way back in the year 2000 i landed in beijing.

after a month spent back-packing around thailand, trekking and partying with other travellers, i stepped off the plane in beijing and knew i'd arrived somewhere different. i knew also that the ticket i'd arrived on had no return. i had no end-point, nothing to bring me back. this would be an open-ended adventure.  

on this blog i plan to share some of the cultural and travel experiences of that time, many of which appeared to fuse themselves directly into the seams of my very being.  the eighteen-months i spent living in china in my twenties had a very profound effect on me. and much of what i learned there, about myself and about other people, is threaded into ghost girls

but first off, there's the food.

thanks to my heavily spiced food adventures in thailand, i arrived in china with my taste buds thoroughly trashed.

as a result, my first food experiences in Beijing were a disappointment – boiled dumplings, roast duck, steamed buns, poached and finely sliced pig’s heart . . .  it all tasted utterly bland.  my first supermarket basket contained at least three different types of chilli; i hadn’t been able to read the labels so i’d just grabbed a bunch of reddish-looking condiments and hoped for the best.

i didn’t know anything, then, about the huge variety in chinese cuisine. melbourne then was not like melbourne now: there weren’t dumpling shops and sichuan restaurants in city shopping malls; nobody i knew stocked chinkiang vinegar in their pantry and bubble tea wasn’t yet a thing.

so i was surprised, pleased and – the most overwhelming sensation – relieved, to be introduced early on to sichuan food. this cuisine, from one of china’s most western provinces, is characterised by fire-hot chillis and numbing sichuan peppercorns as well as sour vinegar and fresh ginger-fragrant flavours. it’s gorgeously heating food created to counter a damp and muggy climate – the perfect yang for people living with too much yin.  

 it works for me.

i have lots of food memories and experiences and recipes to share with you on this blog, because food is a big part of the china i grew to love and it’s also a purposefully recurring theme in ghost girls.

here’s the first of the recipes. feel free to share your thoughts and recipes with me, too.

mapo dou fu

(recipe adapted from sichuan cookery by fuchsia dunlop, 2001, penguin books)

i first ate mapo dou fu with an elderly south african man named gerrit. he ate it every day for lunch at a small restaurant near the school where we worked. gerrit also enjoyed the sulphur-like flavour of black century eggs and introduced me to cubed blood, so i was less than certain we shared the same taste. but on this dish our hearts aligned: I tasted it and became hooked.

the basis for this recipe comes from sichuan cookery, which is my all time favourite cookbook. the pages of my copy are stained orange from chilli oil and singed black at the corners from resting too near an open flame. this is the best condition for a well-loved cookbook to be in, i reckon.

 i’ve changed dunlop’s recipe a little – added ginger and dumped the beef. the dish traditionally uses meat but i never add it because this, along with wilted greens and brown rice, is my staple, snap-easy, vegetarian dinner. here’s my version:


1 block soft tofu (you can use silken, but it breaks up a bit.  prefer something midway between silken and firm)

4 spring onions, sliced finely

knob of ginger, minced


2 tablespoons chilli bean paste

1 tablespoon fermented black beans (or a good dollop black bean sauce)

1-2 teaspoons dried, ground chilli (if you like it hot)

200ml stock

1 tsp sugar

2tsp light soy sauce

salt and pepper

2 tablespoons corn or potato flour mixed into a paste with water

1/2 teaspoon ground roasted sichuan pepper


dice the tofu into 2cm cubes

add oil to wok and heat. add ginger and spring onions and stir-fry briefly until fragrant.

add chilli bean paste and stir-fry 30 seconds until the oil is red.

add black beans (or black bean sauce) and the ground chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds.

add the stock and mix well.

add the tofu. mix it very gently so as not to break up the blocks.

season with the sugar and soy sauce. simmer for 4-5 minutes and then add some of the corn flour mixture to help thicken the sauce (you may not need to use all of it).

dish-up into bowls, scatter the ground sichuan pepper over the top.

serve with rice and greens.


AuthorCath Ferla