FEATURED RECIPE

Mapo Tofu

Mapo Tofu
📷

mapo doufu • 麻婆豆腐

This glorious dish, sometimes known in English as pock-marked old woman’s tofu, is named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a restaurateur. In the late nineteenth century, “old mother Chen” (chen mapo) is said to have cooked this up near the Bridge of Ten Thousand Blessings in the north of Chengdu for passing laborers, who would lay down their loads of cooking oil to eat lunch before continuing on their way to the city’s markets.

Heartwarming, homely and utterly delicious, it’s one of the most famous Sichuanese dishes, and epitomizes the spicy generosity of the folk cooking of the region. The Sichuan pepper will make your lips tingle pleasantly, and the tender tofu will slip smoothly down your throat.

Mapo tofu makes the perfect riposte to those who consider tofu boring, and tends to seduce meat-eaters and—if you omit the meat and use a vegetable stock—vegetarians alike. I probably cook it more frequently than any other Sichuanese dish.

Traditionally, the tofu is cooked with ground beef, but many restaurants, even in Chengdu, use pork instead. I often make a vegetarian version: the rich, savory chile bean paste and fermented beans mean the meat is rarely missed. In Sydney, I once made it with ground wallaby: stunningly good!

If you can find it, use Chinese green garlic instead of the scallions; alternatively, use sliced baby leeks or the green shoots that emerge from forgotten garlic bulbs in your kitchen.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 lb 2 oz (500g) plain white tofu
  • 2 scallions or 2 stalks Chinese green garlic
  • 6 tbsp cooking oil
  • 3½ oz (I00g) ground beef
  • 2½ tbsp Sichuan chile bean paste
  • 1 tbsp fermented black beans
  • 2 tsp ground chiles
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
  • 3/4 cup (175ml) stock or water
  • ¼ tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tbsp potato starch, mixed with 2½ tbsp cold water
  • ¼–1 tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Directions

  1. Cut the tofu into ¾-inch (2cm) cubes and let steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. Cut the scallions or green garlic into ¾-inch (2cm) lengths.
  3. Heat a seasoned wok over high heat. Pour in 1 tbsp cooking oil and heat until the sides of the wok have begun to smoke. Add the beef and stir-fry until it is fully cooked and fragrant, breaking the clumps of meat into tiny pieces as you go. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  4. Rinse and dry the wok if necessary, then re-season it and return to medium heat. Pour in 5 tbsp cooking oil and swirl it around. Add the chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red color and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chiles and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too, then do the same with the garlic and ginger. Take care not to overheat the aromatics—you want to end up with a thick, fragrant sauce, and the secret is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavors.
  5. Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated ladle, shaking off any excess liquid, and place it gently into the wok. Sprinkle over the beef, then add the stock or water and white pepper. Nudge the tofu tenderly into the sauce with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to avoid breaking up the cubes.
  6. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a couple of minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the seasonings. If you’re using green garlic (or baby leeks or garlic sprouts), stir them in now.
  7. When they are just cooked, add a little of the potato starch mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat this twice more, until the sauce clings deliciously to the seasonings and tofu (don’t add more than you need). If you’re using scallions, add them now, nudging them gently into the sauce.
  8. Pour everything into a deep serving bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.

This dish is most delicious when made with mature Pixian chile bean paste, with its deep chestnut color and ripe savory flavor. Adjust the final sprinkling of Sichuan pepper according to your guests’ tastes (Sichuanese people can take about four times as much pepper as outsiders, in my experience).

Reprinted from The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright © 2019. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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