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Spicy Bean Curd

When you say "bean," there may be only a handful of items that come to mind. However, the bean is actually multitudinous in forms, and about the only thing you can say about all beans is that we've been eating them since prehistoric times.

Though there is a dazzling array of beans, their are three "super groups" of beans that make up the majority of the world's consumption. The least important of the"big three," in terms of world economy, is the Windsor bean (also called the broad or fava bean) of Europe. The common bean of Central and South America, which is also called the French bean or haricot bean, is second in importance. This group includes most of the beans with which we are familiar today in the Americas, including the kidney bean, pinto bean, and black bean, as well as the green bean. The most important bean worldwide, however, is the soybean, which is indigenous to eastern Asia.

In addition to being the most important, these three groups of beans are among the oldest. The fava bean has been in use so long that it had already split into two main types before the dawn of history. It has been discovered in the kitchen middens of prehistoric Swiss lake settlements, and found in Stone Age sites and in the ruins of Troy. These beans held the number two spot in world importance until the discovery of the New World and its beans. The haricot beans of the Americas have been found in excavations that date back to 7000 BC It is the most varied of the bean groups. The soybean was being cultivated in Asia at least 4,000 years ago.

The soybean started in Asia, and we tend to think of soybeans in term of the Far East. Asia is still a major grower, but today, most of the world's soybeans are grown in the US. The difference is that, in the US, they are grown for oil (which can be used in cooking, but also shows up in everything from paint to adhesives to fire-fighting foam) and meal, and largely used for animal feed or exported, while in Asia, they are grown as a primary food crop. They are low in starch and high in protein and fat, and are an important substitute for meat. Of course, the increasing interest in the US in soy-based food products has begun to make that difference less dramatic, as US companies have gotten into making everything from soy milk to tofu "hot dogs." But we still can't compare to the level of consumption in Asia.

There are several varieties of soybean. The plants, which are annuals, can grow in most types of soil, and have deep roots that make them resistant to drought. The seeds can be yellow, green, brown, or black. In Asia (especially China, Japan, and Malaysia), the seeds are used fresh, fermented, dried, or ground into meal. Soybeans are often processed into bean curd. More widely known in the US by its Japanese name, tofu (though this isn't far removed from the Chinese, which is doufu), bean curd has been used in Chinese cooking for more than a thousand years. It is nutritious, but very bland. However, it takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, so it is versatile in cooking.

This recipe is from China—which is where I am this month, visiting Beijing, cruising up the Yangtse River, seeing pandas in Chengdu, learning how to make noodles in Xian, and taking lots of pictures. The recipe employs the Chinese staple of doufu. The dried mushrooms called for are the meaty Chinese black mushrooms. Black mushrooms are virtually identical to Japanese shiitake mushrooms, which may be easier for you to find. The combination of ginger and red pepper makes this a pretty zippy dish, so if you don't like spice, you may want to pass on this one, though I assure you it's quite delicious. It can be served with rice or enjoyed alone. Enjoy.

Spicy Bean Curd

¼ cup peanut oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

5 scallions, sliced

5 or 6 dried mushrooms, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, drained, and chopped

1 tsp. red pepper flakes (or to taste)

½ lb. ground beef

2 Tbs. soy sauce

1 cup chicken broth

1½ lb. firm tofu, mashed

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, ginger, scallions, and mushrooms, and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Stir in the red pepper flakes and stir-fry for another 1 minute. Add the ground beef and fry until to loses its pinkness. Pour over the soy sauce and broth and bring to the boil, stirring constantly.

Stir in the tofu and stir-fry for another 3 minutes.

Serves 4‑6.


No two manufacturers sell tofu in the same size package. However, it is not necessary to be absolutely precise in the amount used in the recipe. I usually just get two 12.3 oz. packages, which added together make slightly more than 1½ pounds, and that works beautifully.

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