However you spell it, ma po tofu or ma po dou fu, it is our benchmark of sichuan cooking. You know how each of us has that one dish of an ethnicity that will tell you whether you're dealing with a restaurant worth re-visiting? When eating Dominican, for us, it's the red beans. When eating Indian, it's the spinach curry, the saag or palak combined with whatever. You get the idea. When it's sichuan, if the ma po tofu is solid, then we'll trust the restaurant and get a little adventurous in our ordering.
We've tried a succession of ma po tofu recipes at home, most of them ridiculously and disgustingly Americanized, in search of that elusive perfect recipe. We've trolled the cramped aisles of the shops in Chinatown looking for all the requisite ingredients. We've followed all the recipe steps religiously, but have been disappointed with gloppy messes (one recipe even used peas!) that were fit only for the garbage.
But finally, in a sichuan cookbook, we found it, the recipe that sates our cravings and comes satisfyingly close-enough to the goodness of Szechwan Gourmet and Spicy and Tasty, at home. The recipe below is somewhat adapted, as it has evolved in our kitchen over time.
Note: we've subbed vegan ground beef (don't ask, we were on a vegan kick for a while) for the ground beef and a vegetable bouillon cube with water for the chicken broth, with surprisingly tasty results.
MA PO TOFU
- 1 block of tofu
- 3 green onions
- 4 oz. ground beef (or vegan ground meat, if you prefer)
- 3 tbsp. peanut oil (we use grapeseed)
- 2 1/2 tbsp. chili bean paste
- 1 tbsp. black fermented beans
- 3 dried red chilies (snipped in half)
- 1 c. chicken broth (or vegetable broth, if you prefer)
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. soy sauce
- pinch of salt (kosher)
- 1.5 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp cold water
- 1/2 tsp ground roasted sichuan pepper (for flavor and numbing mouth sensation)
1. Cut the beancurd into 2 cm cubes and steep in hot or gently simmering water and slice the green onions on a steep angler to make longer and sleeker cuts.
2. Heat up your large saucepan or wok over high heat and add the oil. when hot, add the ground beef and saute until lightly browned.
3. Turn the heat down to medium and add the chili bean paste. Saute for thirty seconds and add the fermented beans and dried chilies. Saute for thirty seconds.
4. Add the chicken broth, stir, and add the tofu (drained). cover the tofu with the sauce, gently, and add the sugar, soy sauce and salt, to taste. Simmer for a couple of minutes.
5. Add the green onions and continue to simmer until the green onions are cooked, another couple of minutes. add the cornstarch and water mixture and mix so that the sauce can thicken (add more if you'd like). Pour out the ma po tofu and sprinkle the sichuan pepper on top.FYI: To roast the sichuan pepper, heat a pan over low until it is warmed up and add the whole sichuan peppercorns. Stir them for about five minutes until you can smell their fragrance emanating from the pan (don't overcook). Take off the heat and grind (we use a mortar and pestle).