Most of my family is on vacation, so I've actually been staying with B. over the past month. (My brother's been holding down the fort.) You would think that with all the cooking that I've been doing you would see more blog posts, but most of the stuff I/we've hasn't really been "blogworthy" - meatballs in a too-runny sauce, a vegetarian, more improvised version of this stew and a Japanese curry recipe that completely flopped - I still think it's because I didn't add any salt to it, while the original recipe called for two teaspoons (aka the maximum amount of sodium a person should have in two days), but we also made the recipe without any meat and there didn't seem to be enough liquid to go around...
Even the recipe that I'm sharing with you today had to be made a second time - the original recipe tastes delicious and authentic, but the tofu is swimming in ½ cup of oil.
Ma Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐) is an iconic dish in Szechuan/Sichuan cuisine - it's a spicy tofu dish, usually coupled with a bit of ground pork (or in this case, beef) in a red, numbingly spicy sauce. My mom usually uses a mix to make the dish, so I never knew much about what gave this dish its distinctive flavour, but it's actually pretty simple.
Secret Ingredient 1: Szechuan/Sichuan Peppercorns (花椒)
This one was pretty straightforward - Ma Po Tofu is a spicy Szechuanese dish, and I had heard of the numbing heat of Szechuan peppercorns before. I just wanted to show you that in my local Asian supermarket this stuff was labelled as "Prickly Ash", but you'll know you have the right stuff if you see the Chinese characters "花椒", which literally translates to "flower pepper" - quite the appropriate name, actually, because underneath all the spiciness the peppercorns do have a floral scent to them.
Secret Ingredient 2: Pi Xian Broad Bean (douban) sauce (郫縣豆瓣醬)
This is the real secret ingredient in this dish, I think, because if you're familiar with ma po tofu, you'll know that this is what it smells like. The fermented beans add savouriness to the dish while the chilis in the paste add another layer of spiciness. When shopping for this, look for the words "Pi Xian", which is the name of the county in Szechuan/Sichuan that specializes in this. The Chinese characters to watch out for are "郫县豆瓣" ("县" is the simplified Chinese version of "縣", which means "county"). In the post where I got this recipe, Paupered Chef Nick Kindelsperger bought three brands of broad bean sauce, unsure if he had the right one. But as you can see, all of them say "郫县豆瓣", so all of them would be appropriate. If you can't find any Pi Xian broad bean sauce, I've heard that Korean gochujang would do in a pinch (although if you can't find the broad bean sauce I'm not sure if you'll have better luck finding gochujang...)
Nick (via Kenji Alt) recommends ground beef instead of pork, which I'm guessing is because beef has a richer flavour. He also uses the trick of blanching the tofu so that it doesn't break apart as easily - but you have to make this dish quick because if you leave the tofu out for too long it will cool into a solid mass. Finally, the original recipe calls for Shaoxing (紹興) cooking wine, but we didn't have any on hand and didn't really miss it.
Ma Po Tofu (麻婆豆腐)
Adapted from The Paupered Chef
Makes 4 servings
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) Szechuan peppercorns, divided
- 2 tsp (10 mL) cornstarch
- 4 tsp (20 mL) cold water
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) low-sodium soy sauce
- ½ cup (125 mL) low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) Shaoxing wine (optional)
- 1½ lb (680 g) silken tofu, chopped into 1" cubes
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) vegetable oil
- ¼ lb (115 g) lean ground beef or pork
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) ginger, peeled and chopped
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) Pi Xian broad bean sauce
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) chili sesame oil, or more to taste
- 3 medium scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced
Nutrition Info (per serving): 261 calories, 16 g fat (3 g saturated), 19 mg cholesterol, 10 g carbohydrate (2 g fibre, 2 g sugar), 18 g protein, 795 mg sodium. An excellent source of folate (vitamin B4), vitamin B12, zinc, manganese and selenium. A good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and copper.
- Toast 2 tsp (10 mL) of Szechuan peppercorns by placing them in a wok set over medium-high heat and stirring vigorously for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool for a moment before grinding in a mortar and pestle (if you don't have one, a Ziploc bag and a rolling pin will work here too.)
- In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and water. Stir in soy sauce, chicken broth and wine. Set aside.
- In a small saucepan, bring enough water to cover the tofu to a boil. Carefully add the cubed tofu and simmer for about a minute. (It doesn't hurt to leave it in for a little longer.) Drain the tofu in a colander and set aside.
- While the tofu is simmering, heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the remaining teaspoon (5 mL) of Szechuan peppercorns. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring often, until fragrant. Drain the peppercorns, being sure to keep the oil. Discard the peppercorns.
- Now you're ready to cook - return the pepper-infused oil to the wok and turn the heat to medium-high. Add the ground beef or pork and stir-fry until no longer pink.
- Add garlic and ginger and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring vigorously.
- Add broad bean paste and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring vigorously.
- Stir in cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook for about 30 seconds.
- Carefully fold in tofu and chili oil. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat immediately. Serve garnished with chopped scallions and toasted peppercorns.