Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ma Po Tofu

Ma po tofu is hands down one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Spicy chili-red sauce, creamy chunks of tofu, and a tongue-tingling dose of Szechuan peppercorns form a combination that's improbably comforting and exciting at the same time. For years, cooking this dish at home meant reaching for a box of House brand ma po tofu sauce. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Making the sauce is the easiest part of what is already an easy-to-make dish. The results will taste a thousand times better, not to mention give you control over just how spicy, salty, or ma la you dare to go.

The essential ingredient for Ma po tofu is Szechuan peppercorn. For those who have never tasted it, it's unlike anything else, more of a sensation than a flavor. It imparts a slightly fizzy, numbing feeling, which is called "ma la" in Chinese and is completely different from the more common spiciness we associate with chilis. The other ingredient that will have a big impact on your dish is the chili paste. You want to use your favorite brand of dou ban jiang. I like to bump mine up with a healthy dose of red chili powder to truly sweat-inducing spice levels. 

Normally Fuchsia Dunlop is my go-to source for Szechuanese recipes, but I was disappointed with the results I got from her recipe. Rasa Malaysia's version was a much better starting point for me, but I still ended up making a few tweaks. I really like the funky depth that the fermented black beans add, so I tripled the amount she uses. I also like to add a bit of ginger to balance things out. It's really all about what flavors you prefer, so experiment with the proportions. Traditionally this dish is served in a pool of ruby-red oil, but this lightened version, while less authentic, is probably more palatable to the average American.

Ma Po Tofu (adapted from Rasa Malaysia)
2 blocks of silken tofu
½ pound of lean ground pork
3 tablespoons of chili bean paste (dou ban jiang)
3 cloves of minced garlic
Equivalent amount of minced ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1½ tablespoons of Indian chili powder or cayenne
1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorn
2 stalks of green onion, sliced
1 tablespoon of canola or peanut oil
1 tablespoon of black fermented beans, rinsed and pounded. Note: Fermented black beans come in jars, cans, and plastic bags. You are looking for the bagged variety.
1. Heat up the oil in a large wok and stir fry the ginger and garlic until they become fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Do not let the garlic brown.

2. Add the chili bean paste to the pan and cook for another minute. Add the pork, along with the chili powder and soy sauce. Break up the pork and mix well with all the sauce ingredients. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, until pork is cooked but not at all dry. Add the black beans and about ½ cup of water.

3. Drain the tofu well and slice it into chunks (I just cut it right inside the plastic container). Slide the tofu into the wok and allow it to simmer in the sauce for 3-5 minutes, until it is completely heated through and the sauce has thickened slightly.

4. While the tofu is heating, toast the peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes, until they darken and release their fragrance. Do not let them burn. Grind in a spice grinder and scatter over the tofu, stirring once or twice to mix it in. Tip: A few months ago, I started saving the spent peppercorns from my chili oil, running them through my spice grinder, and keeping them in an airtight container in my fridge. I use them any time a recipe calls for toasted, ground peppercorn, and actually prefer their flavor, which is somehow less abrasive than the dry-toasted peppercorn. 

5. Scatter green onions over just before serving.


  1. Yum! Can't wait to make this at home!!

  2. I personally feel you cant go wrong with ma po tofu if you like tofu and some heat. Hands down one of my top favorite comfort foods :)


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