Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ma Po Tofu

Last night, I was about to scrape the last bite out of my daughter's bowl and into my mouth when she shouted, "NO, NO, NO!"

Whoa. You'd have thought I was swiping the kid's precious ice cream, or her lovey, Yang Yang ("Lambie"). I was simply trying to help her clean up the dregs of her ma po tofu. I couldn't blame her. The recipe is really tasty, and she wanted that last spicy bite herself. But she's only 3 years old, which makes me secretly proud of the little chip off of mommy's block. Her brothers don't love the dish as much as she, but they will eat it without me tying them down and sticking a funnel in their mouths, which is quite an accomplishment when you have picky kids.

I can't remember a time when tofu wasn't on the menu when I was growing up. Tofu stir fried with ground meat in a soy, oyster sauce, garlic, ginger concoction. Or tofu cooked with hard-boiled eggs in the braising liquid from silky soy sauce chicken (or red cooked chicken, similar to Chairman Mao's supposedly favorite pork dish, hong shao rou). When my parents took us to a Chinese restaurant, occasionally we'd get ma po tofu, a spicy, irresistibly savory dish.

Oddly (to me), when I was telling a neighbor friend some years back about how much I liked bean curd, she made a face, wrinkled her nose and looked as though she were going to gag. About 20 years older than I, she'd grown up in a Sicilian-American family and made it her mission to introduce me to lamb, real "gravy" (I was surprised to learn it was a tomato sauce and not some brown, roux-thickened meat juice) and other Italian-American delights. In response, I used to tease her that if all Italians had been intimidated by Chinese food, they wouldn't have learned to make noodles. (No, I don't really think that's true.) If only I'd learned to make ma po tofu back then. She may have discovered how enjoyable and satisfying (for me, addicting) spicy bean curd can be.

The following recipe owes a huge debt to Jen Yu of I checked out numerous recipes online, but her version is the one that used ingredients that were close to what I could easily get my hands on in central Illinois (unfortunately I haven't found sichuan, aka szechuan, pepper corns). She also includes bamboo shoots (bless her!), which are among my favorite foods, especially when thinly sliced and packed in chili oil. (In the batch pictured above, I used a small can of bamboo strips packed in water that I sliced crosswise. Just add more chili bean sauce or some hot chili oil if you want more heat.) I made some minor adjustments to her recipe based on what was in my kitchen and made sure it wasn't too spicy for my kids to eat. Another good recipe for those who want an authentic flavor is Fuchsia Dunlop's ma po tofu in her book "Land of Plenty." For a peek, take a look at Serious Eats.

Ma Po Tofu
Serves 4

1 Tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1/2 pound ground pork (or beef or turkey)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped scallion (white parts only, greens reserved for garnish)
1/2 cup chopped bamboo shoots (I used a small can of bamboo strips)
2 cups chicken or beef broth/stock
1 Tablespoon chili bean sauce (dou ban jiang)
1 Tablespoon black bean garlic sauce
1 rounded teaspoon fermented black beans (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce (optional -- omit if broth is salty)
2 blocks tofu (about 24 to 28 ounces), cut into 3/4-inch to 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed into 1/4 cup water (slurry)

1. Place 1 Tablespoon peanut oil in a wok or a deep 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and stir-fry ground meat just until it is no longer pink.
2. Add chopped scallion whites and grated ginger, and saute with meat about 30 seconds.
3. Lower heat to medium, add remaining ingredients except the cornstarch mixture, and stir until combined. Allow to simmer 10 minutes and add slurry. When sauce thickens, cover ma po tofu and remove from heat.

Serving suggestions: Ladle over white rice, and serve with cooked napa cabbage.

Variation: Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup frozen petite peas at the end.
If you want a meat-free dish, you could use textured soy protein in place of the ground pork (or beef or turkey).

1 comment:

squirrelmama said...

MMMMMMMM. Wonder how this would work with Seitan cubes cut small or perhaps some ground meat substitute (unflavored)?

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