A couple days ago, the Village Voice published a tale of the "crater-faced old woman," known to you and me as ma po tofu. Well, contrary to what your local greasy Chinese takeaway may offer, real ma po tofu isn't actually an oily mess, but actually a delicate dish that uses sichuan peppercorns to maximum effect.
These little bombshells keep popping up in reviews of New York Chinese food, which is experiencing a little bit of a revolution, as Szechuan cuisine is becoming more readily available. So I made it my Sunday mission to find an authentic Szechuan restaurant as I wandered through Midtown, and at last stumbled upon a place aptly named Mapo Tofu.
Sichuan peppercorns were banned by the FDA until 2005, so don't be surprised if it hasn't shown up in a cuisine near you yet. But try it if you can. It's unlike anything I've ever tasted - neither spicy nor hot, the flavor's more herbal than anything else.
But the flavor's not the point - it's all about the effect. It not only numbs the mouth, it makes everything you eat taste different, more flavorful, more balanced. As food scientist Harold Mcgee wrote in his book "On Food and Cooking", it's like putting a nine-volt battery to the tongue and will "induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion."
The classic example is water. If you drink a glass of warm water after eating a peppercorn, your mouth will feel freezing cold, and the water will taste metallic, like drinking a cloud of acid rain. I'm not going to pretend it was a pleasant sensation, but it's definitely one of a kind.
The main dish, on the other hand? Tasted absolutely amazing. And since Mapo Tofu served monstrous-sized portions, I'll be digging in again in just a few minutes :).