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Asparagus isn't exactly a Chinese ingredient, but that doesn't mean that it can't find a comfortable home in Chinese food. I love it stir-fried with velvet chicken and lemon or in place of broccoli in classic Chinese-American beef with broccoli. China has a food culture that makes use of every available ingredient. I've got no doubt that if asparagus were to grow in the cool, misty mountains near Chengdu, that we'd see it served as a cold green appetizer or side dish on menus in Sichuan.
At least, that's how I'd serve it. This recipe—cold and crunchy asparagus tossed with firm tofu in a fiery sweet-hot-sour vinaigrette—is inspired by the cold or warm appetizers you find in Sichuan that make use of roasted chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, and vinegar. In fact, the sauce itself is exactly identical to the one I use in my Sichuan-style Suanla Chaoshou (wontons in hot and sour sauce). The only tweaking I did was to remove the toasted sesame oil, which covers up some of the more delicate flavors of the asparagus and tofu.
It's a simple process: toast some chilies and Sichuan peppercorns in the microwave, grind 'em up in a mortar and pestle, infuse them into some neutral oil, then combine them with vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and garlic. I really like the way the tofu and the tiny budding tips of asparagus soak up the sauce, and the the way the textures of the meaty tofu and tender-crisp asparagus play off each other.
Are you going to find this dish on any Chinese restaurant menu? Probably not. But a single bite will transport you straight to those fog-covered hills in Sichuan, and that's a big enough win for me.
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