despite my feeling that this product is not really much of a traditional ‘Ma Po’ sauce, I still want to see how it might perform once cooked. I am not going to try to reproduce the standard dish, given my stated dislike of tofu, but I do have an idea that I would like to try sometime in the next few weeks…