Tagliatelle with mapo ragù – a Fuchsia Dunlop recipe
It’s not just Italians and their English-speaking culinary cronies who love a bowl of pasta with a good meat sauce. The Pekingese version of al ragù tagliatelle or spaghetti bolognese consists of “fried noodles with sauce” (zhajiang mian), fluffy hand-drawn pasta, mixed with some fresh vegetables and a coals of greasy and shiny black pork with a sweet flour sauce. In Sichuan, dan dan noodles are the best-known variation on the theme, but the locals of Chengdu also enjoy “noodles with regular meat sauce and pepper” mixed with tangy lip seasonings, while the Chongqingers prepare spicy soup noodles topped with meat sauce, yellow peas, or both.
Not long ago in London, I invited friends over for homemade tagliatelle with a Szechuan-Italian pasta sauce that I had invented, a sort of “Mrs. Chen meets Marcella Hazan”. The pockmarked old mother Chen (chen mapo) is undoubtedly one of the best of all good Sichuan women, past and present. At the end of the 19th century, she was cooking in a restaurant in northern Chengdu, charming customers with her richly flavored tofu. Long a city favorite, it now has a cult global audience. Marcella Hazan was and posthumously remains the dean of Italian cuisine in the United States, known for her calm and infallible recipes.
My recipe is based on Marcella’s famous three-hour ragù (from The essentials of classic Italian cuisine) with its initial sofrito and gentle cooking, but using Ms. Chen’s mapo tofu seasonings in place of the Italian ingredients. Umami is not made from tomatoes and milk, but from the paste of hot Sichuan beans and fermented black beans. The chilies give it a reddish glow and an underlying heat stream, while the ground roasted Sichuan pepper replaces the sprinkling of grated Parmesan on the final dish.
My guests loved my mapo ragù tagliatelle. One of them, an Italophile, was convinced he would want more Parmesan, but found it unnecessary. I don’t remember if we used forks or chopsticks to eat. Either way, leftover sauce has found its way into a number of delicious Sichuan noodle dishes.
The ragù recipe makes 750g of sauce, enough for 6 Italians or 10 Szechuan noodle customers, with the pasta or noodles of your choice.
Heat 3 tablespoons of cooking oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the carrots and stir for a few minutes over high heat. Then add the beef and continue stirring, breaking up the mince, until the meat has lost its raw red color. Add the Shaoxing wine and stir until the liquid has evaporated. Then pour the mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Return the pan to low heat with the remaining oil. Add the hot bean paste and stir until the oil is reddened and fragrant. Add the black beans and ground chili peppers and stir until they smell also delicious. Do the same with garlic, ginger and spring onions. When the oil has released all of its aromas, return the beef mixture to the pot with the ground pepper, soy sauce and 300 ml of broth and mix well.
Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer very gently, uncovered, for about three hours, stirring occasionally and supplementing occasionally with about 150 ml of poultry broth, as needed, so that it does not not dry porridge. In the end, as Marcella says, you want the meat to be beautifully tender and all the water to have evaporated, leaving only the oil and sauce.
Tagliatelle with mapo ragù
Cook fresh tagliatelle at your convenience. Top each serving of pasta with a dollop of mapo ragù and sprinkle with a little grilled Sichuan pepper to taste (maybe ¼ teaspoon per serving, or more if you’re Szechuan). Mix well before eating.
Chongqing noodles with mapo ragù
For 2 people
In addition to the mapo ragù, you will need:
Heat the cooking oil in a wok over high heat. Add the preserved vegetable and sauté briefly until hot and fragrant. Dilute the sesame paste, if using it, with a little oil from the jar, so that it has a liquid consistency.
Divide the sesame paste, candied vegetable and all other seasonings between two deep bowls of noodles.
If using broth, bring it to a boil and keep warm. Boil a pot of unsalted water, then cook the noodles to your liking. Add the green vegetables the last seconds, to make them wilt.
Divide 200 ml of hot broth or the cooking water for the noodles between the two bowls. Drain the noodles and greens, then add them to the bowls. Garnish with spoonfuls of mapo ragù. Mix everything before eating.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book is “The Food of Sichuan” (Fortnum and Mason Cookbook of the Year 2020)
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