Eastern Ecstasy

For first-timers, this over-the-top ultra-spicy Sichuan-influenced meal can be a challenge. Most of the strong flavours are unfamiliar, the colour of the sauce is a deep magenta, and one of the key ingredients – tofu – is not part of the South African diet. But man, the taste! The aroma! The astonishing look of it all on the plate! But enough with the foodie raving. Let’s get that wok smoking.

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This meal is best prepared in a wok or, failing that, a skottel. A large, heavy-bottomed frying pan with high sides will work as a last resort. Moving on: tofu or dofu is soya bean curd. This is high in protein and almost totally without flavour. This apparent lack is not without virtue, as tofu absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients. Begin by cutting the block of tofu into 25mm cubes. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the near boil then add the cubed tofu. Leave it in the hot water until required.

Top and tail the leeks, then cut them on a very sharp angle into sections 25mm in length. Remove the pips from the chilli and finely chop the remainder. Place the wok on the gas, pour in the oil and bring up the heat until the oil begins to smoke. Carefully drop in the minced beef and stir-fry until the pieces of beef are dark-brown and cooked through. Lower the heat and add the Sichuan chilli bean paste.

Stir well into the cooked meat, noting that the contents of the wok will become dark red in colour. Stir in the chopped chilli, allow it to fry for half a minute, then carefully add the chicken stock. Stir very well to evenly distribute the various ingredients, then add the drained tofu cubes. These are fairly fragile, so try to retain their sharp edges by minimising stirring at this point.

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Add the sugar and soya sauce and let the wok simmer for five minutes. Add the sectioned leeks and let them simmer until done. Mix the Maizena with water and add gradually until the sauce has thickened to an attractive, glossy density. Sprinkle over the half teaspoon of freshly ground Sichuan peppers.

Allow to simmer for a further minute or two, then serve immediately in deep bowls over a generous serving of freshly boiled noodles. Ultra chilled lager or pilsner is an essential accompaniment to this blast of chilli-accented flavours.