There was a couple who used to sit in a market in Chengdu, Sichuan, according to a legend. He used to sell tofu or bean curd. His wife was pock-marked and in fact, was known in those days before political correctness, as Mother Pockmark! In Mandarin, it translates as MaPo. One day the tofu seller had so much leftover tofu that he panicked. His wife calmly took over the ingredient and cooked dinner with it, right in the middle of the street market. The aroma of minced pork, spicy bean paste and Sichuan pepper filled the air and in no time, a customer offered to buy the couple’s dinner off them. There was plenty more tofu, so the couple good-naturedly sold their dinner, whereupon a few more customers, attracted by the aromas, turned up to buy some. By the end of the evening, MaPo had become a byword for her tofu. And to honour her, the recipe has been called MaPo Tofu since then.
Although visitors to Chengdu have no way of knowing the original stall, the recipe has become famous in all Sichuan, and further, as the exact procedure and ingredients are at hand in any restaurant in the world that serves Sichuan (formerly Schezwan) cuisine. But in India, MaPo Tofu resolutely finds mention in the vegetarian section. The handful of minced pork is too unimportant a detail, apparently, and the other ingredients too easily available to pass up the opportunity to beef up the vegetarian section of a Chinese menu in India. And because nothing sells like fried food, the delicate cubes of tofu are sometimes batter-fried before being added to the dish, thus making sure that it owes little to a grand-mother in a faraway city.
The other dish that has been hi-jacked is Kung Pao Chicken, but here’s a disclaimer: the United States have hi-jacked it more thoroughly than we have! Kung Pao was a military title conferred on a Royal Palace Guard in the late 18th century. It was he who had captured an extremely unpopular queen, and had received the title Kung Pao. It so happened that wherever this Sichuan general went, he was feted with specially cooked banquets. One cook in particular, knew of the general’s fondness for peanuts and so, is said to have invented a dish of diced chicken, Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts. When the general praised the dish, he asked its name. As he was the hero of the hour, the cook, with surprising aplomb, told him that it was called ‘Kung Pao Ji Ding’.
In one fell swoop, the general was felicitated appropriately and a new dish in the vast Chinese Gastronomica appeared. So, when you see this dish being made with cashew-nuts in India or worse, orange juice in the United States, the good general turns in his grave one more time.
In Delhi and Gurgaon, you can try Ano Tai at Vasant Continental, China Club and Nooba in Gurgaon, China Kitchen at Hyatt Regency Delhi, threesixtyone degrees all of which have chefs from Sichuan who can rustle up the real thing.