[Image: Wobbly-soft white beancurd in a deep white bowl covered with a generous quantity of a thin, dark red/brown dressing finished with a layer of dark red oil. Sliced spring onions are scattered on top along with crisp-fried soya beans and other crispy bits.]
I'm leaving you with a (incidentally vegan) Sichuan dish: 酸辣豆花 (suān là dòu huā). I covered 酸 (suān) earlier this week; it means "sour". 辣 (là) is "hot/spicy", and is often seen in combination with 酸: 酸辣 (suān là), usually translated as "hot and sour".
豆花 is the interesting part of the name. I've covered both characters before; 豆 (dòu) means "bean" and 花 (huā) means "flower". Together, they describe a very soft form of beancurd, "flower" beancurd. In English, I've seen it described as "beancurd jelly" on dessert menus (you can eat 豆花 savoury or sweet).
Fuchsia Dunlop notes in her book Sichuan Cookery that 豆花 is a Chengdu dialect term; according to her, elsewhere in China it's known as 豆腐腦 (dòu fu nǎo), literally "beancurd brains". However, in London I've always seen it as 豆花 or 豆腐花.
Although as mentioned above it also comes sweet, I prefer the savoury version, which may also be listed as 香辣豆花 (xiāng là dòu huā), literally "fragrant spicy 'flower' beancurd". I ate the dish pictured above at Baozi Inn in London, where it's described on the menu as "tender 'flower' beancurd topped with soy sauce, chilli oil, ground roasted Sichuan pepper, roasted peanuts, preserved mustard tuber and deep-fried dough strands". The "mustard tuber" is 榨菜 (zhà cài), which I've mentioned before.
To put 酸辣豆花 together at home, you can either buy your 豆花 from a Chinese supermarket (it may be labeled as 豆花, 豆腐花, doufu hua, or tofu fa), or you can try making your own from scratch (i.e. from soya beans).
Over the past couple of weeks, I've tried making 豆花 four times to slightly different recipes, with varying levels of success (and much patience from bob, as he was presented with bowl after bowl of tofu). It does require a blender, though I found that the little herb chopper that came with my hand-held blender worked fine if I was patient and blenderised the beans in suitably small batches.
I used two sources of instructions: Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe in her book Sichuan Cooking, and Sunflower's recipe. Sunflower's version was most successful for me; I tried it both as written and with the cornflour omitted, and the version with the cornflour had the best texture.
Ms Dunlop's version uses twice as much gypsum as Sunflower's, and says to press the curds gently after they begin to set. I tried this twice, once with less pressing than the other time, but both ended up with a coarser texture than I wanted. I do wonder if this had something to do with the amount of gypsum — we have fairly hard water in London, so perhaps we don't need as much gypsum. (Note added in Oct 2012: Andrea Nguyen's post on tofu coagulants is worth reading.)
Speaking of gypsum, I bought mine from a homebrewing supplier on eBay; £2.75 (including postage) for 100g. As sunflower points out in comments, you can get it more cheaply in Chinese supermarkets, where you should look out for the name 熟石膏粉 (I think the pinyin is shú shí gāo fěn). I also paid £1.25 for a 500g pack of soya beans, and you only need around 1 tsp gypsum and 150g of beans to make enough 豆腐花 for 2–4 people. So it's not too expensive a thing to experiment with until you get it right.
Anyway, once you have your plain 豆花, the topping is quite simple. Ms Dunlop lists two variations. For 豆花 made with 150g beans, the first one is 4 tsp soy sauce, 2-4 tsp chilli oil (including sediment), 1 tsp sesame oil, 1/2-1 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper, 2 Tbsp finely-chopped preserved vegetable (榨菜/zhà cài), 2 Tbsp crunchy deep-fried soya beans or Bombay mix or other similar crunchy thing, and the green parts of 4 spring onions, thinly sliced into rings. Her other variation is explicitly labelled as "suan la dou hua", and is roughly the same except that the sesame oil is replaced with 4 tsp Chinese black vinegar.
Most sources say to serve 酸辣豆花 hot, but during London's recent brief heatwave I found that it's also good chilled on a hot day. If you can't be bothered to make the full dressing, just drizzle over some soy sauce, black vinegar, and sesame oil (go easy on the sesame oil). The simplest (though perhaps not quite traditional) sweet topping is a good dollop of honey.