I wish I could say that 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List, the latest book by journalist, restaurant critic, and national treasure Mimi Sheraton, was the sort of thing I kept next to the bed, for dipping into last thing at night.
But it makes me too hungry. I end up in the kitchen at midnight, eating scrambled eggs when what I really want is arista alla fiorentina—the rosemary-scented roast pork of Tuscany—or schokoladen topfenpalatschinken—tender, airy cheese-filled crêpes draped with chocolate sauce—or an order of dan-dan noodles from Wu Liang Ye, if the place weren’t already closed for the night. No, I prefer devouring the book in big greedy chunks, like a novel, and on a lazy weekend, when there’s time to shop and cook, or book a table or—what the hell—a plane ticket.
1,000 Foods is global in scope, divided by cuisine and encompassing the humble and haute, the familiar and exotic. Each entry comes with rich crumbles of context as well as useful information about where to find the dish or ingredient, and perhaps a recipe or bibliographic note. What elevates it from an idiosyncratic jumble to a vast, original mosaic of flavors is Sheraton’s flair and discernment—six decades’ worth. I can’t think of anyone else who could have written this book.
I had the chance to hear Sheraton talk about the book and much more in an interview with Dan Pashman, host of WNYC’s podcast The Sporkful, at last weekend’s Food Book Fair, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A number of the Bright Young Foodies in the audience didn’t seem to know who Mimi Sheraton was, exactly, but by the end of the session, they were virtually sitting at her feet. As well they should.
Sheraton’s conversation, like her writing, is fresh, funny, direct, and free of pretension, condescension, or the I’m-an-insider-and-you’re-not tone that creeps into too much food writing (and too many panel discussions) these days. Her thoughts on the effort, knowledge, pondering, and overall discipline it takes to evaluate food (“I was once in a car with 104 pastrami and corned beef sandwiches”) took me back to my years at Gourmet, where assessing six different chocolate cakes before breakfast, for instance, or one-bite-and-pass-the-plate research dinners were part of the job, and an ongoing education. “It doesn’t matter if you are in the mood or not, if you’re a professional,” Sheraton tried to explain. She’s a self-described “bestavore,” interested in the finest of a food’s type—the benchmark—no matter where it comes from. In another life, she would have been a superb dog-show judge.
1,000 Foods was supposed to be done in two years, but instead took almost ten. I can believe it. Having worked on two big Gourmet compilations—The Gourmet Cookbook and Gourmet Today—I’m sure Sheraton’s selection process was fraught. Her big regret is that one of her favorite comfort foods in the world, Sichuan ma-po tofu, got lost in the shuffle. She just plain forgot to write the dratted thing, and the oversight wasn’t discovered until the book was almost in bound galleys. Just typing that last sentence gave me the wobblies.
You never know, ma-po tofu could be the subject of Sheraton’s next book, or the impetus for 1,000 More Foods to Eat Before You Die. Or dinner.
Now to a recipe for the spicy classic, and its backstory. Ma-po tofu is supposedly named for the pockmarked (ma) old woman (po) who created the dish for her husband’s restaurant. The recipe below is from a piece called “A Journey of 1,000 Dishes” (yes, really) by Margy Rochlin; it appeared in the June 2000 issue of Gourmet. Margy’s spectacular eating tour of China was led by Chinese authority Barbara Tropp, who had made a version of the dish for years. At culinary school in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Tropp learned the technique of poaching the tofu before stir-frying to freshen and tenderize it.
The quality of Asian ingredients varies from brand to brand. Tropp, who died in 2001, felt that the specific ones mentioned in the recipe give the right flavor to the dish. And you may be interested in the fact that aromatic, tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns aren’t true peppercorns, which are harvested from the Piper nigrum vine, but are related to the Japanese spice sansho, which is sometimes labeled “Japanese pepper.” Both spices are made from the dried fruits of prickly ash trees (Zanthoxylum simulans and Z. piperitum).
Ma-Po Tofu à la Barbara Tropp
From the June 2000 issue of Gourmet
Serves 3 or 4 (main course)
¾ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons Chinese hot bean paste, preferably Szechuan brand
2 tablespoons soy sauce, preferably Kikkoman regular or Pearl River Bridge dark (black or mushroom)
Kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal, to taste
1 pound regular or soft (not silken) tofu, drained and cut into ½-inch cubes
1½ to 2 tablespoons corn, peanut, or canola oil
½ pound ground pork shoulder, preferably 75% lean
4 teaspoons finely minced garlic
4 teaspoons finely minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1½ teaspoons pure roasted sesame oil, preferably Kadoya brand
½ to 1 teaspoon Toasted Sichuan Peppercorn Powder (see below), or ½ teaspoon sansho plus 1/8 to ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
Accompaniment: cooked rice
1. Make the sauce: Stir together broth, bean paste, soy sauce, and salt in a small bowl.
2. Poach the tofu and cook the pork: Slide tofu into a saucepan of simmering water and keep at a bare simmer. While it’s simmering, heat a wok or large heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add 1½ tablespoons corn oil, swirling to coat. Add pork and stir-fry, breaking up limps and adding remaining ½ tablespoon corn oil if meat sticks, until no longer pink. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry over moderate heat until very fragrant, about 2 minutes.
3. Finish the stir-fry: Stir reserved sauce, then add to pork and bring to a simmer. Drain tofu in a large sieve and slide into sauce, stirring gently. Stir cornstarch mixture and add to stir-fry. Bring to a boil, stirring gently, and cook until thickened and glossy, about 15 seconds.
4. Turn off the heat and sprinkle with sesame oil, Sichuan-peppercorn powder to taste, and 2 tablespoons scallions. Stir once or twice, then serve sprinkled with remaining tablespoon scallions.
Toasted Sichuan-Peppercorn Powder à la Barbara Tropp
Makes about ¼ cup
I know you need just a small amount of this for Ma-Po Tofu, but it’s difficult to grind less than ¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns at a time. Use the extra powder in other stir-fries, seasoning rubs (it’s especially good on duck), and on flatbreads.
1. Shake ¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns in a sieve to get rid of dust, then spread in batches on a white plate and discard any twigs, leaves, thorns, or black inner seeds (they’re bitter).
2. Toast the peppercorns in a dry heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until very fragrant and smoking, 3 to 5 minutes (don’t let them burn).
3. While still hot, grind to a powder in an electric coffee/spice grinder and sift through a fine sieve, discarding hulls. Keep the powder in an airtight container away from heat and light and discard when it loses its pungency.