After class on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I woke up from my cozy couch nap in my on-campus apartment to a sweet scent coming from the kitchen. Peeking out above my fuzzy blanket, my tired eyes were surprised to see my roommate Stephanie cooking with her younger brother Thomas. It’s a running joke in our room that Stephanie never cooks, so it took my groggy mind a minute to process what I was seeing and smelling.
“Steph?” I asked, “What are you making?” She turned around towards the common room, where I laid sprawled on the couch, and began laughing at the sight of my surprised expression.
“A traditional Chinese meal,” she replied. “Thomas came over for dinner, so I wanted to cook him something special.” I looked over at Thomas, a newly-arrived BC freshman, and got up to give him a welcoming hug. At the stage of meal-preparation I had woken up into, Stephanie was stirring tofu in a pot while Thomas chopped up onions.
Stephanie explained that they had just started, and asked if I wanted to eat with them when the food was ready. I was planning on eating my leftover takeout Chinese food in the fridge for dinner, and had been excitedly anticipating my beloved pork fried rice.
“If you like takeout Chinese, you should try this! It’s a traditional Chinese dish called Mapo Tofu.” Since she is notorious for never cooking, and I am equally as notorious for never trying new foods, I hesitantly expressed my worries that the flavor pairings would be too spicy for my picky palate.
However, on this particular Wednesday, something drew me in. Maybe it was because I was disoriented from my midday slumber, or maybe the swirling smells drifting through the small apartment compelled me to take a closer look, but regardless my interest was piqued. I stepped up next to Stephanie and asked her to walk me through the cooking process, hoping seeing each ingredient go into the dish would increase my willingness to try it.
“Well first, you cut the tofu into small cubes,” she said. “You begin to boil it in water, while dicing up onion, ginger, and garlic on the side.”
While monitoring and stirring the tofu, Stephanie began to fry sichuan peppercorns in olive oil in a separate pan. She explained it’s best to get pepper oil, but this works as a substitute in a pinch. While the pepper seeped into the oil, she began preparing minced pork in a bowl, marinating it with soy sauce, salt, and red pepper flakes. She told me you can use ground beef or pork for the dish, but that she had chosen pork this time.
Next, she added the onion, ginger, and garlic to the sichuan pepper oil. I was mesmerized by the resulting smells—a heavenly medley of sweet and sour, the nutty aroma of the ginger mixing together with the sharp spice of the pepper. After a minute or two of sauteéing, Stephanie added in one big scoop of bean paste, which comes in a small jar mixed with chili oil.
“This is the most essential ingredient,” she said, “it solidifies the spicy flavor.” Since the paste is thick, it’s important to add about half a bowl of water into the pan at the same time. She then cooked this on low fire uncovered for a couple of minutes, until it started to slightly boil. Next, she added the raw, seasoned pork at the same time as the tofu from the pot. Now everything was in one big pan, the different flavors combining in a diverse mixture. Together, they cooked for about five to ten minutes, which Stephanie stirred occasionally until the pork was fully cooked.
As she poured the steaming contents into a large ceramic bowl, her brother, Thomas, threw some white rice packets into the microwave. I was instructed to grab three small rice bowls, and three sets of chopsticks.
The rice packets were scooped into each of our small bowls, and we sat down together for the meal. I had never tried tofu before, so I was a little hesitant, but it smelled too good not to give it a try. I cautiously rose a bite of pork to my mouth first. As Stephanie instructed me, I combined it with the white rice, to neutralize the spice. While I slowly chewed, she and her brother looked at me expectantly for a reaction.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, “This is actually amazing!” We all laughed, surprised and pleased that Stephanie’s first attempt at cooking one of her family favorite meals turned out so well. For the next hour or so, the three of us sat around the table, eating and talking about Chinese dining culture.
“So usually when we have dinner as a family,” Stephanie explained, “there would be four or five dishes in the middle that we all share.” They told me their family, like many other homes of Chinese families, has a lazy-susan-style table to facilitate this communal eating tradition. Each person typically has their own bowl of rice and chopsticks, while the main dishes are all shared.
Another common style of eating in their home is hot pot. In this set-up, there is either a boiling pot in the middle of the table, or each person gets their own small one. There are a diverse variety of broths in the pots, which can be homemade or purchased pre-packed from a grocery store. The eating process then involves cooking your own raw meat and vegetables, and adding whichever sauce you would like—these are usually peanut or sesame-based. For hot pot, Stephanie recommended Q Restaurants in Boston.
Given my love of takeout Chinese food, I was interested to hear their opinions on takeout, or otherwise Americanized Chinese restaurants. In Stephanie’s opinion, the dishes at many of these places are sweeter and less spicy than typical Chinese cuisine. There is also less diversity, as they’re most often based on Cantonese food (from Hong Kong/southern China) or Sichuan.
In China, each province eats differently and has dishes that they are particularly known for. In Shanghai, Xiaolong Bao is the most famous regional dish—soup dumplings filled with chicken, pork, crab meat, or many other opinions. The food in each district has its own prevalent taste, she explained, and Shanghai tends towards the sweeter side. Another example is the Shanxi province, where Stephanie and Thomas’ dad is from, which is famous for a large variety of shapes and sizes of noodles. Noodles are my favorite, so I told Stephanie she should try cooking a dish featuring these next.
While we were cleaning up from dinner, I asked Stephanie about all the new sauces that had appeared on our counter since her most recent grocery trip. She told me she went to a store called Hmart, an Asian supermarket in Cambridge. She said she loves stores like Hmart, and a similar one called Super 88 Market, because they carry a larger range of Asian products. In other grocery stores, it is harder to find the variety of sauces needed for traditional Chinese cooking, as well as certain ingredients like tofu skin, fish balls, and salted duck eggs.
When it was time for Thomas to go back to his dorm on Newton, I thanked them both for teaching me how to cook Mapo Tofu, and talking to me about their cultural traditions with meals, opinions on Chinese cuisine, and recommendations for restaurants and grocery stores. Foregoing my typical pickiness, I exclaimed “Let’s go out for hot pot some time soon!” Stephanie excitedly agreed, and we decided I would accompany them on their next trip to Hmart as well.
On that rainy Wednesday, both Stephanie and I tried something new for the first time. She cooked a meal all on her own, and I discovered I liked the combination of the spice in the bean paste, the salt in the soy sauce, and the sweetness of the ginger—the rich blend of flavors present in Mapo Tofu. As we go forward into our senior year at BC, I can’t wait to try more of Stephanie’s cooking. Through both grocery shopping and cooking meals together, I am excited to bring cultural aspects and cooking traditions from each of our own homes to our new home together at Boston College.